Updated: Nov 14
Having worked in the early childhood education field for nearly ten years, I witnessed my fair share of biting incidents. Most of the time, they began spontaneously, typically appearing in the toddler and two-year-old rooms, manifesting in children whose language skills were still developing, and occurring anywhere from only one to two occasions to a weeks-long saga. No matter the circumstances, though, one thing that could always be counted on was the emotional toll that the situation took on the biter’s often helpless family.
Understandably, no one wants their child to hurt others, nor to have their child be asked to leave school due to biting issues. For younger children up through 2 years old, biting can be a typical developmental stage, albeit a distressing one. While not ideal, biting allows young children to assert independence and communicate thoughts when their language skills are not yet developed enough to convey their feelings. Much less common, though, is biting at ages 3 and up, which can be a reason to consult with a doctor.
The good news is that biting is typically a relatively short-lived phase, and certain mitigation techniques can help to avoid future biting issues. I’ve seen situations where a toddler only bit once, and it never occurred again. For whatever reason, they bit, and if the response didn’t serve their needs, they weren’t inspired to repeat the behavior.
Sometimes, an environmental switch will stop a biter, such as moving a young child up from the toddler room into the two-year-old room. Biting is a habit, and the resetting of circumstances surrounding biting can often stop the action in its tracks. Occasionally, though, I’ve seen situations where counteractive measures have not been successful, and the student has been asked to leave school when their biting became excessive and unrelenting. The safety of students in school is paramount, and a child who is biting is not always appropriate for a group care setting.
That being said, several months can make a night-and-day difference in the maturity of young children, and I know toddlers who have had to leave school due to biting come back a short while later and resume group care without incident.
In addition to waiting for your child’s biting phase to pass, you and your child’s teachers can take proactive steps to prevent biting issues. Any time a child bites, it is helpful to examine the circumstances surrounding the incident to determine if there are definitive patterns or triggers. Some examples of triggers might include:
Other children taking personal items
Protection of personal space
Self-defense, particularly against other children
Once you’ve identified triggers, you can work on eliminating situations that may lead to biting and offer redirection to your child instead. For example, if your child has bitten when protecting their personal space, it is essential to practice diligent supervision around siblings or around other students. Other young children are also learning social cues and respect for one another and are likely to miss the signals that their actions are not being well received. They are the ones most likely to crowd another child while looking at a toy or to try to share a toy with a child who isn’t finished playing. In these situations, it is imperative that an adult closely monitors these interactions so that they may step in to protect the child who is sensitive about their personal space. If that child doesn’t get the help of an adult, that is when they may use the resources at their disposal, often resulting in a bite.
The other benefit of recognizing triggers and actively supervising interactions with your child is that you can then step in to provide proactive, positive feedback to your child before a biting incident occurs. So if another child takes your toddler’s toy and they go to bite in retaliation, you have the opportunity to narrate a dialogue to both children about how to resolve the conflict. Each time you resolve a situation prior to your child resorting to biting, you are helping to break the habit and establish a foundation for positive social behaviors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin Maigaard is a former multi-unit preschool operator, licensed early childhood educator, and mother to two young children. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, kids, and their three rescue dogs. In between juggling bottles and changing diapers, she also runs the blog Preschoolpundit.com. Here, she shares her own experiences both as an early childhood education professional and as a mother of an infant and toddler, to better help parents navigate the preschool years.
Cover photo by Jep Gambardella