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You Can Become a Biting Solution Expert!

You Can Become a Biting Solution Expert!
Lisa Poelle, MA
August 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, You Can Become a Biting Solution Expert!presented by Lisa Poelle, MA.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Analyze the reasons for biting, utilizing 7 key questions.
  • Explain how to design a customized Action Plan with solutions to a habitual biting problem.
  • Describe how to prevent biting problems in the future.

Take a moment and go back into your memory and think about a child in your biter's hall of fame. Who do you remember as a challenging child for this behavior? Maybe there is somebody you are dealing with right now. My goal today is to introduce a proven method that works to resolve chronic, highly challenging biting problems. By chronic I mean, several times a week, several times a day, for months on end. There are children who find this to be their go-to behavior for any kind of stressor in their life. I want to give you new ways to explain to parents why some children fall into this behavior pattern and others don't. I will also give you some specific things that you can do to help those children learn new behaviors. I think we often tell parents, "It's normal. Toddlers bite." What we are talking about today is the next level of biting, not what I call your garden variety biting which can come and go. I will provide you with a whole set of staff training materials. I recommend that you download the handouts and print them off. You will have a lot of things to look at in more detail at the end of the course.

Chronic Biting = Adult Angst

  • Constant undercurrents of emotions & blame
  • Administrators & teachers feel conflicted
  • Parents & teachers on “high alert”

There is nothing quite like biting to bring out the panic in people. Whether it is parents of the biter, parents of the victim, teachers, or directors, it is a very dynamic troublesome situation when you have a child who is biting in your midst. You feel torn because you want to help the child, but you also want to take care of your larger group. Everyone is on high alert. I want to acknowledge that right upfront. Take a moment and think about what a teacher might say to a child who just bit someone or just tried to bite someone. What are the most common phrases that a teacher or a parent will say? What is on the tip of their tongue? This is what I find most common.

  • Why did you do that?
  • That is not nice!
  • We don't treat our friends that way.
  • You need to use your words.
  • How would you like it if someone did that to you?
  • It makes me sad when you bite.
  • Do you want me to have to call your mommy?

Those are not helpful things to say and we will be talking about why and other things you can say instead.

Why, Where, and When Do Young Children Bite?

Let's talk a little bit about why infants and toddlers bite. We all know that it is a normal reaction for children who are very oral as they are exploring everything with their senses. They eat their books and they put everything in their mouth. That is how they explore and that is how they run their schemas on things. They are going through teething. They have pretty much no impulse control and they have very strong emotions, but they don't know what that is about. They do not have words for those feelings and they do not know what is coming over them or how long it will last. Of course, infants and toddlers may fall into biting. The question is why do some continue on with biting and make it their go-to reaction?

Here is another question for you. Where and when do two-year-olds bite? In your experience, where, meaning what part of the program (indoors, outdoors, what part of the room) do two-year-olds bite? What time of day do you find most two-year-olds are having biting incidences? Take a moment and think about this. Most often, what I see in my work are transition times. Transition times are tricky because they make children uncomfortable. Some children kind of go with the flow and do not mind the transition, they take it in stride. For others, it is a problem for them and it makes them feel vulnerable.

Another place two-year-olds often bite is during free play indoors. Class schedules often have an hour of free play for two-year-olds inside the classroom. That is a good idea, they need that. But that is also a time where children are on their own making decisions about what to do next, who to do it with, or how to handle little mini conflict over the doll, ball, or car. That is when the interactions between children are a little bit more fluid.

Circle time is not fluid. It is more structured as a teacher-directed time. However, sometimes circle time promotes biting because it depends on how children are sitting. How close are they to each other? What is the circle time like? Are teachers using tiny little books where children lose interest? If so, do they turn and become more bothered by what is going on around them? Circle times can be a biting time.

Sometimes it is only outdoors that children bite. You have to look at what is going on outside. Is there enough for them to do? Are there places on the playground that promote biting? Slides, for example, are often key places where at the top of the slide one child might bite another on the shoulder because somebody is not going down fast enough and somebody is coming up right behind them. There is a misinterpretation about who needs to go down as quickly as possible and who is next. It can elevate into an emotional situation very quickly. Sometimes if the play yard is too big, it is hard for teachers to cover the zones safely and get there in time to prevent biting.

Studies show late morning is a high biting time because children are hungry and they are getting tired. Teachers may be getting the lunches set out, changing diapers, and setting cots down so there might not be a teacher that is providing a focus for the children as they wash their hands and get ready. That can be problematic.

I often see a lot of biting in the late afternoon, between four and six. One reason for this is usually the lead teacher is on her way out the door during that period of time. She may be the one that has the best set of skills for managing challenging behavior and at some point, she will be gone. The biting child may still be there for a while with a new set of teachers or moved into another room to group together with others. This means a lot of transitions in the late afternoon. These children are seeing other children getting picked up, their parents are not there yet, and it can promote tension.

Reasons Chronic Biting Problems Occur

Chronic biting problems occur for these reasons in general. Number one, the child is reacting to certain stressors or obstacles. It is our job to uncover what they are and that is the seven questions. The second reason children bite is the current interventions people are using are actually making it worse. We do not want to make it worse, we want to step in with some ideas to improve the situation. Third, inconsistent handling can make learning very difficult. You might have one teacher stepping in and handling conflicts one way and another teacher handling conflicts another way. Parents, grandparents, and the nanny or babysitter may be handling conflicts in a completely different way. The lack of consistency does not work in your favor here. Fourth, changes could be needed and are needed in both the home and the school/center/program.

I honestly can't remember one client I have ever had in 30 years where there was no room for improvement in both home and group care situations. Sometimes parents will tell the teachers, "You know what? She doesn't bite at home, so it is happening on your watch, it is your issue, it is your fault." Often, it turns out the child is not getting enough sleep at night, is not coming in with a full tummy full of a satiating breakfast, or parents are very over permissive at home. There is something going on in both places.

Common Mistakes

Many adults make some common mistakes. The main one I hear all the time is jumping to conclusions and thinking there is just one reason for biting. For example, thinking he is biting because he is teething, or because he does not have enough language, or because his mommy is having a baby. No, it is not one reason, so do not jump to conclusions. Gather your findings, gather your information. I will teach you how to do that.

Another mistake adults make is not understanding the biting child's perspective. This is a key factor. We have to get back inside the child's point of view and see where he may be unclear about how to behave, how to solve a problem, or how to relate to other children in the heat of the moment. What is going on there?

Some people do not take very good notes on each incident. I recommend taking notes on every biting attempt as well as every bite, but in a more detailed way than people generally do. It helps because if you have a child who is still biting three months later, you can go back through your incident reports and start looking for patterns. For example, he is always doing it from four to six or he does it mostly with this teacher or with this child. This will help you solve your problem.

Another common mistake is scolding or pleading with the child, but not coaching the child on what alternatives to use when they feel like biting. They have to have alternatives. Think back a minute into a biting incident. How would you rewrite that scene in the play? If you did not want them to bite at that point in time, what should they have done with those feelings and what should they have said instead? That is what you coach them to do.

How to Avoid Those Mistakes

To avoid making those mistakes, we are going to ask a thorough set of questions to find the reasons. We are going to use observations to see through the eyes of the child. By this, I mean a running observation where you take yourself out of the ratio and sit there for 30 or 40 minutes or longer if you can and write down everything the child is doing and saying and choices they are making and what is happening. You should not be the one to rush to help them if they get into a tight spot, let another teacher do that. You are the eyes of the child right now. You want to keep track of what precedes a bite or a bite attempt. That should be in the notes you are writing and should also be in the notes of every incident report. What was happening right before that? There are two general things you need to be teaching. You need to teach how to express feelings in a more appropriate way that is successful and satisfying but will not get this child in trouble and teach him alternatives to getting what he needs rather than biting.

Seven Key Questions

You have a handout titled Seven Questions Handout with these questions that you can print it out and give it to teachers and parents. Here are the seven key questions. In my book, there is a chapter on each one of these questions.

  1. Stage of Development
  2. Previous Experiences & Recent Changes
  3. Lack of Verbal Skills
  4. Physical Condition
  5. Temperament
  6. Physical Environment
  7. Limit Setting

The first one is stage of development. Next is previous experiences or recent changes in their life. The next one is the lack of verbal skills causing frustration, followed by the child's physical condition, a contributing factor. The next one is what role does temperament play in the child's behavior? The next one is easier for you to control right off the bat which is physical environment, meaning what effect does the physical environment of the home or the childcare program have on the child's behavior? Lastly, what kind of limit setting is the child experiencing at home and with teachers and with other caregivers? What are the messages they are getting about boundaries and limits and discipline? 

I am going to walk you through how to ask these questions in a moment. First, take a look at figure 1, which shows a sample of an Action Plan Worksheet.  Your handout titled Plan Worksheet provides the entire worksheet in a Word document that you can type in.

Figure 1. Action Plan Handout.

For each reason (the seven questions), you will describe the situation in a few words and then design the solution. The solution has to be specific things that the adults are going to do. All of these solutions are in the adult's hands. Let's look at each of the reasons in more detail.

Stage of Development

Some biting is related to social-emotional development because toddlers and two-year-olds are egocentric, impatient, and impulsive. They grab and they do not have a good feelings vocabulary. They can't typically come up to you and say, "I am frustrated." They typically just have a meltdown.

Previous Experiences and Recent Changes 

Often will need to have a conversation with parents in order to find out some new things. One question I always ask is, has this child ever previously been a victim of biting? You can also ask, what kind of childcare did they have before they got to you? Was it negative? Sometimes the answer is yes. These are things you cannot change because they have already happened in the past, but you need to know because it helps explain why the problem exists in the first place. 

Is this child going through some sort of a life transition like moving from the crib to the nap mat? Some children just take in stride and it's no big deal. Other children, it kind of spooks them to be down on the floor near people walking. They do not have a lot of trust in other toddlers who are just randomly moving through life and grabbing things and tripping over people. 

Is the child is going through weaning? Were they very attached to a bottle or a pacifier and all of a sudden now they are in a room where that is not allowed? Write it down if that is part of the recent change.

Some children have siblings that make things worse, especially if the child is biting. One sibling might be two or three years older than that child and might tease the child or play rough with him. This may teach lessons about how to be with other children that are not productive. This would definitely be something to talk with the parents about.

Other changes include parental or marriage tensions. We know that half the population gets divorced in this country. It is possible that there are some tensions at home that are just adding to this perfect storm.

Staffing or classroom changes can be especially hard on children, especially those who are not very adaptable to change. They may grieve when they have to move from an infant room or a toddler room where they have bonded with their primary caregiver. Now they are with a brand new set of people and they do not feel bonded at all and have no reason to feel trust in anybody. That can lead to more episodes of biting.

Lack of Verbal Skills 

Another thing to ask yourself is, what do I know about this child's speech and language ability? Speech is the ability to form words so that people can hear what they are saying. Are they intelligible to other adults and do other kids understand what they are saying? At this age, a lot of times the answer is no.

How is their receptive language? Do they seem to understand you? Can they follow directions? This is important to think about even with children that are speaking two languages. It is important to understand how much they understand because you want to approach them where they are so that you can scaffold and teach the next level of language that they need.

Do they use any words in the heat of the moment or do they just scream? Do you hear a child say "don't" or "mine" or "no" or "move" or "stop"? What do they say in the heat of the moment? Make a list. What is the volume when they talk? Girls often fall into biting and are not using a very loud voice. They may try to use their "words" when they are in a tough spot, but they are saying it so softly and so gingerly that it is not a tool that works for them because it is not believable. 

Physical Condition 

Do a quick ask of what do I know about the general health of this child? Does this child have allergies? Do they come in sleepy? Do parents complain about them not being able to get them to bed at night? Do they nap during the day or not? Are they particularly hungry kids or are they more easygoing about their hunger and thirst?

In the last few years, I have started asking about ear infections. How many ear infections did this child have as an infant and a toddler? Many children who fall into biting have had a lot of ear infections. My theory about that is that when you are having an ear infection, you can't really hear very well. It is like you are hearing underwater while it is healing. If you are in a room full of randomly moving toddlers, you are going to feel sort of hyper-defensive just trying to keep yourself safe because you can't hear people coming up behind you. 

Temperament 

We could talk for a whole hour about temperament. I am just going to do a quick little rundown here. There is more information in the book on temperament. There are nine temperament traits.

  1. Activity Level
  2. Regularity
  3. Withdrawal or Approach
  4. Adaptability to Change
  5. Sensory Awareness
  6. Intensity of Response
  7. General Mood
  8. Distractibility
  9. Persistence

The temperament studies started back in the 1950s and since then, there have been many longitudinal studies that say we are born with certain temperament traits. These are the characteristics that shape our filter of how we see the world and how we behave when we are faced with certain situations. I find that there are children with certain traits, such as a high intensity of response, that are more dramatic in their emotional response. They might be more impulsive and they might get angry in a very outward way where not everybody is going to be that intense. There are some children who are highly persistent and they are not going to give up very easily what it is that they want to grab or a temper tantrum may last a long time. There are certain things about temperament that do add to this equation.

Physical Environment 

The physical environment is something that you can do something about. Think about the size of the group and the ratio of teacher to child. If you have a very large group size and not such a good ratio of teacher to child, that makes it hard for teachers to get around and cover the territory and intervene in ways that really work well. If the room or playground is too small or too large, that can also impact your ability to do classroom management when emotions are running high.

Think about the number of play spaces. I find that a lot of children who fall into biting feel like there is not enough to do. Many children will go through the things in the room or what you have set out for the day pretty quickly.  Once they have finished with what they are working on if they don't see any obvious open space to go they may end up getting in other people's business. That can go badly. Make sure you have plenty of open spots in the room where there are spaces for a child to go and involve themselves in play, even with others, that does not feel too crowded. For example, if you have 10 children in a room you want to have 15 play spaces.

Consider the complexity of materials in the room. I often find that in the spring, there is an upsurge in biting. My theory on that is that rooms need to be refreshed. The toys need to be rotated. It gets boring after a while if children have played with the same materials for six, eight, or nine months. Be sure that you are looking at your play environment and making sure there are some stimulating and new things for children. Think about whether you can change the way you are using things together or if you can trade things with another room and spice up your room a little bit. That will help with this kind of behavior.

Make sure you have a soft, cozy area in your room. Most places have some books and something soft to sit or lie on, such as pillows or a little dog bed. A dog bed is my favorite kind of cozy area because you can take the cover off and wash it. It is usually big enough for a couple of people. Having a space like this is especially important for children who get overcome easily to the point of biting. They need to have a place to go to get out of the way when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Another thing to think about in your physical environment is noise, light, and the tone of the room. Check what is happening in your room. Especially for children that have a high level of sensory awareness, these are things that are going to add to that perfect storm of falling into a pattern of misbehavior. I have done many observations of children in early childhood programs and since I tend to be a highly sensory aware person, I often notice if a room is overwhelming. I have walked into a room where every square inch is covered on the wall with colorful things, there are things dangling from the ceiling, they are loud, children's music is playing, there is gleaming vinyl everywhere, and there is nothing soft, no fabric. It feels like a circus atmosphere. You can imagine what it feels like for that child to be in that room 10 hours a day and be uncomfortable in other ways in addition to that.

Limit Setting 

How are the adults responding to bites or attempts? When it comes to limit setting, there are some problems that I see.

Authoritarian

One is in the category of authoritarianism. This category includes things such as shaming, threats, yelling at children, and timeouts. Timeouts do not work for anybody under the age of three. Spanking, which could be happening at home, also falls into this category. Another authoritarian response is using a forced apology as a deterrent to future biting. This works against you because it is so insincere. So many times I have seen a child bite and say to the victim immediately, "Sorry, sorry" and run to get ice, bring the ice back, slap it on their arm while they are still saying sorry, sorry and it becomes a way to get out of trouble. Asking children to apologize is not teaching the child who did the biting anything new. It is teaching them something you don't want them to learn which is here is a quick, easy way to get out of trouble without changing your behavior.

Over-Permissive

Another type of response is over-permissiveness. One example of this is just ignoring the biting attempt. It is important to remember that if you see a biting attempt, that would have been a bite had you not been there at that moment to stop it. You need to treat it like it was a bite. You need to take that child aside and have a coaching moment. Don't ignore it and say to yourself that you dodged a bullet. It would have been a bite.

Pleading with a child is another example of over-permissiveness. For example, "Why are you doing that? I can't believe you are doing that again." Pleading makes you look like you are not in charge and you don't know what is happening. That is not comforting to a child who is out of control and biting.

Giving too many choices or too much redirection is also over-permissive. Redirection is okay and choices are wonderful. I am just saying take a look at if that is your limit setting reaction rather than teaching the child something new. If it is, you are skirting the issue.

Rewarding tantrums mostly happens in a home setting where a child will throw themselves on the ground because they can't have another box of raisins because it is too close to dinner. The parent might say, "Okay, okay, I'll give you a half a box of raisins." That is actually a reward for the tantrum. 

Lack of Closure

Lack of closure is another type of response from adults. It is very common that people end a little talk on biting with something like, "I don't ever want to see you do that again" or "I am going to have to blank blank blank." That is a threat. Children are not getting specifics for managing their feelings or for how to solve their conflict.

Instructive Intervention Method

Next, I am going to teach you the instructive intervention method. We are going to whip through this really quickly. You can get more detail in your handout titled InstructiveInterventionGuide7-19.

  • Use an I-message as you interrupt the biting
  • Reflect the hurtful child's feelings
  • Define the problem
  • Clarify the limit
  • Provide the biting child with two types of "solutions" to this specific situation, "alternatives to biting"
    • Expressing feelings
    • Getting needs met
  • Put closure on the situation

Use an I-message as You Interrupt the Biting

People always ask, "What do you do right when it happens?" My advice is to always start with an I-message. Say to yourself, what did I just see? What is my point of view? What is my position? For example, say something like, "I won't let you be near people when you hurt them." Then move the biting child away from the hurt child and give them a chance to calm down. You are backing up your statement with action. This should be done within five seconds. It is like a little swoop and plop, even if it is six feet away. It doesn't have to be in a particular chair or a particular part of the room. It can be if you want it to, but it does not need to be. You have to make the point that you see something, you are in charge now, and you are keeping people safe. You won't let them do that. That is your biggest type of limit setting, making sure the child knows you can't be near people when you hurt them. That is the reaction. You want to give the child a chance to calm down.

Reflect the Hurtful Child's Feelings

You do not want to start talking to them and trying to explain anything while they are really upset. The part of the brain that can take in that information is not engaged. Right now they are just having fight or flight feelings. You want to reflect their feelings and say something like, "I know you felt mad at Brian for grabbing the truck. I know it is so hard to feel mad like that. I get it." You are helping them calm down.

Talk to them about how they felt and give them the understanding that you recognize it and this is hard. Do not start off by telling them about the other child's feelings. First of all, if you want them to listen to you and understand, you have to talk to them about their feelings or else you have lost them already. 

You might have to help them calm down by teaching them how to take a breath. You might say something like, "You know what? Here's a candle, blow out my candle. Do it again, it's not blown out." Whatever your techniques are for calming people down, do that with the child.

Define the Problem

Before you even get preachy about this, you want to define the problem. You might say, "The problem was you both wanted to play with the same truck at the same time." The reason you say this is because the child who did the biting thinks the other child is the problem. That is not it. The problem is that both people wanted the same thing. You want to de-personalize it.

Clarify the Limit

Next, you want to clarify the limit. "Even when you feel mad, you can only touch people gently. Remember that is one of our classroom rules. If you hurt someone, we will have to move you away from that child." You can use this much verbiage with a 17-month-old, with a 15-month-old, or even with a 12-month-old. It does not matter if they understand every single word and every single concept. They will get it because this is going to happen again and you will be repeating the same mantra over and over while they are learning.

Provide the Biting Child with Solutions

You want to provide the biting child with two types of solutions to this specific situation. First, how do you express feelings that are difficult without falling apart and hurting someone? These feelings come up unbidden and are genuine feelings. The tricky part is knowing what to do with myself when I have these feelings. I have found it useful to think of something a child can do with their face instead of bite because this is where they are holding their attention. I might say to a child, "When you are feeling upset, you can clench your teeth and make a loud sound or breath in and out through your teeth." Give them a suggestion of what to do. Tell them the next time they feel so mad, here is something to try. You are going to leave them with something new to do next time because remember, this is going to happen again probably in about 30 minutes.

Second, you want to give them a way to get their needs met. He wanted the truck and the other child was not letting go of the truck. My advice here would be, "You can say no to the other child in a big voice" if somebody is grabbing from you or you can say, "Help." A teacher will help you get your toy back. A lot of biting is provoked by grabbing. The more you can get a handle on the grabbing in your classroom, you will definitely have less fighting, I guarantee it.

Put Closure on the Situation

At the very end, you want to put closure on the situation and say, "I am glad you are all done biting. Let's go find something fun to do. I am glad you're all done biting." Do I really believe they are done biting? Probably not. I think they will bite again, maybe later in the week or maybe tomorrow because they are just learning this new instructive intervention and this coaching method. But for this moment, they are all done biting and I want to use the power of positive thinking. I want them to begin to see themselves differently as a child that does not do that anymore. "I am glad you are all done biting." I want to express confidence that they are all done biting. That is hard to do, but you have to be a good actress. 

I want to also call your attention to two other sample dialogue handouts that you can download and print off that give you a good example of how it sounds in action.

Case Study: Jenny, 23 months

I have a great case study to share with you. Jenny was a 23-month-old single born child from a two-parent bilingual home. She was in full-time childcare in a two-year-old room. It was a small classroom with 12 children and three teachers. This is a really nice group size and ratio. She recently moved up from the infant-toddler room where she had been biting children for four or five months. When she moved up into the two-year-old room in October, she had attempted to bite or bit children 143 times. That was the highest I had ever heard of in the short span of a month.

The school really wanted to keep her and help her. They hired me to come in and give them some advice. I explained these seven questions and we did a good observation of her. Then we went through each key question one by one to see where she was having problems. What was happening that we could sort out for her and help fix?

Stage of Development: Issues

We found that she had great cognitive skills. She was a sharp little girl and she understood a lot. She had great receptive language skills. She was a very petite little thing and was small for her age. She had gotten all her teeth in an unusually short period of time, so she had a lot of attention paid to her due to the pain in her mouth. She had very little impulse control and lots of tantrums. She got frustrated easily and did not understand feelings like most 23-month-olds don't. She bit, scratched, and pulled the hair of other children.

Stage of Development: Solutions

What do we put on the solution side of her action plan? One thing we decided to do is coach her in turn-taking skills. The teachers were using the word share, which to a 23-month-old means I need to lose something. They do not like sharing because they do not like losing things. Turn-taking is a whole different thing. Refer to your handout called Sharing is Not Turn-Taking for more detailed information on the difference between turn-taking and sharing.

Also, I did not want them to keep using the word "okay" because they kept saying to Jenny, time to get your diaper changed, okay? Time to sit down at the table, okay? Time to get your coat on, okay? To a toddler, they take that literally as if you are asking me if I want to do it. No, I don't want to do it, it is not okay with me. Because of this, they behave in an oppositional way because they think you are giving them a choice. As soon as the teachers stopped using the word okay, that was part of them noticing a difference in her sense of what was up to her and not up to her.

They needed to help her identify the feelings of herself and others, not just other people like you made so and so sad, but her own feelings. At home, they intentionally needed to give her more experiences dealing with small amounts of frustration rather than just jump to every whim that she had such as, get me juice, put me down, pick me up. This would help to reduce instant gratification after her "demanding" behavior. Her parents needed to help her stretch her frustration ability and her patience by not jumping in every single minute and giving instant gratification. This was accomplished in part by saying things such as, I'll be with you in a minute. One minute, my hands are busy cutting the carrots. One minute, I am talking to daddy. I'll be with you in a minute. They needed to do that and that is all part of developing a child's ability to develop their impulse control and to take a different perspective.

Previous Experiences/Recent Changes: Issues

What do we know about what happened to her in the past and what is going on lately? As I told you, she started biting in the other room. She used her pacifier a lot when tired or stressed in the other room and sometimes at home still, but not in this two-year-old room. She was very defensive in the other room when infants got too close to her so much so that teachers would put her in the high chair most of the day to keep her away from the infants.

Previous Experiences/Recent Changes: Solutions

In this case, we wanted to describe some reasons why Jenny felt defensive when other children came near her because she did not have a lot of good coaching in the previous room to even understand another child's actions. The teachers needed to provide reassurance and coaching to her. She needed some new ways to manage her stressors. She needed a new lovie and other things to soothe herself with because a pacifier was not going to be allowed in the two's room.

Verbal Skills: Issues

Her parents spoke Spanish at home and the teachers spoke English at school. Jenny knew some of both languages now, but she lacked any English words to use in tense moments. When she got mad about anything, she would just scream or bite. That was her go-to action and noise. Her receptive language was quite good. As I said, she was a smart little girl, but her speech was not very clear and she spoke in a very low volume, almost a whisper. She had, in fact, been to a speech evaluation and they said, no, she was fine. She was within the normal range on her speech development. She could use one or two-word sentences in English.

Verbal Skills: Solutions

I asked the parents and teachers to put together a list of English words/phrases that they could both teach Jenny to use when she was feeling agitated. Phrases such as "don't like that," "move back," "my turn," "I need that," "I am frustrated." I also suggested that the teachers begin to speak on her behalf. I am going to give you some examples of that in a few minutes. 

Parents began to act as a commentator on their own feelings so that they could model for her. If they were building blocks with her, for example, and the blocks fell down, I instructed the parents to use that as a teachable moment and say, "Oh, my blocks tumbled down, I am so disappointed. Ugghh! All right, I can build them back up again." This shows her that you can have a strong feeling and you can recover and make a plan to move forward. Everything is not the end of the world. They needed to model that themselves so that she has something to look at instead of being told everything all the time when she was in an emotional state herself.

Teachers started using instructive intervention in every conflict. They kept a little pocket guide handy to help them. In my book, I have a pocket guide that people can cut out and stick in their pants pocket or apron pocket that helps them remember the steps including defining the problem, clarifying the limit, and mentioning the feelings. She learned quickly when given an alternative as the teachers used these steps.

Physical Condition: Issues

Physically, she was pretty easy. She was a good sleeper, had a good appetite, and had good hearing and no past ear infections. 

Physical Condition: Solutions

I said to continue to make sure she gets a satiating, hearty breakfast and make sure she is not overly thirsty. They added to their actions to give her water about every hour. I find that by the time they are thirsty, children are already too thirsty. They start getting cranky when they are thirsty. Head them off at the pass and make sure everybody is getting plenty of water.

Temperament: Issues

Temperamentally, she was pretty calm. I said she had highly intense emotions, but she had a pretty positive mood. She was actually a charming little girl when she was not in trouble. People loved her and she was very charismatic. She was a little bit cautious about new experiences or people. She needed a lot of space and felt happiest when she was playing alone or one on one with adults. She was fairly adaptable to changes in schedule and not too distractible. She was highly persistent, not somebody to give in easily. 

Temperament: Solutions

I expect her to have a strong reaction. It is important to remember to not get drawn into it and do not react strongly yourself, but stay calm. Use active listening and I-messages to teach her about everyone's feelings and to clarify limits. Tell her what you think she is feeling, but do not be shocked that she is going to fall apart easily every time. Teach specific words to use when she is feeling crowded and when she gets upset when children grab toys.

Physical Environment: Issues

Thinking about the physical environment, the room was large and well equipped. However, some interest centers were small and crowded. This could easily be changed by moving the shelf unit over six or 10 inches to make it feel less crowded for the children that are doing blocks for example. It did lack a cozy area. They needed something for a calming down spot. They had a manageable group size and good ratios. Teachers were so loving and motivated to help and learn.

Physical Environment: Solutions

Recommended changes include adjusting the size of the interest centers and helping the children spread out.  Add a cozy corner and include a large pillow or dog bed. Provide more large group activities, experiences, or time to work on a group project, such as a mural or collage. Children who are two years old are ready to start feeling more of a sense of community in their classroom. You can help them learn to feel comfortable with other children by allowing them to work on something together such as a mural, a big collage, or painting something outside. This allows them to work on something as a group and they feel a sense of camaraderie developing. They will more likely feel a sense of friendship and they are less likely to strike out and hurt someone if that sense of friendship has been developed in a stronger way. It does not happen on its own. You have to set the stage for that. Teachers can interpret the actions of others and comment on others' "ideas" and points of view. Refresh the activity choices after about 30 minutes of free play. That is my rule of thumb. Look around, see what has already been used by most of the children, and set some new things out. You have to restage the room to add some stimulation especially for the children who have been around and they have run their schemas on everything.

Limit Setting: Issues

As I mentioned before, tantrums worked at home for Jenny. In class, when she got upset she would automatically bite, pull hair, hit, or scratch others. She had a very light trigger finger. This happened whenever she was provoked, jealous, frustrated, or even when trying to engage in play. Teachers typically intervened by reminding her that hurting people was wrong and pleading with her to see how sad the hurt child feels. Ultimately, there were times they would take her to talk to the director. That never works because everybody likes to go have a one on one with another adult. 

Limit Setting: Solutions

We talk to parents about how not to give in to temper tantrums and there are lots of wonderful articles about that. They just need some guidance on how to use active listening and limit setting. We encourage the practice of instructive intervention at home and school. I said, take a look at your tone. You don't want to be tentative and you don't want to be pleading like you are out of ideas, such as why can't you learn this? You want to be businesslike and sort of matter of fact. Be firm but warm, stern but not dramatic.

Reduce resentment and embarrassment. This is a child who would get into trouble five or six times a day for attempting to bite or biting. That is like twice and almost twice an hour if you realize that two hours is nap time and nobody is biting during nap time. I said to move her aside and apart from the other children to offer your coaching. Don't do it right in the middle of everybody. It is not necessary to have both of the children there at the same time. The person that needs help is not so much the victim, the victim needs comfort. The person that needs teaching about this is generally the person who did the biting.

You are going to read in my sample dialogues that there is a grabbing situation where not only does the child who did the biting need coaching on what to do instead, but the person who did the grabbing needs to be reminded that that is not okay either and, in fact, it puts them in harm's way. If you really watch them, a lot of children that get bitten repeatedly are putting themselves in harm's way for no good reason. You can teach both of these kinds of children how to call for help when they are stuck. Help is a word that even a young toddler can learn to say.

Be specific about what she can do next time. When you are having that conversation with her, next time you feel so upset, here is what you can try. Also, I really like reminding them using visuals. Put up a simple classroom rules poster. With Jenny, her teacher used some clip art. The simple rules were:

  • We wait our turn, we don't grab from people. 
  • We touch people gently, we don't hurt people.
  • We handle our toys carefully, we don't throw toys.

Three main rules, that is all you need. You don't need a bunch of other things about walking feet and all that stuff. For this purpose, it is about interrelational skills, that is what this is about.

Results

The rate of reduction in Jenny's biting or attempted biting was huge. When I started with them in November, she was biting six or seven times in a day. We began the intervention and coaching using this very method that we have been talking about. By December, she was biting once a week. She also turned 2 years old in December. In January she was biting twice a month. The teachers kept unbelievably detailed incident reports. There was only one attempt at biting in February and one attempt in March.

In April, there were no attempts of biting. By then the teachers said, "Jenny is now one of the most popular children in the class. She is like a leader. She helps other people with their social problems. She is speaking long strings of sentences in the heat of the moment." She became a master of this. It is because these teachers used this method and they believed in it and they changed their behavior. Jenny was able to take advantage of that.

Unlike most other situations, this teacher wrote down every scenario that happened and kept a journal about her interactions with the child, even if it was just an attempt that did not go anywhere. She sent me her journal entries every Friday. I would read them and write back to her on Saturday and say, "Yeah, exactly. You remembered to do this. Next time add this also." We had a sort of mentoring relationship. I asked her if I could use some of her journal entries to share with you and she said, "Absolutely." I'd like to share some of those entries with you now.

The ones I have are starting in January where she had now gotten past the crisis biting stage she had been in during November and December. That does not mean you let up. That means she still is fragile and she is still learning how to cope without falling apart. Here is an example of the teacher helping her take the other child's perspective.

Jennifer was startled and attempted to bite. This is January 2nd, but I stepped in and I said, "I know you were scared when he bumped into you, but he didn't mean to hurt you, it was an accident. If you are scared or you need my help, just say my name." 

I thought it was lovely the way she handled that. She did not threaten the child. She came at it in a sensitive way and did not overdo anything. Let me give you another one. This was advice to the victim and to the child who was doing the biting, Jennifer. This one is from January 8th when they were outside.

Jennifer was trying to take the baby carriage from Gina who seemed afraid to resist. I looked at Gina and I said, "Raise your voice and speak to Jennifer. Tell her, 'Please do not take my carriage, I am using it now.'" Gina said those words but in a soft voice. So I said, "Raise your voice, Gina." She said it again louder and Jennifer let go of the carriage. I thanked Jennifer for letting go and for listening to Gina and I told Jennifer, "I did notice you wanted that carriage, but since Gina was already holding it, it was her turn." I said to Jennifer, "Here's an idea, let's go get another carriage. Problem solved."

I like it when a teacher does this. Instead of rescuing Gina from Jennifer grabbing the baby carriage, she gave Gina the words to use. Thinking about turn-taking, you identify if an item is available for you or not by if someone is holding it. If they are holding it, it is their turn. Once they put it down, their turn is over. It is really as simple as that. Even with a child who is at this point 25 months old, she still needed that reminder.

Here's another one from January 14th.

I noticed that Gina was too close to Jennifer's face. She was leaning over to get a toy near Jennifer who looked as though she wanted to bite, but luckily she stopped herself. I took them both aside and I said to Gina, "When you get really close to people, they feel crowded." "Jennifer, if you feel like somebody is close to you, use your strong voice and ask them to move back."

I thought that was the most beautiful example of helping both children see how their behavior was being interpreted and how they can make their own changes. Just stop and think. That is what she was teaching them, stop and think. When you get too close to people they feel crowded and a lot of victims are getting bitten because they have no sense of their own invasion of people's space.

One more of these. This was in March when Jennifer was really doing quite well, but it is an example I want to share with you.

Jennifer was playing with the dollhouse and a small doll. Suddenly, Lyle reached for two of the dolls that she was using and she screamed, "No." She became so tense that she couldn't seem to say more than that. I walked over and I interjected by saying, "Tell Lyle I am still using that." Then Jennifer said those exact words. Lyle shrugged his shoulders and said okay and gave back the dolls. I praised her for using her words and I reminded Lyle about the rules. I said, "Remember Lyle, don't forget the rules. We don't grab, we wait for our turn. But if you need something and another child is not listening to you, let me know and I'll help you." He responded, "Can I have more people, please?" I brought over more dolls for the children.

That is a great example in so many ways. I especially like that again she did not rescue Jenny. She said, ''Tell Lyle you're still using that.'' That is part of speaking on her behalf. She needs to hear the phrase and how it works in real life. Don't just tell me to use my words. What do I say? How do I say it? When do I say that? Those are some real-life examples of my friend Jennifer. 

Prevention of Chronic Biting

All right, let us finish up now. We are going to end with some prevention tips because, if you can prevent chronic biting, you are ahead of the game in so many ways. 

  • Observe child: point of view, obstacles, stressors
  • Do a “gap analysis” – Ask the Seven Questions
  • Coordinate with parents on reactions to biting
  • Post simple graphic display of classroom rules
  • Be proactive in reducing all grabbing behaviors
  • Proactively teach “alternatives” to hurtful actions
  • Use targeted forewarning prior to transitions
  • Teach “turn-taking” – reduce use of the word “share”
  • Don’t force an apology after biting – it will backfire
  • Make sure your physical environment is roomy and well-equipped
  • Schedule staff duties to give the children a focus during crucial times of day, such as transitions
  • Adjust your daily schedule, expectations, and classroom management techniques to offer plenty of water, fresh activities, and large motor playtimes

First of all, if somebody starts going down this path, do not hesitate. Do an observation of the child and try to figure out the following:

  • What is their point of view?
  • What sets them off?
  • What are their obstacles?
  • What are the stressors?

Do a "gap analysis." I call it a gap analysis because there is a gap in their understanding. You have to fill that gap with information. Where is the problem? You can't assume you know.

You want to coordinate with parents on reactions to biting because they can sabotage your efforts if you do not get them on your side. Try as best as you can. I know that is not always easy and it is not always possible. Post a simple graphic display of these three classroom rules we talked about. It helps so much.

Be proactive in reducing all grabbing behaviors. Do not just focus on biting. Spend time helping children with turn-taking, understanding, and not grabbing. How do you wait for something? You can teach them things at a very early age. For example, I worked with a 17-month-old once who was about ready to get booted out of his program for biting everyone. I said to him at one point, "Jai, can you find something to trade?" He was having a fit because he could not get something somebody was holding. I said, "Can you find something to trade?" He was 17 months old and I did not even explain what that word meant. I wanted to see if he understood what the word trade meant. He looked around and found another car then held it out to the other child. An offer and the exchange was made and the trade was successful. Do not underestimate these children. They can learn new skills. Proactively teach alternatives to hurtful behavior. That trading is an example of an alternative.

Use targeted forewarning prior to transitions. I know everybody has a five-minute cleanup song and a five-minute this-and-that song. That is all well and good, but if you have a child who is especially upset during transitions and at loose ends and they are likely to just get irritable to the point of hurting someone, you need to go up to them about 10 minutes before cleanup time and have a personal quiet moment with them and say, "Hey, just letting you know you have got about 10 more minutes to play with your trucks and I will be singing the cleanup song pretty soon. After this, we are going to get our coats on and go outside. That will be fun, right?" You give them a sense of what is coming next so that they see a path through the turmoil of transition and you give them a little extra notice because they need it.

As we have already discussed, teach turn-taking and do not force an apology after biting because it will backfire. Make sure your physical environment is roomy and well-equipped. Schedule staff duties to give children a focus during crucial times of the day such as transitions. This is something that is in your power to do. You need to make sure that if there is a transition happening and people are going potty and getting their coats off and somebody is getting their diaper changed, there has to be one adult in the room who is free to manage the movement of children. This person can gather the children at the rug and start doing fingerplays or start a story or something where they are not doing housekeeping duties. At this point, they are managing the children's needs.

Adjust your daily schedule, expectations, and classroom management techniques to offer plenty of water, fresh activities, and large motor activities. Take a look at what you might be lacking or a little bit low in and do some critical thinking about that. 

References

Kaiser, B. & Rasminsky, J.S. (2016). Challenging behavior in young children: Understanding, preventing, and responding effectively. London, UK: Pearson Education.
 
Lansbury, J. (2014). Elevating child care: A guide to respectful parenting. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
 
Neville, H.F. (2007). Is this a phase? Child development & parent strategies, birth to 6 years. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press.
 
Poelle, L. (2013). The biting solution. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press.
 
Turecki, M.S. (2000). The difficult child. New York City: Bantam.
 
www.StopTheFightingAndBiting.com – An online guide by Lisa Poelle, with contact information, a detailed case study and many free, downloadable resources and materials

Citation

Poelle, L. (2020).  You Can Become a Biting Solution Expert! continued.com - Early Childhood Education, Article 23625. Retrieved from www.continued.com/early-childhood-education

 

 

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lisa poelle

Lisa Poelle, MA

Lisa Poelle has helped both parents and teachers in dealing with all types of challenging early childhood behaviors for over 30 years. She specializes in finding customized solutions to one of the thorniest of problems - habitual biting. Lisa is a frequent speaker at conferences, webinars, and child care center training workshops. Her book, "The Biting Solution" and her website, www.StopTheFightingandBiting.com, are well-known resources for her international clientele.



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