Updated: Mar 7
I recently received an email from a friend asking about biting. A family close to her was told to find a new childcare setting for their 18 month-old because their toddler was biting other kids.
As I read the message, I felt heaviness in my heart for the toddler and her family and compassion for the bitten children and their families. I noticed my desire to work with the teachers and center director, understanding the competing demands of a busy toddler room. And, it reminded me that biting is a common and “painful” stage of typical growth and development.
Below are tips for helping to reduce biting in toddler classrooms.
Before jumping to advice, I have come to believe our most valuable tools for these challenging situations and experiences are: self-awareness, empathy, and kind-heartedness.
For example, what is your response to a toddler expelled for biting? What judgments do you have about the biter, victim, parents, and teachers? With whom do you identify?
We all bring our experiences, biases, and perspectives to the care of young children. Most of us had experiences as a victim, an accuser, the protector, or an aggressor. The invitation is to turn towards our point of view so that we can better understand the experience of others – create empathy and react with kindness.
From a developmental lens, most toddlers have small vocabularies and big feelings. Because their abilities to talk and think haven’t yet caught up with feelings and actions, biting becomes a quick response for expressing tension or frustration. Usually biting is a transitional strategy; it usually only lasts a few months while the biter gains verbal and self-regulation skills.
For the adults who are trying to protect children, those few developmental months feel like eons. And, this is where self-awareness is essential to making decisions that support everyone.
Teachers are nervous about notification because some of us parents respond with anger and accusations. Parents who trust that their children are safe and protected while they are at work, feel let down and frustrated. And, families worry as their loveable children are problems for others.
The decision to expel a toddler from childcare is a severe reaction most likely in response to big feelings of adults or inadequate conditions in the classroom created by adult society (see below: Our Collective Responsibility.) By applying self-awareness, empathy, and kind-heartedness, we might find ways to integrate the strategies listed below in the best interest of each child and family. After all, in group child care, as one toddler emerges out of this stage, another toddler begins.
Some toddlers don’t bite at all. Others use biting as a means of oral exploration and discovery–“what happens when…” Others may bite with emotional intent, particularly when they don’t have other strategies for expressing tension or frustration. Biting is often a toddler’s first physical signal of anger or frustration.
Next time, when you have strong emotions about something, but can’t find the words to express yourself, remember the toddler within you. Self-awareness allows us to better understand the experience of others – creating empathy, compassion and kindness.
Tips for Teachers and Parents
In a toddler classroom it is essential to develop consistent, responsive, and sensitive strategies for the biting toddler and the toddlers who are biten. Let parents know how teachers work to keep all children safe, build awareness of others, and engaged in learning.
Physical space is important for toddlers and defining what is “my space” is an emerging capacity for toddlers.
Positively encourage physical distance between toddlers.
Have multiples of the same toys available rather than one of each type of toy.
Use messy trays and carpet squares to define space.
Create a loft or quiet area of the classroom and show children that there is a place they can go to calm their feelings.
Toddlers are just learning that they are separate individuals. Help them discover the other individuals in the room.
Teach and integrate into daily happenings the concept of gentle touch and being close.
Narrate aloud the actions of children. “Tommy is giving you a truck.”
Build feeling vocabulary.
Identify and reflect children’s emotions “That makes you mad.”
Help children read the cues of other children. “Angelique feels mad.”
Prevention of biting is the second line of defense. When we see the possibility for biting, we can help our toddlers communicate more productively.
Shadow the child who is biting.
Identify the signs or situations in which the child may bite.
Supply clear directions and appropriate words, such as, “No bite.”
Provide preemptive assistance, like stopping the child before biting another child’s arm, and saying, “You are mad.”
If one child is frequently the victim, shadow the child and narrate the child’s experiences.
Even in the best toddler settings, biting happens. When a toddler does bite:
Use clear messages when removing the toddler from the situation: “No bite.”
After comforting the hurt child, the teacher should then also guide the biter in making an age-appropriate apology.
Build a sense of empathy–“Biting hurts!”
Keep the discipline short, 1 or 2 minutes, and then let the child know that the incident is over. “All done biting.”
Our Collective Responsibility for Expelling a Biting Toddler
How we vote, support legislation and fund programs creates the causes and conditions that make a typical challenge like biting, a big problem. In Minnesota, licensed childcare centers can have 7 toddlers assigned to 1 teacher. The minimum in Texas is 9 eighteen-month-olds to 1 teacher. Under these ratios, the easiest solution is to remove the biter without regard to the distress of the toddler or family. We might even apply Spock logic in the Rath of Kahn, “The the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Unless, as Captain Kirk reminds us, you are the one.