Biting is an interesting choice for a needs-meeting tool. Consider the explosive reaction biting elicits from the victim or the immediate and strong response from adults. Educators and parents fear the wild teeth of a young child because teeth can do more damage than fists or feet, or because teeth can cause a break in the skin which requires a visit to the doctor, or simply because biting is wild and a bit animalistic. For any number of reasons, biting seems to elicit a stronger response than most other anti-social behaviors. And, at the same time, it is so common!
Somehow, we need to place biting back on the same shelf with other strong behaviors, and align our responses with the developmental nature of the behavior. If children had another way to meet their needs, they would use it – so let’s give them one. They feel overpowered by their strong teeth as much as we feel powerless to respond effectively. If we remain consistent and firm while also controlling our urge to meet their strength with our strength, we can be a source of safety for our children who feel out of control.
Children bite for all kinds of reasons: teething, frustration, over-stimulation, boredom, a sense of powerlessness, attempting to meet needs (especially when a child lacks verbal skills to get needs met), and on and on. The biggest obstacle to responding helpfully when a child bites is to not identify the need under the behavior.
We can start with some simple observation and documentation to keep track of answers to the following questions:
- What happens just before the bite?
- Is it the same impetus all the time?
- Does the child always bite the same person?
Based on these observations, we can move to responding helpfully.
Biting in very young children (from birth to age 1): Very young children often bite because they are teething. When they do, they need a consistent script from us. “Teeth hurt. Bite this teether instead of me.” Sometimes, young children are interested in the great and loud response they can cause with their teeth. Again, providing a consistent script will help children learn over time. “Teeth hurt people. You can’t bite me, but you can bite this toy.” The more calm and predictable our response, the more effective.
Biting as a way of meeting needs. This child consistently bites when they want something, or when they have something taken away from them. Often, these children are under age 3 and lack strong vocabulary skills to advocate for themselves. My script is something like this: I can see you want that toy. Biting doesn’t work. If you bite, you won’t get to use the toy. If you want the toy, ask your friend, ‘Please can I have it?‘ I teach non-verbal babies and toddlers a sign so they can meet their needs without resorting to physical aggression. (The sign is a palm out facing up with the pointer finger of the other hand pointing to the empty palm.) I role play the process of “please can i have it’ over and over with older kids and younger kids paired up. When we see Desmond coming for a toy, I will prepare the older ones. It looks like Desmond might want that toy. Let’s help him learn that asking works. Do you want to help me?
Biting as a sign of powerlessness. Think of how powerful it would feel to sink your teeth into someone else and get that big strong reaction! If a child bites after enduring a morning of “Get up. Put these clothes on. Get in the car. Pull your pants up.” – they might be looking for some power. Find ways to give these children a sense of power and control at other times during the day. Here are some easy way to help children feel powerful.
- Build a giant tower and knock it over (empty cereal boxes are great for big tall towers that won’t hurt tumbling down).
- Climb to a tall place in the room and look down on everything else from above
- Use a loud voice – paper towel tubes will amplify the volume, increasing the effect.
- Give meaningful choices – what to wear, what music you will listen to, what vegetable the family will have for dinner, which seat to sit in at the table
Biting as a sign of over-stimulation. As an introvert, I can empathize with children who spend their whole days in close proximity to other children. Children who are over-stimulated will often bite when the noise level gets high, or after a full morning of whole group play. These children need private spaces and time to play alone in order to re-energize. Here are some ideas:
- Give ample sensory play time – water play (even wasteful hand-washing time with some measuring spoons), play dough, sand play
- Walk barefoot through a bucket of flour or sand
- Go outside! Children who have prolonged, unstructured play in nature have many opportunities to unload building emotional energy
- Make an enormous batch of play dough and let him use his elbows and knees to shape it
- Noise-cancelling earmuffs make a huge difference in our program. Children who are on overload will put on a set at anytime of the day. We frequently have crew members at the meal table with earmuffs on to block some of the noise.
- Find a small space (under a table, behind a couch, etc, and make a private space for children to go when they start to feel overwhelmed.
- Use a small exercise trampoline or a crib mattress on the floor for some large muscle relief.
Biting as a cry for connection. Sometimes children need physical contact time with us and don’t have a way to ask for that time. If I sense children are out of sorts, I will load some connection time into our day: reading books together, snuggling, singing, building a tower together, etc. Often, biting is a cry for connection through larger big body movements. Think about engaging with children in these large motor ways: playing with a large parachute, doing some big body painting (barefoot in the grass on some large butcher paper), kicking a ball in a field, running together, or jumping on a mattress.
Later in the week, I will write about how to helpfully respond to those who are wounded when biting happens and how to follow up with both the aggressor and the victim. Hint: there will be no punishing. Stay tuned!
* This picture was staged. While children with ear muffs at the snack table is far from rare at Abundant Life, I also don’t think that photographing children in their overwhelmed moments is typically a respectful thing to do. But, I want to you behold the awesomeness of the ear muffs! I had a willing helper.
Epstein, A. S. (2009). Me, you, us: social-emotional learning in preschool. Ypsilanti, Mich.: HighScope Press ;.
Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J. S. (2007). Challenging behavior in young children: understanding, preventing, and responding effectively (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.
Kinnell, G. (2002). No biting: policy and practice for toddler programs. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.