Jamie started his new preschool a few weeks ago and at first things seemed fine. He’s a sweet little guy, everyone agrees, but he can get upset quickly if things don’t go his way. Most of the time he just yells or might even throw something, but these incidents have become fewer since he has more words (he’s 2 1/2). However, last week the teachers called to say that he had bitten another child after the two of them got into a tug of war over a toy. The teachers were nice about it, but I am worried because the biting was a real problem for us over a year ago. He bit me, and on a few occasions other children in his little nanny share--enough that we decided to change his situation so that he was not with his “victim”any more. I never mentioned this to the new school because it had been so long, and now I’m afraid to tell them. Please help!
Even though Jamie’s behavior is not uncommon for children his age, you are quite right to take it seriously. A child who bites, even occasionally,creates a big problem for teachers who have to protect other children. The parents of a child who is bitten usually react strongly, much more emotionally than if their child was hit or pushed, even if the cause is the same. Biting behavior causes so much excitement that the reaction to it, even if negative, can rev a child up so that he winds up having his biting reinforced by the response he gets.
It’s understandable that children who are barely past the stage of using their mouths to explore the world might turn to biting as a means of self expression! You’ve seen this with Jamie in the past. If he tends to get stirred up with strong feelings, you may have noticed that he, like many adults, might clench his jaw when he’s angry. If that’s all he does, his body language can give teachers and parents a chance to help him use his words. But if he is impulsive and acts quickly, it may be too late. That’s why prevention of biting opportunities is so important, perhaps more important than the response after the bite.
It’s important to look at both Jamie’s general style of behavior and coping skills, and it’s also important to look at his environment in order to make a plan.
It’s good to hear that Jamie is no longer biting at home. How does Jamie act differently in groups of children from the way he is at home? Some children are more sensitive than others to the busy, often loud preschool environment. If they are already on the edge of coping well, they may become defensive when stressed by another child intruding on their space or possessions (to a toddler, a toy he is holding is HIS toy). Biting behavior often causes other children to back off, which is exactly what the child wants, even if he hans’t used the best way to get the result.
When teachers ask me for help with a child who has been biting, I ask them to observe a few aspects of the child’s experience at school. First, what are the times when the child seems calm, happy, engaged and sociable? What are the activities, locations, times of day and companions that bring out his best, most adaptable behavior? Then, of course, what are the times and circumstances when he might be somewhat stressed or fragile? Are these times related to hunger or fatigue, or are they connected with certain types of play or playmates?
And, of course, if the biting occurs again, what exactly was happening right before the bite? (Not all schools have the staff to observe children this closely, but if a child has had this kind of behavior most teachers will find a way to do this.
However, some schools are geared towards more easygoing children who can play in groups with less active supervision--not just because of staffing but because of physical layout.)
Is Jamie in a two year old group? Some schools keep children in their age groups, while others blend 2-5 year olds in some or all activities. The advantage of the mixed age group can be to widen the variety of interactions and stimulations, plus the opportunity for siblings to be together. The disadvantage is can be that the younger children rarely have the verbal skills to engage or express themselves well with the older children and so resort to physical responses such as hitting or biting. (I have also seen children who feel dominated at school and go with the flow while they are there but then come home and push their younger siblings around).
From the teachers’ observations, a plan can be made--here are considerations:
- If the bites have occurred more than once, a pattern may be seen. Common patterns are that a child bites when he is crowded or is involved in an activity and interrupted by another child. Some children need more personal space than others, and what feels cozy to one--sitting in the book corner, for example--might make another child defensive. The teachers can help all the children to learn to respect others’ needs for space or distance.
- Teachers may see that the child repeatedly bites the same children. Teachers can watch the child who has bitten (note that we are not naming him “the biter” because of a few incidences--he’s lots more than that label!) in those situations. If one or two other children are being bitten, teachers should be especially vigilant, not just to protect the “victim” (in this case, the label is unavoidable because saying “bitee” is a bit strange!) but to interrupt the pattern. The “victim” should be coached to say firmly, “No Biting!” when near the child who has bitten him. Giving the “victim” the words to use is NOT a substitute for protecting him--the words are simply a way for him to feel that he has a way of asserting himself beyond relying on a teacher.
- If the child who is biting tends to bite objects as well as people, he may still be in the stage of oral exploration. If so, he should be provided with a teething object to hold and the teachers should keep extras to hand to him.
- If the child who is biting tends to get physical in other ways, he may need more motor and tactile activity. Running, climbing, jumping, throwing balls outside are very important, even if the weather is foul. Short periods of outdoor play may not be enough-indoor play that provides for lifting, banging, hammering, playing with water, sand, or rice may be necessary.
- If a child has difficulty approaching others and gets overexcited easily, he may need to practice being gentle when he says hello. Practice can be at school or at home with stuffed animals or puppets, modelling gentle touches and calm hellos. Stuffed animal play can also be used to create stories about an animal who wants to play but sometimes doesn’t stop himself from biting, so other animals don’t want to be near him. A wiser stuffed animal can give advice about how to be more gentle.
- If biting occurs, there should be a consequence for the child both at school and later at home, I rarely advise parents to extend a consequence on the home front for behavior at school, but when the stakes are high you really want your child to get the message. An example would be linking the child’s misbehavior to loss of a privilege for the rest of the day (no longer than that) such as taking away a favorite toy. No one should try to “teach” no biting by biting a child. However, some children can be helped to understand that biting hurts if you place their hand in their mouth and have them forst lick, then gently bite so that they can see the way it feels.
- Review “no biting” on the way to school every day. Children this age need lots of reminders, whether it’s to go to the bathroom or to be gentle. Even if you are certain that your child “knows” it is wrong to bit, he needs to be reminded right before going into the situation where he’s had the difficulty. Keep the words simple, “No biting. Biting hurts.”
- Teachers should have a firm and calm approach if a child is bitten. The “victim” should be taken to a quiet place and given comfort and reassurance. The area should be washed well and a cold washcloth applied. Parents should be called and teachers should give the family time to express any concerns. (If the skin is broken the child’s parents should be notified right away and should call their pediatrician and have the child seen). The name of the child who did the biting should be kept private, but it is appropriate to tell the family what has being done to protect other children. The parent of the child who bit may reach out to the victim’s parents if the children have a relationship away from school.
- The child who did the biting should be kept with another adult who can remain calm and still point out to the child that the other child is in distress. Show the child that his “victim” is being comforted and encourage but do not force the child to offer gentle words or an apology. It’s usually best to keep the child away from other children for a cooling off period. However, sending a child home can unintentionally reward his behavior, so this should be a last resort plan.
Do be aware that there can be other underlying causes for biting. If a child is physically uncomfortable, such as with an ear infection, or has not slept well, his self control will be decreased. if he is being picked on by children at school or at home he may unleash his frustration on a less threatening child. If he is stressed by upheavals or changes at home, or if he feels disconnected from the teachers and children at school he may bite. If the child is exposed to any type of “screens”parents should be aware that exciting show and games can encourage impulsive behavior, and minimizing such exposure is a good idea.
I don’t think you needed to tell the school about Jamie’s previous biting behavior since it had disappeared and not recurred for a while. However, now that you know Jamie may tend to bite, you should share that information when he is in an new social situation if you can’t be there to supervise.
Fortunately, biting behavior is usually limited to younger children. As children learn to control their impulsive behavior and develop social language skills they can usually learn--with help--to behave in ways that make other children happy to be their playmates.