A note for parents on children biting

Even in the best child care programme, outbreaks of biting occur in baby and toddler rooms, and sometimes even among pre-schoolers. This is an unavoidable consequence of young children in group care. When it happens, it is pretty scary, very frustrating, and very stressful for children, parents and staff. But however unfortunate, it is a natural phenomenon, not something to blame on children, parents or staff, and there is no quick and easy solutions to it.

Children bite for a variety of reasons: simple sensory exploration, panic, crowing, seeking to be noticed, or the intense desire for a toy. Repeated biting becomes a pattern of learned behaviour that is often hard to extinguish because it achieves results: the desired toy, excitement, attention.

Here is what we do to try to extinguish biting behaviour:

• When a child is bitten, we avoid any immediate response that reinforces the biting, including negative attention and the word ‘NO’ or ‘Don’t do that!’. Children deem any attention, as positive reinforcement irrespective of whether the attention is intended as negative. The biter is immediately removed with no emotion or words and caring attention is focused on the victim. The biter is not allowed to return to the play and is talked to on a level that he/she can understand then he/she is redirected.

• We look intensively at the context of each biting incident for patterns. Was there crowding, over stimulation, too few toys, too much waiting, other frustration? Is the biting child getting enough attention, care and appropriate positive reinforcement for not biting? Does the biting child need help becoming engaged in play or to make friends?

• We work with each biting child to resolve conflict/frustration in an appropriate way.

• We try to adapt the environment, and work with parents to reduce any child stress.

• We make special efforts to protect potential victims.

Dealing with biting is a programme responsibility

The programme accepts responsibility for biting and other hurtful acts and protecting the children. It is our job to provide a safe setting where no child needs to hurt another child to achieve his or her ends. The name of the biting child is not released because it serves no useful purpose and can make an already difficult situation more difficult.

Biting is a horrifying stage some children go through. It is, however, a common phenomenon that has virtually no lasting developmental significance.

A child who bites is not on a path to being a discipline problem, a bad person or a cannibal. There are a number of possible explanations for why some children bite. None of them is due to a ‘bad’ home, ‘bad’ parent, or ‘bad’ care givers. Most of the time it is hard to guess what is going on in the child’s head.

Parents are neither responsible for a child becoming a biter, nor always a significant factor in the ‘cure’, other than working with staff on a strategy for change at the centre and for reduction of any stress the child maybe feeling.

Punishment does not work to change the child

Neither delayed punishment at home, which a child will not understand, or punishment at the centre, which may make the situation worse, helps. What does are immediate logical consequences: being deprived of what he/she sought and denial of positive outcomes to the biting such as adult attention.

Balancing programme commitments to all the children

Some children become ‘stuck’ for a while in a biting syndrome, and it is frustrating for the parents of victims that we are unable to ‘fix’ the child quickly or terminate care. We try to make every effort to get rid of the behaviour quickly and to balance our commitment to the family of the biting child with that of other families.

Group living is tough. When biting occurs, we are challenged to maintain a broader perspective and to pull together.

Taken from ‘Prime Times A handbook for Excellence in Infant and Toddler Programs’ by Jim Greenman and Anne Stonehouse.