Ouch! Biting hurts
Ask any group of toddler teachers about the most difficult, most emotional,
and most frustrating issues in a typical day. The nearly universal, emphatic
response is biting.
Biting inspires a dramatic response
from parents, classroom caregivers, and the children in a group—the biter,
the bitten, and the observers. Though common—and
some would say typical—biting is a behavior for which there is little tolerance.
To effectively address biting,
teachers of young children need to understand why children bite, how to prevent
biting, how to intervene quickly and calmly when biting occurs, and how to share
information about biting with parents.
Why do young children bite?
Biting is generally recognized as a normal developmental phase
for infants and toddlers. Experts also agree that biting behavior
is not something to blame on children, parents, or teachers
(Greenman and Stonehouse 1994).
biting is a form of exploration. The mouth is a hypersensitive
area of the face (making kissing a more intense sign of affection
than a pat on the back). Research suggests that infants bite
because they learn through their senses. Every discovery involves
exploration with the eyes, hands, and mouth. This is as true
with a new squeeze toy, unfamiliar food, and blanket edge as
it is with an adult’s smooth shoulder or a group mate’s
In some cases,
infants bite to relieve the pressure of teething pain. There
is no evidence that infants understand that their biting causes
pain in another person.
the other hand, usually bite as an effective, forceful means
of communication—generally without malice (McKay
1994). Biting is a reaction to frustration or a reliable and
quick way of getting attention. Toddlers seldom plan ahead. They
don’t have the language skills to control a situation.
They have limited ability to wait, share, or understand cause
and effect. They tend to operate in the here and now: Their attention
span is unpredictable and inconsistent (Oesterreich 1995).
don’t understand that touch can hurt—and
biting is a painful touch. They sometimes bite as a self-defense
Or they may
simply be joining a biting epidemic—imitating
and testing the instant reward system biting provokes. The toddler
bites, another child screams, and the teacher or parent jumps
into attentive reaction.
In child care
programs, inadequate adult interaction may be a cause of biting
behaviors in toddlers. According to Claffey, Kucharski, and Gratz
(1994), toddlers may be more apt to bite if they have not interacted
with adults for more than five minutes.
have developed the verbal skills to communicate the need for
attention, extreme frustration, or rage. Occasionally they may
use biting to communicate, but frequent biting in a child older
than 3 may indicate the need to intervene or modify the environment.
Sometimes 3- and 4-year-olds have experienced or observed the
attention biting provokes and want to try out the biting themselves.
Can we prevent biting?
Children need safety, security, and independence. Environments
or expectations that are not respectful of or sensitive to
these needs can result in biting. Adults, therefore, need to
build environments (indoors and outside) and support interactions
that ensure safety while encouraging self-discipline and self-reliance.
adequate space. Too little space for children to move
through and explore can invite aggression. Arrange furniture
to create movement corridors. Divide the space so all the children
aren’t forced to be together in one area. Set up a few
learning centers with enough supplies and equipment that children
aren’t forced to share or wait for a turn. Make equipment
accessible on low sturdy shelves or in baskets to encourage self-help
skills, discovery, and control.
excessive noise. Noise—loud teacher voices,
music that plays incessantly, and even mechanical humming—adds
to everyone’s stress level and often disrupts children’s
ability to stay calm. Sound-absorbing textures like rugs, curtains,
and cushions contribute to calmer, quieter places for children
and adults to work.
consistent but flexible schedules and routines. Ensure
a safe, stable environment for learning. Help children learn
the order of the day. For example, “We change diapers and
wash hands before we have snack.” Announce activities ahead
of time; work toward smooth transitions that minimize waiting
time. Offer cues to help children prepare for changes. Unexpected
schedule changes, inconsistent routines, and staff changes can
be stressful and overwhelming—invitations for aggression.
appropriate and adequate equipment choices. Provide equipment
that allows children to explore with all their senses. Use equipment
to support developmental goals like self-regulation and autonomy.
Ensure multiples of favorite toys to minimize children’s
frustration. Provide quiet, calming areas and include a rocking
chair for adults to use when soothing upset children.
responsive. Recognize interactions that children aren’t
able to handle on their own and intervene calmly. When you correctly
interpret children’s behavior (and emerging language),
you can minimize biting behavior. Acknowledge frustration: “I
know you’re angry because you want to play with that doll.” Model
acceptable behavior options: “Say to Jessie, ‘Can
I play with the doll now?’” Or “I see another
doll over in that corner. Let’s see if it needs someone
to wrap it in a blanket and rock it to sleep.” Offer teething
toys to relieve mouth pain. Adjust meal and nap times to children’s
needs. Allow enough time for finishing an activity. Take notes
on the frequency and triggers of biting behavior. Determine if
the child is hungry, sad, or in need of attention, for example.
Responding quickly to triggers can prevent biting behavior.
the principles of positive guidance to help children build social
skills. Separate children who are hurting each other.
Use positive words to explain rules or limits. Rely on your tone
of voice and facial expression. Use “No” only when
there is danger. Anticipate problems and be ready to redirect
children to acceptable activities. Help children understand and
express their feelings in acceptable ways. Offer frequent opportunities
for acceptable decision-making and choices.
What are the best responses to biting?
Sound guidance practices—like anticipating this typical
behavior—can help minimize the frequency of biting. But
when a child does bite, respond using the following guidelines.
Infants might not understand the difference between biting a
toy and biting a person. Infants can, however, learn to understand
a response—tone of voice and facial expression—that
conveys pain. “Ouch, that hurts” helps babies as
young as 4 months begin to differentiate between biting a person
and biting an object that can’t feel pain (Marlowe 1999).
Toddlers invoke stronger responses from adults who want to think
that the behavior is deliberate and should be punished. Research
suggests, and effective practice reinforces, approaches other
After a biting incident, first focus on the victim. Greenman
and Stonehouse (1995) suggest that biters older than 2 years
benefit from being involved in the consolation process. Help
the biter soothe the bitten child with “gentle touches,” the
application of a cool cloth or ice to the bite site, and offering
tissue to wipe tears.
If it’s necessary to remove the biter from the interaction,
do so without high drama. Calling attention to the event is likely
to reinforce the negative behavior. Make direct eye contact and
tell the biter, “Biting is not OK” in a firm, strong,
but not overly loud voice. Make sure the biter is calm and redirected
to a new activity.
Reinforce communication skills
Evolving language and other communication skills is the developmental
milestone that lessens a toddler’s need to bite. Make
it a high priority for toddlers to develop expressive communication
skills. Offer positive reinforcement, such as smiles and other
quiet recognition, to children who say “mine” rather
than hit or bite.
Be prepared to interpret the body language of children who still
have limited language skills. “You look angry, Marie. Let’s
tell Jamie that you don’t like it when he pulls your hair.” Be
specific with your redirection. Rather than using words like
or use complete sentences to describe
behaviors. “Kendra is angry because you’re pulling
on the trike she’s riding. Let’s go and find another
Build positive environments
When biting occurs more than once a day for several consecutive
days, it may be time to evaluate and modify the schedule or
environment. Keep a record of biting occurrences: what time
it happens, what the child is doing, who the child is interacting
with, and what provoked the event. You may see a pattern that
suggests the need for change. One change, for example, might
be an earlier snack or lunch time. Another change might be
to add equipment so toddlers aren’t forced to wait or
share, or to remove equipment to allow more activity space.
Or you might consider dividing the group into smaller clusters
to reduce congestion. You might also increase the amount of
time adults spend in direct interaction with children.
Claffey, Kucharski, and Gratz (1994) suggest maintaining a balance
between open and closed spaces so children can move about freely
while they feel protected. Additionally they recommend:
low counters and shelving so all children can be seen from
every area of the room,
wall color that isn’t too stimulating,
open-ended materials, like blocks and pull toys, that satisfy
different children’s learning needs, and
soft, noise-absorbing equipment that promotes security and
The goal is a positive environment. According to most experts,
that means a consistent routine, rituals to guide transitions,
stable and consistent staffing, and soothing, quieting techniques
that are effective with a particular group of children.
Plan how to handle a biting epidemic
Greenman (1995) and Hewitt (1995) recommend taking specific steps
when it’s clear that biting is getting out of control.
In addition to tracking the behavior and modifying the classroom,
evaluate teacher responses. Are they appropriate?
Shadow children who tend to bite. Anticipate when they might
bite, and respond immediately to prevent them from biting. Shadow
children who tend to get bitten. Reinforce behaviors that help
them prevent biting rather than falling into the role of a victim.
Decide what to tell parents
Help parents understand that biting is a normal occurrence for
many children in group care. Respect confidentiality and avoid
identifying which child is a biter. Instead, assure parents
that you are actively seeking solutions.
Apologizing to a family for a biting incident is not always an
effective strategy (Legg 1993). An apology implies that harmful
behavior is a program deficiency or that you guarantee biting
won’t happen again. Instead, share important details and
focus on what teachers are doing to minimize repeats.
When communicating with the parents of a biter, ask whether the
behavior is occurring at home. Make sure teachers and parents
approach the problem identically. A united front is reassuring
to the child. Inconsistent responses to a behavior are confusing
and invite testing the resolve of all adults.
Oklahoma State Department of Health. 2000. www.health.state.ok.us/program/mchecd/biting.html.
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Greenman, Jim. 1995. “Reality bites (frequently): Biting
at the center—Part 2.” 101, 65-67.
Greenman, Jim and A. W. Stonehouse. 1994. “Reality bites:
Biting at the center—Part 1.” 99, 85-88.
Hewitt, Deborah. 1995. St. Paul,
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Oesterreich, Lesia. 1995. Iowa State University
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