Person Characteristics

Table of Contents:

In the third phase of his career Bronfenbrenner elaborated on previous notions of the role individual characteristics play in development. Formerly defined as “personal-stimulus qualities” and “developmentally structuring personal attributes,” Bronfenbrenner and Morris (1998) refined person characteristics into three categories: demand, resource, and force. These characteristics are not static, but dynamic qualities that constantly evolve and change as a result of interrelated systems and interactions (i.e., proximal processes, context and time).

Individual characteristics are part of the spiral of development, where they are both the result of proximal processes and an influence on these interactions and systems:

Qualities of the developing person ...emerge at a later point in time as the result of the joint, interactive, mutually reinforcing effects of the four principal antecedent components of the model. In sum, in the bioecological model, the characteristics of the person function both as an indirect producer and as a product of development.

(Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998, p. 996)


Demand characteristics are qualities that are immediately apparent and serve to either encourage or discourage social interactions. These initial impressions may include physical attributes like gender, skin color, and age, as well as observable attitudes and behaviors like shyness, anxiety, or happiness. In an early childhood setting these initial impressions are formed by all the individuals in the system — teachers, parents, and children.

The demand characteristics of the early childhood practitioner play an initial role in how children interact with their environments. For example, a young child may observe that her teacher looks kind or worried, or that her teacher has a different skin color from her, or that her teacher appears younger than her parents. All of these observations influence the initial interactions between a child and his or her teacher. Similarly, the first impression teachers make of new students can greatly influence how they initially interact and the type of proximal processes that can result. These demand characteristics can be helpful (e.g., a young boy clinging to his father can signal separation anxiety and indicate that the teacher should approach the child warmly and with reassurance), but they can also be misleading (e.g., a young child first appears to be hyperactive and agitated, but this subsides as she becomes more comfortable in her new surroundings). These initial misinterpretations can negatively influence interactions, leading to fewer opportunities for proximal processes, and block the formation of positive teacher-child relationships. Early childhood practitioners should be self-reflexive and question their own assumptions (e.g., gender and class stereotyping, developmental guidelines) until they have observed and interacted with the child extensively - when they have a better understanding of the resource and force characteristics of that individual child.


Resource characteristics are not immediately apparent; they are “biopsychological liabilities and assets that influence the capacity of the organism to engage effectively in proximal processes” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006, p. 812). These “assets” can include abilities, skills, prior experiences, knowledge, or a secure parental attachment, all of which promote proximal processes and development toward competence. “Liabilities” limit the extent to which the developing child can engage in proximal processes. These may include illness, physical or mental disabilities, a chaotic home environment, or other social impairments. Through observations and interactions, impressions based on demand characteristics may be altered to reflect resource characteristics.

Early childhood administrators and practitioners can assist children to engage in proximal processes by helping to ameliorate disruptive resource characteristics. For example, a young boy with an articulation disorder may have more positive proximal processes if his teacher is given the support and knowledge (e.g., a family meeting with parents and a speech therapist to make sure all parties are using similar terminology and techniques) to accommodate this limitation.


Force characteristics “involve such active orientations as curiosity, tendency to initiate and engage in activity alone or with others, responsiveness to initiatives by others, and readiness to defer immediate gratification to pursue long-term goals” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998, p. 1009). Like resource characteristics, force characteristics can also be disruptive, and include “impulsiveness, explosiveness, distractibility, [and] inability to defer gratification” (p. 1009).

As mentioned previously, these individual characteristics do not operate in isolation. Other people (including teachers, parents, family, and peers) who interact with the developing child have their own demand, resource, and force characteristics. These characteristics also influence the interactions, relationships, and proximal processes of the child.

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