Biting incidents are probably the most highly charged (not to mention frustrating, infuriating, and confusing) behavioral issue for parents, teachers and, of course, children themselves. Everyone is emotional when discussing biting incidents, even though everyone admits it is a very typical toddler and two-year old behavior. Some schools even have a no-biting policy, which would be fine if toddlers could simply read the fine print.
When I am called in to do a behavioral observation for biting, it’s usually because teachers, parents, and administrators are out of ideas and everyone is questioning whether or not a particular child will be allowed to stay in the childcare program or preschool. As with every behavioral modification program, however, the impulse to bite (or hit, or push, or kick, etc.) can only be redirected with consistent responses over time. Biting issues do not usually resolve with a quick fix solution. (One parent even asked me if she should bite her child back! Please don’t! Might soothe you, but probably won’t help your child in the long run.)
The first step is to understand more about why the child is biting. Remember that for this child, biting is a soothing release. They may have been excited, frustrated, happy, or angry and could not find an alternative solution to calm themselves or express strong emotion. Sinking their teeth into the flesh of a friend or caregiver is one proven way for them to self-sooth. Of course, that’s not how the friend or caregiver experiences it! And certainly it’s not a useful social skill for making new friends. But it can be helpful to start from the understanding that this child was looking for a way to sooth, not a way to annoy or hurt their friends or caregivers.
Children who are oral soothers bite. These are the children who bite teething rings with gusto, chew on their stuffed animal’s ears, and suck on their blankets. They may grow up to be gum chewers, pencil eraser gnawers, or even smokers later on in life (hopefully not). Effective long-term strategies focus on helping them find acceptable oral soothing mechanisms. In some cases, I recommend using chewy/crunchy alternatives such as giving a two-year old some raisins (baby carrots, etc.) before transitions, before sitting in circle time, or upon entering or leaving the classroom. Keeping their mouths occupied tends to help them soothe during difficult transition moments. Other times, I may recommend clipping a square piece of material or teething toy to their shirt and reminding them to bite down on that when they get excited or frustrated.
Sometimes, a child learns not to bite others, but may begin biting his own arm. The key is to find an acceptable alternative that meets the child’s oral needs. As the child becomes more verbal, teach her to express strong emotion through specific words, “I’m frustrated!”, “I’m angry!”, “I’m excited!” Have your chew toy or crunchy snack handy. Make sure there are other soothing mechanisms around such as a favorite toy or blanket. Offer some safe, soothing spaces in your classroom or home with a bean bag chair, a cozy reading nook, or a play tent. A child can then learn (through constant, friendly reminders) to seek out equally attractive alternative and acceptable ways to self-sooth.
Heidi Emberling, MA