Emma walked into the room with a scowl. Her hair was disheveled, her face was contorted and her eyes still had the telltale signs of sleep in them. She looked fatigued and I was afraid. I recognized that look; that was the look of a toddler who would bite.
While biting especially among toddlers in group settings is age-appropriate, it remains a major frustration for educarers and parents of toddlers. Peruse the program of many early childhood conferences and you will find at least one workshop on the toddler behavior of biting. Why do toddlers bite and how can adults prevent it?
Why do toddlers bite?
It is useful to understand why toddlers bite before seeking to change the behavior. Unfortunately, since toddlers (approximately one to three year olds) have limited language and few of us can read minds, we can only make an educated guess as to why they bite. Some of the probable reasons that toddlers bite:
Teething. Cutting teeth hurts. Chewing on something relieves the pain. Toddlers are egocentric and cannot yet put themselves in the place of others. They do not know they are hurting another. This may explain the look of disconnect, the lack of concern, that you sometimes see on a toddler’s face when their victim is screaming from the pain of being bitten.
Sensory Exploration. Anyone who has spent much time with babies and toddlers knows that they put everything in their mouths. This includes other children and adults. Biting is sometimes a way of learning about another child. This is more likely with babies but it is not unusual for toddlers.
Cause and Effect. After about 8-months-old, babies and toddlers begin to mentally play with the connection that their actions have on the world around them. "If I bite Andrew, I hear a high pitched scream and my special adults come running to my side. I wonder if it will happen again." seems to be in the mind of some biting toddlers. Toddlers are learning to have an impact on their world and biting definitely has an impact.
Mimicry. Biting is an extremely contagious behavior. Modeling or copying the actions of others is an important and powerful way for toddlers to learn. Unfortunately, sometimes the toddlers learn negative behaviors like biting through experiences with other toddlers. Any adult who has spent much time with a group of toddlers can testify to the fact that biting is more contagious than the common cold.
Self-Assertion. The accident report given the parent by an educarer at the end of the day reads, "Child was bitten during a struggle over a toy." Toddlers have very limited language skills. Consequently, biting is a way to register a complaint.
Frustration, Fatigue, Stresses. Some children bite when they are tired or hungry. Sometimes toddlers bite when they feel rushed or when Mom is out of town or when Dad worked late last night. Adults need to be aware of what is happening in the life of the biting child and take action to prevent other children from being physically hurt.
What do I do when toddlers bite?
While it is crucial to accept the premise that biting is an age-appropriate behavior for toddlers, it is just as important to accept that biting is not an acceptable behavior. Adults must help toddlers control their urge to bite other children by responding quickly and firmly. While educarers and teachers cannot promise parents that their child will never be bitten again, they wish they could. There are, however, several actions they can take to lessen the likelihood of children being bitten.
First, the biting child should be stopped and told, "STOP, Billy! You may not bite Joey. Biting hurts Joey." The adult's tone of voice must be firm but should not simply be louder than normal. The tone of voice should be unique to incidents of biting thus commanding attention from the children when it is used. Stop is a better word than no, because it is descriptive of an action and sometimes the toddler will stop—if only momentarily—until the adult reaches the toddlers involved.
At the same time that the adult speaks, the adult should act. Ideally, one adult steps in to help the victim while another stops the biting child. Where this is not possible, the biting child should usually be dealt with first. This is because discipline for toddlers is most effective when it occurs immediately after the unacceptable action. The biting child should be removed from the situation. Depending upon the reason or reasons for the biting, the separation may be in the form of redirection, "time-out", or simply meeting the biter’s need. For example,
- If the biting occurred because of Self-Assertion, the biter needs assistance in learning appropriate ways to express him or herself.
- If the biting occurred as a form of Cause and Effect exploration, the biter needs multiple and numerous opportunities to affect her or his world.
- If the biting is the result of Frustration, Fatigue, or Stress the educarers and parents need to work together at adjusting the context in which the toddler lives. If the classroom is too overstimulating, ways to lessen that stimulation need to be put in place. If the child is tired, ways to give the child more sleep need to be implemented.
Adults never bite children because of the powerful influence of modeling on toddlers. Just as this contagious behavior can be learned from other toddlers, it can be learned from adults. While it is true that biting a toddler may stop the behavior in the short term, adults who bite toddlers send a clear message that biting is an acceptable behavior—as long as you are bigger and stronger.
How can I prevent toddlers from biting?
Preventing biting before it happens is better than dealing with it after it occurs. Consequently, adults should carefully observe the moods and needs of toddlers. When a child is exhibiting low tolerance for frustration, or when a child has a history of biting, or when a child is teething, adults must pay especially close attention to the potential-biting child. When Emma in the example from above arrived in my classroom, I knew that she was likely to bite and I shadowed her closely. Because I knew that she was likely to bite in tight spaces, I temporarily removed the cardboard box the children played in as a way of eliminating a bite zone in my classroom.
In shadowing the toddler who is likely to bite, the adult must be visually aware of where the child is and whom he or she is near at all times. The adult may need to stay physically close to the child. Additionally, biting can be discouraged through the encouragement of language. Words such as "mine" while tiresome to adults are very useful and important tools for toddlers. They allow the toddler to express wants without inflicting pain on peers.
Specifically, what can I do?
Remember that biting is normal no matter how repulsive it is to you as an adult. From the toddler's perspective, it can serve a similar purpose as an older child's shove or push.
Make it clear to the child that biting is never acceptable. Save a special tone of voice just for biting. By doing so, children are more likely to listen to your voice.
Observe, observe, and observe what is happening in your classroom or home. When is the child who has bitten before most likely to bite? Avoid tempting him or her to bite again. If the biting always occurs shortly before lunch, perhaps have the toddler help you with going to the kitchen to get lunch. As a director, I often helped the educarers by taking the stress biter out of the room during stressful times. This eliminated bite times and helped the potential biter to de-stress.
Shadow severe, consistent "biters". Assign one adult in the classroom to be with two feet of the historical biter at all times until biting has ceased. This may take several days but the results will be well worth the effort if you get a biting epidemic under control. Financially, directors who see the big picture and the likelihood of losing families due to a biting epidemic, actually save money by temporarily providing toddler classrooms with extra adults during outbreaks of biting.
Model for toddlers the behavior you expect. Never ever, bite a child so that "they will know how it feels." Toddlers who are bitten by adults learn that biting is acceptable if you are big enough and if no one is present to punish you.
If you are an educarer, talk to parents about what is happening. Parents deserve to know that your classroom is having a biting problem. They will want to know what steps you are taking to solve the problem. Remember, however, that it is the educarer’s job to deal with the biting problem. Parents cannot fix a problem that occurs when they are at work.
If you are a parent, talk to educarers about what is happening. Educarers need to know what is happening with your child so that they can deal with problems. If your child is biting at home, letting educarers know will help to prevent biting at school. If your toddler is dealing with stressors that may affect his or her behavior, this information is also helpful to the educarer.
If you are an educarer or program staff member, keep the name or names of biting children to yourself. Parents are emotionally involved with their own children. Some parents have been known to denigrate the biting child if they know who it is. Sometimes this parental reaction is intentional but more often it is unintentional.
Provide activities or equipment that responds to the reason biting is occurring. If Suzy is biting because she is teething, provide her with appealing teething rings. If Suzy is biting because her mother is out-of-town, provide her with extra nurturing and watch for potential problems. If Suzy is biting as a way of exerting herself, teach her words she can use instead.
I planned to have my son photographed on Saturday morning. As I walked down the hall to pick up my son at the end of my day on Wednesday, I saw Janelle, his educarer. She had that look on her face. It was not a good look; I was afraid. Janelle said, “I was just coming to see you. Celia gave Isaac another hug and kiss today.” I knew what that meant, Celia and Isaac were great friends but her hugs and kisses always seemed to include teeth. Janelle and I discussed the actions she was taking in her room to prevent the biting but Celia was just a little too quick for her this time. We went ahead and had that photograph taken. Isaac was adorable with a huge grin on his face and with a kiss in the middle of his right cheek.
©Copyright, 1993, 2004 Timothy R. Graves. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reproduce for use with parents and families of young children is granted provided no financial gain is involved and this copyright notice is included.