Managing biting in the toddler environment

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Tips for understanding and preventing biting during the preschool years

I participated in the Bam Radio Show “Why Young Children Bite, How to Talk About It, How to Manage It”  along with Rae Pica, Susan Campbell, and Gretchen Kinnell many weeks ago and it wasn’t until my grandson got his first teeth and decided to try those new little teeth out on one of my legs that I realized, it is time to write a post about toddler biting!

This post is primarily written to give guidance to folks working with toddlers in a childcare environment but perhaps even those of you at home with a toddler will find useful information about toddler biting.  In the childcare setting, no teacher wants to tell a parent that their child has been bitten or that their child is biting and no parent wants to be on the receiving end of this information either. So let’s take a look at biting and see what we need to understand about toddler biting…

Reasons for Biting

First of all, it is important for toddler teachers to understand why biting occurs. According to Gretchen Kinnell, biting can occur for many reasons which include …

  • The developmental stage of the child
  • A way of coping with the environment
  • Part of the process of Oral Development
  • And although biting can be a sign of aggression – it is important to not assume first and foremost that toddler biting is an act of aggression. In many cases, toddler biting is anything but an act of aggression.

However, by the time children reach preschool age , according to Susan Campbell, biting would now, more than likely, be considered an act of aggression or more possibly, a way to express frustration so we want to help young children develop the self-regulation skills they need to manage a tendency for biting as they move on up and into their preschool years.

Ways to help Prevent Biting in an Early Childhood Environment

When biting is occurring in a toddler classroom, some of these things can be a way of helping to deter biting…

  • Change up the learning environment- Make sure there is plenty of open space for toddlers to play or look at it this way: make sure you limit the number of tight places and corners where you either can’t see toddlers at play or where the space for play is too crowded or tight for toddlers to move around each other easily.
  •  Take toddler outside – according to Gretchen Kinnell, the experts see very little biting when toddlers go outside. A big part of why toddlers tend to bite less while outdoors is because there is usually more space for play.
  • Provide lots of soothing and sensory-based activities for toddlers to engage in. Toddlers need time for water play, play dough, sandbox play, finger painting and other types of hands-on sensory-based activities.
  • Make sure you have a predictable and consistent schedule that doesn’t leave toddlers waiting throughout the day. Toddlers left to wait on the teacher or wait their turn for lengthy periods of time will become quickly frustrated.

Preschoolers also need structure, space, and lots of predictability throughout their day. They shouldn’t be left guessing all day as to what will be next on the agenda or left waiting for lengthy periods of time for a turn or for the teacher to get organized.

Communicating with Parents of a Child who Bites

When communicating with a parent whose child has bitten another child (or teacher) be sure not to “over-pathologize” the issue. In other words, don’t make the biting sound like a disorder of some kind. Biting during the toddler years is a normal part of their development but it does need to be addressed in a constructive manner by both the parents and the teacher.

Also, share some reasons regarding why the child might be biting. Was the child in a tight space? Was the child having to wait for a toy he or she wanted? Was the child’s schedule changed up? Focus on the observable issues that surround the biting incident and not what you think are the motivations for biting. If you did not observe the incident either right before, during, or immediately after the biting took place, then don’t pretend to have all the answers but do make a commitment to be more observant so you can look for biting patterns and constructively find a way to resolve them. According to Gretchen Kinnell, “The more descriptive you can be about the biting situation…the better it is for parents.”

Do not tell the parent who their child bit. The name of the child who was bitten should not be the focus of your conversation because the issue isn’t who is being bitten, the issue is why the biting is taking place and how to help deter it from continuously happening.

The bottom line, according to Gretchen Kinnell, “Find a way to clue parents in without freaking parents out!”  Meet with parents before enrolling their child in a toddler program and give them a heads up that biting can take place in a toddler environment but then give them a clear plan for how the prevention and issue of biting is handled in your program as well as your plan for communicating with parents about biting issues.  Gretchen goes on to say, when communicating with parents, don’t use terms like, “he was naughty” or “he was frustrated,” but instead give a clear description of the observable events like “he was reaching for a toy and someone else reached right in front of him and then he bit that child.”   As you learn to share observable descriptions that lead up to biting with parents, you will also get into the practice of watching for observable patterns that will help you prevent or manage the potential for future situations that lead to biting.

A parent may tell you, “but he doesn’t bite at home!” and this is probably true so don’t take that personally.  The fact is, there is a significant difference in how a toddler is at home compared to a toddler who is having to spend time with 10 other toddlers that are getting in his way and making life more complicated than it is at home (Gretchen Kinnell, Bam Radio).

Communicating with a Parent whose Child has been Bitten

Just as you don’t share the name of the child who was bitten, you should not share the name of the child who has bitten with parents. Parents naturally want to know and feel they have a right to know but your job is to protect the privacy and keep the reputation of all the students in your classroom safeguarded.

Share with the parent the observable actions surrounding the biting incident and your plan for prevention. Be patient and understanding if a parent is frustrated and do your best to reassure them that you care and are just as concerned as they are about making sure their child is being cared for and safe.  Let the parents know what kinds of actions you are planning on taking to help prevent future biting incidents and whatever you do, don’t focus on blame.

Biting is a normal part of toddler development so blaming either the biter or the bitten is unfair. Instead, focus on what you are doing to help all the children that are in your care learn not to bite.

Also, apologizing or accepting personal blame or assigning fault to a teacher when a child is bitten isn’t necessarily fair to the teacher either.  However, it is a good idea to let a parent know that you are “sorry this happened; you wish it wouldn’t have happened; it wasn’t right or fair and it is not what you want” (Gretchen Kinnell, Bam Radio).

Toddler biting can happen very quickly and can sometimes be impossible to predict. Communicate a genuine concern for the incident, share the observable issues in a non-blaming, non-frustrated, non-stuff-just-happens way. Then do your absolute very best to follow through on a concrete, possibly even documented plan of action for managing and preventing biting in your classroom.

When Biting Occurs

According to our experts, when biting occurs:

  • Go to the child who was bitten and provide support and empathy for what has just happened then talk to the child about what just happened and that you understand that this really did hurt. Give the bitten child words to say in the future so that the child can be a part of the solution and not just a victim, “If you are worried that someone will hurt you, you can say “stop!” Show the child how to put a hand up and say “stop!” As a teacher, if you hear a child stay “stop” or “no” you can reinforce this and use this as a signal to pay attention to the situation before it gets out of hand.
  • The biting child should also be taken out of the situation and gently but firmly spoken to about how biting is not acceptable. However, Kinnell explains how a teacher needs to be quick to observe the situation for what has happened. The biting child may have just been exploring with their mouth and have no idea why the bitten child is crying. In other words, don’t react out of frustration or assumption but instead be observant, intervene calmly but immediately, and then address both the bitten and biting child with an appropriate response.

Toddler teachers need to enter their job understanding that the issue of biting is a part of working in a toddler environment. Go into your job with a plan of action, a plan for on the spot actions and reactions as well as a plan for long-term management of the potential for biting. What will you do when a child bites? What will you say? What is the next step in your plan?  You need to know the answer and if you don’t know, you need to sit down with the administrator in your school and get one.

Have a plan for how to constructively communicate with parents and don’t let your own frustrations about biting be the foundation for how you communicate with parents about the issue.

Without a plan for managing biting or a plan for communicating with parents, teachers will just react based on the moment and the moment can be stressful which can lead to an inappropriate or non-constructive response. Have a plan in place – if the plan isn’t working then come up with a new plan but at least have a plan in place so you will address biting constructively rather than just reacting to the moment. According to Rae Pica, “Early childhood professionals must act by decision, rather than by default.”

To listen to the Bam Radio Show – click here:  Why Young Children Bite, How to Talk About It, How to Manage It and listen for yourself what the experts have to say about biting in the early childhood environment.

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Deborah J Stewart

Deborah J Stewart

Every time I think I know everything I need to know about teaching young children, God says, "Hold on a minute!" and gives me a new challenge.

Let me tell ya...

With each new challenge that you overcome, you will find yourself better equipped and more passionate about teaching young children.

God didn't call wimps to lead, teach, or care for His children. Nope, he has high expectations, so get ready. You will have to give your very best but after teaching for over 30 years, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and rewarding journey.

Whenever your calling feels hard, just remember, 'He who began a good work in you (and in the children you serve) will be faithful to complete it.'

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