How to Handle a Biter
What would you do if you found out there was a biter in your little one’s child care class? Would you demand to know exactly who The Biter was and sternly warn your child, “Stay away from so-and-so. He bites!”
Would you give his parents the stare as you pass them in the hall? You know “the stare.” That disapproving, head-on, stare-down typically reserved for moms who let their preschoolers kick other passengers’ seats on airplanes?
If the day came when you found a bite mark on your child, what would you do? Would you remove your child from the class? Would you petition the child care director to have The Biter expelled? Would you give The Biter’s mom a piece of your mind in the parking lot? Or would you forgive and forget?
What if you found out that your child is The Biter?
For the purpose of the greater good, Aubree Witt courageously revealed that her adorable son, Brayden, age 2, is The Biter in his class and has been for over a year. It is undoubtedly an upsetting situation, and Aubree and her husband have done everything they could think of to curb Brayden’s biting behavior: rewards and incentives, talks and timeouts. The Witts have had phone and in-person conferences with Brayden’s child care providers who give them regular incident reports and also use timeouts and redirection in the classroom to try to break Brayden’s biting habit.
“He started biting before he turned one as a way to get out his frustration when he was upset. He was learning to play with others and share toys,” Aubree recalls. At first, she didn’t worry too much about it, realizing that it may be a phase. Things changed when Brayden began biting for all types of emotions—anger, boredom, and even when he was playing with another child.
Aubree has never seen Brayden bite another child—he only bites in the child care environment. Nevertheless, she wants to help him overcome what is widely seen as a negative behavior. “He should be grown out of it by now,” Aubree sighs. “But he’s still doing it.”
Ellie Newby, M.Ed., a child care consultant with approximately 40 years of experience, wants Aubree and other families with toddler-aged biters to know that this behavior is normal. “We even have young 3 [year-olds] who bite. It depends on where they are developmentally,” Newby said. “Kids don’t all walk at the same time, right,” so we shouldn’t expect them to go through other stages and phases at the same rates either.
Newby is not suggesting that parents and care providers should ignore the behavior. In fact, she advises the development of good communication channels between parents and child care staff in order to find and implement a plan that best serves the child. In a situation like the Witt’s, it is Newby’s opinion that “the responsibility falls on the child care center to observe the child” to figure out why he is biting and what alternatives to biting he could use. Disciplining the child at home for something that happened at school doesn’t work for toddlers. “School behavior should be taken care of at school,” Newby advised.
So what exactly can parents and child care providers do? Newby offers the following steps:
1. Don’t panic.
To children, biting is not different from pulling hair or pinching. Adults tend to blow biting incidents “out of proportion.” Newby warns, “Sometimes if we react too much, it makes them do it more….We get the behaviors we reward,” and for many children, attention of any kind is a strong reward. “The child should not be getting attention only when he bites.” Catch the child being good and give him compliments and attention for the behavior you want to see.
2. Be calm and approach the child calmly.
Tell the child, “biting hurts” and then show him another way he could have handled whatever issue led him to bite. For instance, if the incident arose after another child took one of The Biter’s toys, give him simple words to say, like “No, Mine.” Also, let all of the children know that they can come to you as the parent or the child care provider to help them in intense situations—like having to share.
3. Figure out why the child is biting.
Take proactive steps to find patterns in the child’s biting behavior. Through biting, the child is communicating something; he may be teething, or he may not have the words to express his emotions, or he may be tired or hungry. Newby recommends child care providers keep a diary tracking the common circumstances surrounding the biting incidents and answer questions such as, “Is it happening at certain times of day (e.g. at transition points, at naptime, at lunchtime)? Is it happening on a particular day of the week? In a particular location? With a certain child?” Answering these questions will give The Biter’s care providers clues to what the child needs and appropriate strategies to meet those needs.
As a free resource of the Child Care Resource Center, Newby regularly visits child care centers to help them find solutions for biting among children. The first thing she does on visits is look at the classroom environment — the layout of the room and the level of supervision. Newby says, “What you want to see are child care providers who know how to respond.” If they don’t know how to respond, Newby tells teachers to, “Shadow the child. Stay close.” That is the best way to find out what is really going on and teach the children appropriate behaviors.
The Child Care Resource Center provides free training for child care staff on specific behavior issues, such as biting, and has printed resources that centers can give to parents. CCRC is located at 16 East 16th Street, Suite 202 in Tulsa and serves a four county area (Tulsa, Wagoner, Rogers, and Creek).
918.834.2273 or Info@ccrctulsa.org. See also www.ccrctulsa.org.