Many years ago when I was a young and naive preschool teacher, I met with the parents of a child who would soon be entering my classroom. Aaron was an adorable 3-year-old boy with bright blue eyes and a gorgeous smile. As I was observing Aaron shyly interacting with a few of his peers, Aaron’s mother dropped the bomb. She said the words that have haunted teachers since the beginning of time: “Aaron has problems with biting.” I must admit my world went dark for just a moment. But as a professional, I was able to offer a smile and a bit of encouragement. I told her we would work together to help Aaron. We both wanted Aaron to be happy and successful in the classroom, but my heart was in my stomach.
After the family left I began to ponder this new challenge. What was I going to do? What if he hurt another child? What if he hurt me? Instead of worrying I decided to investigate. I began my research by talking with more experienced teachers. I wanted to hear and learn from their experiences. I read articles in magazines and textbooks. I also had a more in-depth conversation with Aaron’s parents. I asked questions and I listened.
There are many reasons children bite. Infants and toddlers bite because it’s part of a normal developmental phase. It is a form of exploration since they learn most about their world through their mouth. Sometimes they bite simply because something is there to bite or because biting relieves the pain of teething. Toddlers sometimes bite as a form of communication. Young children lack the language and communication skills to say, “I want that,” or I’m tired.” So, they bite to express a need or as a way of telling us something important. Sometimes children even bite because they are so happy and excited that they truly don’t know how to express it.
As children reach preschool age, biting occurrences should decrease. However, preschoolers may bite for the same reasons as infants and toddlers. A preschooler may bite to exert control over a situation where he feels helpless. He may bite for attention, as a self-defense strategy or out of extreme frustration and anger. In very rare cases, a preschooler’s bite may indicate deeper issues and concerns.
It’s important for adults to be aware of the circumstances surrounding biting. Does biting occur around the same time each day? What happens just before and after an incident? Can the teacher see the frustration building in the child before he bites? Can the teacher intervene before the biting occurs? Are there any changes in the child’s health, family or home life that may be causing the child to feel the need to bite? What can the teacher do within the environment to prevent biting?
When biting occurs, try and stay calm. It’s important to step in immediately but don’t yell, offer lengthy explanations or say things to crush the biter’s spirit. It’s okay to firmly say things like, “I don’t like it when you bite people. It hurts.” Or simply say, “No biting!” It’s even better to offer the child the words he needs to express himself. For example, a teacher can say, “I know you are very sleepy, but it’s not okay to bite your friends.” Teachers should also help the child who has been bitten. It’s important to comfort the child and apply the appropriate first aid.
Most of all, it’s important for every child care center to have a policy addressing biting. Teachers and parents should know the policy, follow it and support it. After all, everyone wants the best for the children. We all want children to feel safe and loved. Only when those basic needs are met are children free to relax and learn.
After Aaron entered my classroom there were a few biting incidents and some tears, but with support and team work Aaron and his classmates learned that although every behavior has meaning not every child has to be labeled because of his behavior. Aaron was not “a biter”. He was an innocent little boy who sometimes bit others but most of all he loved learning and being with his friends.