I recently resumed my teaching career after time away to care for my family. Upon my return to the classroom, it was important to me to teach with greater profundity; I wanted to develop a more sophisticated understanding about temperament in order to differentiate and respond to the individual needs of my students. A fellow practitioner, Lyn Dillman, introduced me to some of the ways Creative Systems Personality Typology (CSPT) is being applied in learning environments and, as a result, I encountered promising implications for teacher learning and development.

Creative Systems Personality Typology was developed by psychiatrist Charles M. Johnston MD, and correlates temperament type to particular stages in creative, formative processes (Figure 1). For example, in formative processes such as learning, teaching, and writing there is an early (inspiration) stage, a middle (perspiration) stage, and a late (finishing & polishing) stage. All parts of the process are distinct and all are equally important. CSPT describes “axes” of temperament in relation to each stage within the creative process that an individual prefers. Some of us are naturally innovative and come up with unique ideas (early-axis), some of us excel in the application and dedication necessary to bring inspiration into form (middle-axis) and still others are naturally attentive to detail and presentation (late-axis). The pre-axis (incubation) temperament refers to individuals whose personalities are of an unformed nature; such children would not typically be present in a mainstream classroom.

The Creative CyleCreative Stages                                             Temperament Types

Figure 1. The Creative Cycle. Copied with permission from The Power of Diversity, Charles M. Johnston, MD. ICD Press January 1994.

In addition to the creative axes, according to Johnston, our personalities form along other dimensions such as “inner” or “outer ness” (akin to but not the same as introversion or extroversion). While they are also influenced by culture and upbringing, we tend to share temperament traits with people who gravitate to the same stage in the creative cycle as we do. The commonalities can be thought of as personality or temperament type and are further described in The Power of Diversity: A Brief Introduction to the Creative Systems Personality Typology.

CSPT is part of a larger body of work called Creative Systems Theory, concerned with understanding how systems – most specifically human systems – grow and change: individuals, families, communities, institutions, and cultures (Johnston). Under the direction of Dr. Johnston, Creative Systems Theory was developed over the past twenty-five years; the personality typology was refined in clinical settings in collaboration with The Institute for Creative Development, a think tank and center for leadership training in Seattle, Washington. CSPT is used to train clinicians and community leaders working in diverse public and private domains. It offers a uniquely sophisticated approach for understanding personality diversity in a wide range of environments. Current development work for CSPT includes applications for leadership training in educational settings.

My professional interest in personality typologies lies in appreciating and enhancing what is unique about each child while simultaneously supporting every student as he or she engages in the formative process of learning. The Creative Systems approach most fully supports me in this endeavor because the creative thinking central to the typology goes beyond labels or boxes. Additionally, the foundation of Creative Systems Theory is formative processes, a distinction that is especially important when considering the application of this personality typology in learning environments.

Professional use of CSPT enables me to understand how children with different temperaments approach learning. It allows me to predict why, when, and how different children will excel or struggle during the various stages of formative processes. To illustrate, I will focus on the activity of writing and publishing original cloth-covered books in my second grade classroom.

Early-Axis Children and the Writing Process

It is easy for early-axis children to excel during the early stages of the writing process (imagination, inspiration, innovation). These types of children enjoy coming up with original, elaborate ideas for their books. Their ideas stem from a personal connection to their topic of choice. Often book ideas are very large, encompassing “the whole cloth” of a topic. For example, Shane loved Yu-Gi-Oh cards. His idea was to make an encyclopedia about his collection of 500 cards. Derrick wanted to write a fantasy about a chocolate boat that was ten miles long, held one thousand people, and could fly. Emma chose to write about her grandfather and all of his horses living on their large farm in Ohio. She also wanted to quilt her own cloth cover using scraps of fabric.

What is unique about early-axis children and the writing process is that they kinesthetically “know” and can “see” what they want to write about. They are able to feel, picture, and hold the whole topic in their body and in their “mind’s eye”. The task for me as facilitator is to appreciate the visionary capability of the child, acknowledge that I understand it to be a special gift, and provide creative freedom within a defined structure so that s/he can focus on and complete a written piece within my classroom’s time frame.

Because early-axis children live in a world of innovation and imagination the steps of editing, revision, and publication can be quite challenging for them. They know what their idea is, they’ve verbally told you about it, and they’ve also written the main idea down. For an “early,” this is often enough and they’re ready to move on to the next project.

At the primary level, however, classroom time and attention is given to learning how to compose descriptive paragraphs and to writing legibly. Having to describe one part of the whole in detail is not appealing to early-axis children; neither is recopying sloppy text. They see these things as a waste of time and a bore, an attitude that stems from their reality of improvisation versus their finishing & polishing capabilities.

When I interpret such attitudes as early-axis realities, rather than as laziness, I can provide guided learning for these children during the middle and late stages of the writing process. For example, if I am genuinely curious about and open to the unique ideas that “earlies” have and I ask them to elaborate their thoughts in complete sentences, they are willing to make the stretch. We can also talk about our common knowledge that while rewriting a draft with correct grammar and spelling is not compatible with their temperament it is, however, part of the process and “earlies” learn that they can do it when it serves an important purpose.

Shane began the year with nearly illegible handwriting. I didn’t draw attention to it because he was so excited about his ideas and his book. I did, however, spend time reviewing letter formation with my second graders. Within a few months, Shane began to notice a change in the appearance of his handwriting. He became fascinated with the fact that his letters now looked like “D’Nealian.” With his newfound fascination for the change he observed, Shane began taking interest and pride in creating quality penmanship.

Middle-Axis Children and the Writing Process

When middle-axis children connect with a writing topic, they excel at the work needed to bring an idea into form (perspiration). They are dedicated and industrious writers who are able to weave together multiple resources with the intent of creating good work. They often go beyond what’s expected by including numerous details and research.

Associated with their ambition is a desire to share and to be recognized for their hard work. It is imperative, therefore, that middle-axis children are provided with timely feedback and suitable affirmation throughout the writing process. Conferring with students one on one, pairing students for “share sessions” and allocating time for class presentations are ways through which I meet this objective.

During the early stage of writing (inspiration) it can sometimes be difficult for middle-axis children to choose a topic. They may be indecisive because they have several interests, or they want to make a choice that they think will gain their teacher’s approval. The most fruitful work, however, occurs when middle-axis children are given time and conversation, which leads to introspection. With introspection, “middles” can explore what they are most passionate about and most interested in sharing with others through their writing.

Early in the school year when we began our first rough draft, Scott sat with his head down for quite awhile. He approached me and said, “I don’t know what to write about.” I asked if he could name a few things that he was interested in. After some additional prompting he mentioned baseball. I spent time asking if he played on a team, what team was his favorite, who he admired in baseball, etc. Eventually, he decided to write about a boy named Andrew who loved baseball.

At the beginning of his writing process, Scott needed to check in with me after every sentence he wrote. He needed to brainstorm for details and talk about what might come next. Slowly, with feedback and affirmation, Scott was gaining confidence. I provided him with leveled readers about baseball and famous baseball players. It turned out that in addition to Scott, several boys in the class collected baseball cards and their families were also big fans of the game. Wonderful interactions began with his peers and baseball became a major topic of conversation amongst the middle-axis boys. With interpersonal connections and conversation surrounding his greatest interest, Scott became an avid writer, planning to create a trilogy about baseball and his character Andrew.

Late-Axis Children and the Writing Process

Late-axis children have amazing “polishing” capabilities. They live closer to completion and appearance than the other temperaments do and, therefore, are precise and deliberate when they write. Dictionaries are consulted, words are well chosen, and rough drafts often look like published manuscripts. Understanding, appreciating, and supporting the polishing sensibilities central to late-axis reality goes a long way in facilitating a good learning experience.

Helping late-axis children see that writing is a formative process and the finished product evolves over time, reassures them that they will be happy with their final product. Sophia was excited to write a book based on the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She knew her plot and all the details that she wanted to include. At the beginning of the year however, Sophia did not have strong spelling, handwriting or grammar skills and she refused to write. Her disruptive behavior indicated that she was still afraid of “not looking good” the first time she tried something. I spent time with her, building a stronger relationship. Step by step she began to experience that a rough draft is just a beginning not an end. She began to feel more comfortable consulting her dictionary in front of others when she did not know how to spell a word. Her rough drafts eventually became beautifully illustrated word-processed pages, bound in a book that was presented to parents and classmates during an “Authors’ Tea.”

Late-axis children want their careful work to be highly regarded. They can be very sensitive to criticism, and thus particular care must be taken while offering suggestions. I once made the mistake of using a pen on Kyle’s rough draft. He was very upset about how the pen marks looked and about the fact that the pen couldn’t be erased. We agreed that in the future I would use pencil on his drafts to indicate where capitalization, punctuation, and spelling corrections were needed.

When I am sensitive to the fact that late-axis children need differentiated emotional support and ample time to embellish their work, “lates” can relax, trusting that the high standards they set for themselves will be met. Lauren was writing a book about Louisa May Alcott. She wanted her illustrations to reflect the authentic clothing and hairstyles worn by women in the 1850’s. She spent time sketching several illustrations that would be suitable for her book. When she was satisfied with one, she reproduced it with meticulous detail. She also drew coordinating flower borders on every page of her book. Her attention to detail and dedication to her particular standards, resulted in a remarkably informative book, much admired by both parents and peers.

In Summary

Facilitating writer’s workshop is one of many joys during my teaching day. Understanding that “earlies” need creative freedom within structure, “middles”, timely feedback and affirmation, and “lates” ample time to embellish their work has strengthened my ability to differentiate and respond to the individual needs of my students. Comprehensive understanding of the creative process and how human beings live in and relate to its various stages is a professional asset. The application of Creative Systems Personality Typology is particularly noteworthy in my work with young children.


Johnston, Charles M. (1994). The Power of Diversity: A Brief Introduction to the Creative Systems Personality Typology. Seattle, WA. ICD Press.

For more information about Creative Systems Theory and The Institute for Creative Development, visit www.creativesystems.org