Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

The Biting Dilemma September 19, 2011

Filed under: Biting Concerns — Heidi Emberling @ 9:02 pm

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


Back-to-School Transition Troubles September 4, 2011

Filed under: Transition Troubles — Heidi Emberling @ 6:41 pm

It’s the beginning of the new school year, which means I’m teaching multiple staff development workshops for preschool teachers as they prepare to welcome new and returning families into their care. It also means I’m consulting with many families about transition difficulties, morning routine battles, separation concerns, and adjustments to new schools, classrooms, teachers, and friends.

As we know, transitions are challenging for many young children. They need preparation, structure, routines, and support as they move from one activity to another, as they transition into sleep, waking up, getting into the car, and, certainly, as they move into a new preschool environment.

One big issue that arises from both teachers and parents is that there never seems to be enough time to have relaxed transitions. Everyone knows the futility of rushing children through a transition, but we all have external time constraints, which may force us to hurry through our regular routines. One reason this causes so many transition troubles is that young children have a much slower processing speed than you may think. Developmentally, they need time to comply with your requests.

Remember a time when you asked your toddler to wave “bye-bye” to a friend or family member who was leaving your house? The child may have looked up, but didn’t seem to make any effort to say goodbye. Your friend leaves, and a few minutes later your child lifts her hand, waves it, and says, “bye-bye!” Well, that’s how long it took for your child to process your request. She had to think about lifting her hand, moving it in a way that indicates “bye-bye,” say the word, “bye-bye,” know the intention of the person who is leaving, process a feeling about that person leaving, and put it all together before that person leaves the room. That’s a lot to think about!

Now think about your morning routine. “OK. Let’s get up! Let’s get dressed! Let’s brush our teeth! Let’s have some breakfast! Let’s get your shoes on! Go, go, go!” Your child may still be processing, “Get….Up…” We must remember to slow……it……down. Depending on the age of the children in your care, you may need to build 15-minute transition times into your day. Getting from the house to the car is just as important as walking into a new classroom. Both deserve your attention, your relaxed manner, your advance preparation, your creativity, and your time. If you invest in transitions and allow extra processing time for your child, it may eliminate some of those transition difficulties that leave you feeling frustrated and rushed.

Heidi Emberling, MA