When a Toddler’s Bite is Worse Than Their Bark

Jesi Sucku

In my years as a toddler teacher and an early learning coach, the number one behavior issue in all of the toddler classrooms I’ve frequented has been the dreaded biting. Biting is rough on everybody involved–the parent of the biter is mortified, the parent of the bitten is heartbroken that their child is hurt and the teacher is stuck in the middle, trying to support both families as they work through this frustrating phase of life.

The good news is, biting is just that: a phase. Developmentally speaking, it’s perfectly normal and should be expected as infants make their first foray into toddlerhood. Some studies show that close to half of all children will experience a bite in childcare. In this stage of life, children have very little language and very big emotions. They are likely in a classroom with a higher ratio than they had previously which means more social encounters that don’t end the way they’d like them to, as well as less adult hands on deck to intervene in those situations.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a tiny little human in a big world, surrounded by other tiny humans. None of you can speak yet, nor do you understand the concept of sharing, however much the adults around you say the word. All you know is that there are lots of fun toys and experiences and they belong to you. The problem is, all the other little humans in your world believe the same thing.

As adults, we have learned how to vocalize our displeasure with someone over the years by saying things like “Excuse me, but the line ends behind me.” But toddlers have a lot less life experience than we have, so they need a hand and some modeling when those situations arise. It’s up to you, the adult, to show them better ways to handle their emotions.

Here are some tips and tricks to help the children in your classroom with biting:

  • Work with the biter by modeling empathy and labeling emotions. Say something like “You were so mad that your friend took your toy. You can tell them “Stop” instead.”
  • Use positive phrasing and avoid shaming and raising your voice. Humans are programmed to focus on the action part of a sentence, especially as children, so tell the child what to do instead. You can say, “If you need to bite, you can bite this instead,” and offer them a chewy toy or a snack.
  • Create an area in your classroom where children can retreat when they are overwhelmed or upset. Having a quiet, calm-down area and redirecting children there when they are upset can help them learn how to regulate their emotions.
  • Console the victim of the bite and invite the child who bit them to help make reparations. Forcing sorry is not helpful, nor does it instill empathy in a child. However, you can coach the child who bit to ask the child who was bitten what they can do to make it better. For children with little language, you can help facilitate this conversation by offering choices. A child may want a hug or to have the other child bring them an ice pack. A child may also be okay with moving on without this step and you can be okay with that too.
  • Prevent biting by considering your room arrangement. Ensure that your room is arranged so that children can be supervised at all times and make sure that you are monitoring all children, even when you are involved with an individual or small group.
  • Consider the amounts and types of materials available in your classroom. If children are not stimulated or are overstimulated, this can lead to unwanted behaviors like biting. Increasing the amount of sensory play can help decrease biting caused by children who are seeking sensory input.
  • Prepare your parents and families by including information about biting in your transition or welcome letters. By normalizing it and ensuring them of all the ways you work with toddlers around this behavior, you help parents understand and accept that it is a developmental issue and totally normal for children in a toddler classroom.
  • When a biting incident does occur, speak with both families and offer support and resources for how to help at home. Avoid blaming and remind both families that the behavior is normal, however frustrating, and that you will all work together to support the child in overcoming it.

 

For more information on biting, you can visit these resources:

Janet Lansbury: Toddler Aggression

Zero to Three: Toddlers and Biting

NAEYC: Understanding and Responding to Children Who Bite

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