The following is an excerpt from an NAEYC online author Q&A event with NAEYC author Dan Gartrell on the topic "The Goals of Good Guidance: Understanding and Responding to Challenging Behaviors." The Q&A took place July 25-29, 2011. To view more highlights from 2011 online Q&As, click here.
How do you respond to a two-year-old who seems to be biting without being provoked? I have tried redirection and positive reinforcement and have even shown her how to be gentle. Still her need to hit, bite, pinch, and scratch the face is overwhelming.
Biting is a behavior a lot of toddlers try and some become unintentionally reinforced in using. When a few toddlers do it a lot, teachers have a major problem on their hands. Often toddlers use powerful behaviors like biting and spitting before they develop spoken language and “more nuanced methods” of physically getting what they want.
First, and not that the questioner did, I would not call biting “misbehavior.” This term comes from the Middle Ages and makes adults all moralistic. Our quickly-computing brains leap to the following sequence: conflict–misbehavior; consequence–punishment; child who misbehaves–(fill in the adjective).
Events do not end well for the child who comes out of such a transaction:
- Child feels stress from the punishment.
- As a result of the punishment, child feels negatively about self.
- Child does not know what to do next time the biting impulse arises.
- Child looks for the kid who got him or her in trouble and is an easy mark.
- Child wonders if there will be the same adrenalin rush next time (which for a while dulls the stress).
We want to teach the toddler not to bite. The stress that comes from punishment of a “misbehavior” makes an alternative harder to learn.
Kids are better thought of as months old rather than years old. They are just beginning to learn high-level skills like expressing strong emotions in non-hurting ways; these are skills that even old adults are still working on. In learning high-level skills, all of us, and especially beginners, are going to make mistakes. When a kid causes or falls into a conflict, I call that “mistaken behavior.” For me, a mistake begins with an error in judgment, so mistaken behavior covers the range from accidental to intentional behaviors.
Using biting as an example, at the least serious level of mistaken behavior, children bite as part of the experiment of life. They feel the impulse, their brains haven’t much impulse control yet, and they just do it. At a more serious level, toddlers learn that biting is powerful, and it becomes a learned behavior they are likely to use again. It sounds like this is the level of the child in question. At the most serious level, toddlers see the world fundamentally as untrustworthy and threatening. They bite as a form of defensive aggression, as a result of deep unmet needs. Fortunately, most toddlers’ biting is at level one or two.
Toddlers who bite a lot have had this behavior unintentionally reinforced as a go-to aggressive impulse. In encouraging classrooms, we use the guideline “friendly touches only.” For everyone’s sake, we need to make this behavior stop. This means we have to interrupt the kid’s impulse and intervene, redirect, and teach. For most kids, teething ring necklaces just don’t do it.
I recommend the “going public” approach of a toddler class meeting, which I first heard used at a YWCA child care center in Minneapolis. Here is the anecdote. In a group meeting, the teachers explained the problem to the children directly but matter-of-factly. They then taught the children what they could do if they felt someone might bite them. In language the toddlers could understand—language only toddler caregivers are fluent in—they taught the following: If a child comes near you and you think they are going bite, hold up a hand and say “stop!”
The kids practiced the technique and rehearsed throughout the day. The next day, a child who had been bitten held up her hand and said a recognizable “stop!” The impulse was interrupted for the kid about to bite, and the teachers got over there fast. Much recognition was given to the action, and this assertive, not aggressive, technique got used by other children. The biting dropped off quickly.
Other providers who have tried this technique have told me about the reactions of the kids who were influenced to bite. One would approach a child dramatically, snap his teeth a few times, and run away with a grin. Another child, as a startle reaction to the loud and firm “stop,” would start to cry.
After redirecting the child away from the situation, the providers worked on teaching the children non-hurting communication techniques. As the biting decreased, the providers reported feweer "stop" reactions. Most was better in toddler land.