For families with pre-schoolers, the first month or two of school often mean the beginning of biting season. In studies that track biting behaviour we find:
- Biting is the most common injury represents 30 – 50 % of reported incidents.
- Most biting occurs in September
- Most biting occurs in the morning
- Most bites are to the face and upper extremities
- Rarely does a bit break the skin
- As age increases, biting behaviour decreases
- Approx. incident rate of one bit per day in a day-care facility of 60 children (3 and under) and with one breaking the skin only every few months.
So why do kids bite and what can we do about it? When children are young and still learning social and problem solving skills it is common that they try "biting" to get what they want. This is a pretty unrefined approach and clearly is not acceptable behaviour! Whether the child decides to keep up this tactic for "getting their way" or whether they abandon it, is largely influenced by the reaction of the person who gets bitten and how the care giver/parent reacts to the situation.
Responding To Biting
Don’t Let Them Reach Their Goal
Be sure that the biting does not achieve what the child was attempting to accomplish through biting. i.e. – a payoff. If they bite in order to get another child to give them the ball they were struggling to share, make sure they do not get the ball. If they do, then they have learned that biting is a good strategy for getting toys!
TTFT (Take time for training)
Be sure that they understand that everyone needs to feel safe and that biting is not allowed. Explain that teeth are for chewing food and that we need to use our words to get what we need. Model some language for the child: "Can you ask your friend instead?" Or, "Can I have a turn with the ball when you are done?"
Apply Swift Consequences
If the child knows how to use their words (i.e. you have taken the time to train) and the child is still choosing to bite rather than other acceptable means of getting what they need, then apply a logical consequence. A logical consequence must meet the "3R" criteria to assure it is not punitive:
R – respectful (to the child)
R – related (to the situation / behaviour)
R – revealed in advanced (so the child understands they have a choice)
A logical consequence for biting is to be removed from the social setting – usually the play station they were at when the biting occurred. The parent must ensure that the logical consequence isn’t perceived as a punishment. If the child feels they were punished for biting, the child will feel resentment, anger and perhaps seek revenge. This would result in the biting behaviour increasing as the child now feels they have the right to bite because they believe that the other child got them in trouble! This hurts the child’s relationship with both the friend and the parent.
The child who bites needs to understand that they have hurt a friend. The parent (or teacher in our example) can work as a mediator between the two parties to help bond the friendship again.
Here’s a script:
Teacher: Did you like being bitten by Paul?
Andrea: No – it hurt!
Teacher: You could let him know that you don’t like that.
Andrea: Paul, I don’t like that – it hurt.
Teacher: Paul, I hear Andrea saying she didn’t like that. Can you help her feel better?
Paul: (Nods sheepishly)
Teacher: How about we get an ice-cube and you could hold it on her arm for her? Would that be okay Andrea if Paul did that?
Teacher: Okay with you Paul? She likes you but she doesn’t like being bitten. She needs to know that won’t happen again. What could you say to make her feel safe Paul?
Paul: I won’t do that again Andrea.
Drop all mention of biting. It is in the past. It is discouraging to dwell on mistakes we have made. If you expect the child will bite again, then they will. Children live up to our expectations of them positive or negative.
Long Term Strategy
"The behaviour you see is not the problem: it is the child’s SOLUTION to the problem they perceive they have." Biting is really just a child’s mistaken approach to solve the problem of wanting to belong – to connect to his friend, or to gain a feeling of significance. It does not carry the malicious intent that adults assume. By showing children how to connect with their friends in acceptable ways, and to feel important and significant as a member of their classroom or family – children will no longer find the usefulness of biting and they will give it up.