Help! My Child Is Biting!
There is something repulsive about biting. Perhaps the thought of being bitten threatens our position on the food chain. Needless to say, parents get upset about children biting, whether their child is bitten or is the biter. It goes without saying that the child being bitten isn't happy. But, the biter isn't happy either.
Biting for two-year olds is a common response to frustration. I call it pre-verbal biting. A two-year-old has a larger listening or receptive vocabulary than spoken or expressive vocabulary. When situations don't go well, all the energy that is trying to form words gets in a major traffic jam in the temporo-mandibular joint next to the ears. The tension builds and, in a blink of the eye, can be released on an unsuspecting arm.
Biting, hitting, kicking, pinching or spitting on others is characteristic of two- and three-year-old children who can't find the words to express themselves. In a preschool situation with this age children, biting can turn into a feeding frenzy. One child bites, and others follow depending on the way the aggressive behavior is handled. If the children perceive that biting or other behavior is effective in getting one's way, getting attention from adults, or expressing frustration, almost overnight a preschool classroom or a family with several siblings can become a chomping ground.
With biting, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. At parent meetings I forewarned parents of how and why biting occurs, and I urged them not to overreact if their child bit or was bitten. I explained our strategy for preventing biting, and how we would handle it. I also noted that even in the best supervised circumstances a biting incident can occur, and that how it is handled will make a difference between one incident or a frenzy of incidents.
Prevention. Every day in our classroom we gave multiple short one-minute lessons, which we call grace and courtesy lessons, on how to use your words to say ''excuse me,'' ''may I please,'' ''sorry,'' ''I'm mad,'' ''I'm frustrated,'' ''I'm hungry,'' or ''I'm thirsty,'' while stressing that we had to use our words to solve our problems.
Cure. When a biting incident occurred, we removed the biter from the classroom and sent the child home immediately with a sad, ''Remember: We must use our words. Tomorrow you can come back to school.'' This sent a strong message to the entire classroom that biting was not acceptable. When we handled biting in this way, we usually only had one biting incident for the entire year in the school. There were some years we had no biting incidents because the four- and five-year-olds were so good at helping the younger children learn to use their words.
Who, what, when, where and why? If a biting incident occurs, take the time to consider when the biting occurred. Who was involved in the incident? What circumstances led up to the incident, and what happened afterward? Sometimes the biting child may have been treated unkindly by another child, so look at each situation carefully. Biting may indicate some stress in the child's life such as divorce, illness, new home, new sibling, new schoolmate, visitors or disrupted eating or sleeping schedule. Helping children daily with spoken language will help them express needs and emotions and avoid offensive conduct.
Parents can feel outraged if their child is bitten and embarrassed if their child is the perpetrator. Parents of the bitten child should know that the incident was dealt with effectively. The parents of the child who bit should be aware that their child is dealing with frustration or stress.
If you have clear expectations for behavior in your classroom or family, and have a clear understanding with other adults of how biting or other aggressive behavior will be handled, these incidents will be short-lived occurrences.
Next week: Asking for Assistance
Kids Talk™ is a column dealing with early childhood development issues written by Maren Stark Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt founded a Montessori school and holds a Masters of Education from Loyola College in Maryland.
She has over 25 years experience working with young children and holds teaching credentials from the Association Montessori Internationale. She is also Creative Director for a video-based reading series for children ages three to six, The Shining Light Reading Series. Contact her via e-mail at email@example.com.
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