Let's talk about biting

20th March, 2023

Written by Angela Bush - ECE Learning Unlimited

Bachelor of Education (ECE), Diploma of Nursing, Diploma of Teaching (ECE)

Biting has to be one of the most highly emotive and frequently discussed topics in early years education. This is because biting can really hurt, cause damage to others, and it can create a world of difficulty for educators having to answer to parents when their child has been bitten.

As educators it is important firstly that we do not label children as “biters – watch out he’s a biter!” Although we may need to identify to others in our space that this child may bite from time to time to ensure they are monitored and to help keep other children safe, labelling children with this temporary behaviour is not helpful and can have negative ongoing consequences for the child.

So where do we start as educators when we need to respond to biting?

With any behaviour that is problematic in our learning spaces, our attitude and perception of the child matter hugely. If we feel negative about a child, or view their behaviour as “naughty” or “attention seeking” this will cloud our judgement and provoke responses that can elevate our own behaviour and take us to places we definitely don’t want to be as professionals. Our thoughts and beliefs about a child will most certainly shape our attitudes and consequently our responses to a child’s behaviour. We must remember that we ARE professionals. Therefore our response to children’s biting needs to be calm, measured and with good intentions.

This is the time when we need to draw on all our understanding of child development and psychology. Biting most often occurs in children aged 10 months – 2 years. As we know, this is a pre-verbal stage where children are still developing their ability to communicate and often do not have the words to say what they mean. Everything is still going in their mouth, and they are learning through all their senses. Their cognitive reasoning and moral understanding are only just beginning to take shape. Toddlers are impulsive and still developing self-control of their behaviours. Their primary motivation is learning through cause and effect i.e. when I roll this ball it goes away, when I sink my teeth into this toy it feels good on my gums, when I bite this person they react in an interesting way.

Toddlers who are biting will perceive the reactions from others when they do it, but they are not yet able to consider the perspective of the other person morally. So making them feel guilty or bad, shaming or punishing are not useful. They just have no idea what this all means. Toddlers are learning to recognise how they can make others feel. Biting someone, noticing them crying or jumping away is no different to giving them a toy and noticing them smile. It is cause and effect. Like pushing a button on a toy and watching it pop up. It is intriguing to watch this reaction over and over again, until the child has made sense of this reaction.

Think of biting as an urge, the same as any other usual toddler urges;
  • The urge to tip everything
  • The urge to run
  • The urge to climb.

We must view toddlers as young apprentices still learning how this world works. And a lot of their learning will come from observing others’ reactions to their actions. Toddlers (like adults) often need to practice and repeat behaviours over and over again to truly explore and develop their understanding – to really learn the lesson. We should remember that biting (like many new behaviours) will usually only be a short phase. With the right support and guidance, this child will learn that biting is not ok and soon stop.

Biting is therefore not attention-seeking or naughty. It is a learning and communication tool pure and simple. When we can view biting through this lens as an educator, we are more able to remain in control of our own reactions and behaviour when we respond to it. How we respond matters immensely!

When toddlers are biting we need to ask ourselves;

  • What need or curiosity is this behaviour communicating?
  • Is this child curious about cause and effect?
  • Are they teething and need something appropriate to mouth and chew?
  • Have there been significant changes in their life recently that are making it a little harder to manage their feelings and impulse control?
  • Are they feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated or tired?
  • Are they frustrated? Being constantly interrupted?
  • How engaging and stimulating is our environment?

As educators it is important that we observe the circumstances around children who are biting before they bite. Are there any patterns we can notice in their biting?

How should we respond to biting?

As hard as it is, we must remind ourselves, when we keep this discourse at the forefront of our thinking we are more likely able to respond calmly and neutrally.

The more elevated the responses a child gets when they bite, the more interesting this will be to them. So rather than raise our voices, growl or give them dirty looks we need to remain as calm and neutral as possible.
When a toddler continuously gains intriguing responses to their behaviour, they are more likely to continue repeating it out of curiosity. We don’t want to inadvertently encourage a child to continue repeating this behaviour because they find the responses they get interesting and they have learned that their actions make people jump to attention.
Janet Lansbury reminds us that...
Like any other social behaviour (good manners, waiting for a turn, showing empathy to others) toddlers are more likely to develop desirable habits when these are modelled, repeated and supported by adults who are in control of their own behaviour. It goes without saying that we will never respond to a child’s biting by biting the child back or roughly moving them away to teach them a lesson.

“We help our child and then allow for emotional explosions in response, because children need help with those, too. The assistance they need is an anchor — our patient presence and empathy while they safely ride this wave out. When the wave passes, they need us to acknowledge their feelings, forgive, understand and let go so they can, too. After all, how can we hold a grudge against a person whose impulses are bigger than they are?”
Janet Lansbury.
Here's what we can do as educators;

1. Try to prevent biting in the first place if you can. When you see a child is about to bite you can say “I won’t let you bite” and put your hand or a pillow in between the child who is biting and the other child. When you have observed what the triggers may be for this child, you can help to minimise these and try to avoid situations that contribute to this child’s urges to bite.

2. Look for patterns in biting and try to minimise the situations that contribute to this. Toddlers can easily become overwhelmed and struggle to self-regulate when they are getting tired, have low blood sugar levels or are feeling overstimulated. Just as adults will need a little quiet space from time to time, so too do toddlers. You can try to spend a little time together quietly reading or engaging in an activity with fewer children around.

3. Communicate what needs to happen and then follow through: “I see you are having a hard time not biting, so I will help you.” Give the child something they can bite other than a human. “Looks like you need help” and move next to the child to remove them from the situation.

4. Move the child away from you: If the biting occurs when you are holding the child or are next to them, you will need to calmly, gently put them down on the floor, or move away from them and quietly say “I am going to put you down/move away because that is hurting me.”

5. Comfort the other child: If another child has been bitten we need to remember to remain calm while also giving them the comfort they need without making them feel like a victim or making the biting child see that this is an interesting response. Calmly offer comfort to the other child while narrating “You are upset – does that hurt? Shall we get a cool flannel to help make it feel better?” No backward, glaring looks or frowns at the child who did the biting.

What if the biting is persistent and not going away?

Sometimes biting behaviour will continue for longer than usual and we can struggle to help this child to move on. In extreme repeated biting situations, we must continue to act in the best interest of the child and assess what may be contributing to this while also helping to keep other children safe.

From time to time the biting behaviour can become persistent and seriously problematic with other children being continuously hurt and parents becoming concerned. This is tricky and needs to be handled sensitively and honestly. However we must also protect the privacy and confidentiality of the child who is learning not to bite. We must not share any personal details or the child’s name with other parents.

Consider you may need to reassure concerned parents that you have a plan in place for supporting this child in their development.

This plan may include;

1. Ongoing observation of what is contributing to biting. Document details about what happened before and after the biting occurs. What patterns are you noticing in the triggers and responses?

2. Talk to the child’s parents in a professional and caring way. This child’s parents are likely feeling embarrassed or overwhelmed by their child’s behaviour. Remember as a professional it is your role to listen, share your observations and develop a shared, agreeable approach to managing their child’s learning. Consistency is important between home and the centre. Share the strategies that your team are using and make the most of this opportunity to teach parents too.

3. Discuss this learning as a team – how can you ensure that responses and management of the biting situations are consistent across the whole team?

4. Ask yourself is this child under stress in our environment?
  • Is this space too overwhelming/overcrowded/overstimulating for this child?
  • Do they need more sleep?
  • Or do they need to reduce their attendance hours for a few weeks, so they feel less overwhelmed?

5. Shadow this child as much as possible. If a child is continuously hurting others with their biting, they will need to be allocated a shadow educator to help keep other children safe. This person will need to be calm and consistent in their responses when biting happens. Over and over again. It may be necessary for the shadow educator to wear a name tag “I am shadowing at the moment” which helps other team members know that they are fulfilling this role at this time so that everyone can support this person and not load other responsibilities onto them at the same time.

6. Look for ways to engage this child in learning that satisfy their curiosities and urges in other ways. Being outdoors as much as possible gives the child more space. Mother nature has a way of calming and changing the behaviour of most children.

7. Get external help if necessary. Sometimes when biting persists for weeks on end without any sign of change, the time may come that this child needs further help. More often than not this is not the only behaviour that educators have concerns about. Keeping robust records of observation, action plans and concerns will be helpful when you make a referral for external help.

Always remember, this child is still learning. Biting is a very common behaviour that many children will explore in the quest for a wider understanding of this fascinating world. How we react can help to escalate and reinforce the continuation of this behaviour, or it can help the child to understand that these actions are not acceptable and they will soon stop experimenting in this way and move on.

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