Written by Celestte Dills, M.A.Ed.
Biting is a typical developmental behavior in young children. Infants and toddlers will gnaw on hard or squishy objects as a way to ease teething woes or to learn more about the object (taste, feel).
Other reasons children may bite:
Imitation (thinking they are showing affection or have seen/ experienced other children biting)
To get attention
A means of communication (tired, hungry, frustration, anger, fear, etc.)
But, what happens when a child bites another person, small or tall? What about an older child who continues to chew on objects?
It is recommended to complete two weeks of daily observations. We use this data to look for patterns (e.g., time of day, temperament, emotions, place in the environment). We begin to use tools and strategies (response to behavior, practice strategies, and replacement tools that may help) during the documentation process. We also record and determine the efficacy of specific tools or strategies over time.
Our response (even at the very first bite) can encourage the reduction of biting behavior.
Chewing on inappropriate objects
This behavior is most common in children who are teething. But, may also be a coping technique for feelings of stress, frustration, anger, etc. Respond by acknowledging the feeling (“It looks like you are feeling anxious.”) then ask, “How can I help?” We want to address the message behind the behavior and work to find a safe alternative.
When we address the biting behavior, we tend to get down to the child’s eye level and gently stroke their hand and calmly say, “Biting hurts. Gentle touches.” We want to avoid the perception of too much positive attention. Quickly respond to the child who has bitten by saying (in a firm tone), “No. Biting hurts.”
Be sure to comfort the child who was bitten. We want to ensure that attention is on providing safety, security, and helping others feel happy. Say something like, “I’m sorry. I know that hurts. Let’s get some ice.” Invite the child who has bitten to help apply a cold compress to the area.
Misbehavior is often mistaken behavior. Practice the behavior that will address the meaning behind the behavior.
Practice labeling and role playing emotions every day. Start by calling out a strong emotion (mad, sad, scared, nervous, etc.) and ask how to get to the opposite. Say something like, “Show me how angry feels (demonstrate angry expressions). What can we do to feel happy (pound clay, deep breaths, jump up and down)? What are you feeling now (calm, happy, safe, etc.)?” Encourage role playing the strong emotion, the coping strategy, and the resulting feeling.
Biting and chewing on objects can be useful for children who experience strong emotions but lack the ability to communicate. These tools are healthy replacements for biting behavior.
- Attach a teether to the child’s clothing with a pacifier clip.
- Provide clay or soft balls to squeeze.
- Roll up a bandana and tie a knot in the middle. Attach the bandana to the child’s wrist and encourage the child to bite the knot when upset (with family permission).
- Rip up paper.
- Throw bean bags into a laundry basket or at a target on the wall.
- Create a basket of “safe to bite” items*: metal spoons, teethers, clean washcloths, chewable bracelet, etc.
*Ensure items are not a choking hazard for the age/ development of the child.
Celestte has spent a life-long career educating young children. In her over thirty years of working in early childhood education, she has extensive and successful experience as teacher, administrator, curriculum developer, and education consultant. She has used her talents to develop meaningful Social and Emotional Learning curricula and to provide educators with easy-to-use tools for teaching pro-social behavior.