Practitioners should try to identify the root cause of the behaviour and put strategies in place to help minimise incidents, explains Fiona Bland…
Q: Why do children bite?
A: For many children, biting is a normal part of their development. Babies bite objects as a means of exploring the world. For those who are teething, biting into objects can help to relieve the pain and discomfort. Biting is a form of communication, particularly for those who have not developed the vocabulary they need to express strong feelings such as anger, frustration or fear. Some children bite to gain attention; others do it in self-defence if they feel threatened. It may be an extension of their natural curiosity – what happens if I do this to someone? Or a child may be satisfying a need for oral stimulation to self-regulate, relieve anxiety or cope with stressful situations.
Q: How much of a problem is it in nursery?
A: Biting is a common occurrence, as many children pass through this particular stage of development. It is therefore important to acknowledge this and have clear strategies to minimise incidents and ensure staff can respond sensitively when biting does occur in order to reduce the distress for all involved as quickly as possible.
Q: What age ranges typically bite?
A: Although many babies bite objects as a matter of course, older children sometimes continue biting well into school life. The typical age group for biting is toddlers, who are struggling to deal with big feelings and don’t have sufficient vocabulary to express themselves verbally.
Q: Are children excluded due to biting?
A: No. Biting can be a natural part of a child’s development. Practitioners should try to identify why a child is biting – What are they communicating? – and put strategies in place to help minimise incidents. It’s important to make sure that practitioners work closely with the family of any child that is going through a stage of biting to share information and strategies in order to provide a consistent approach.
Q: How can we reduce the likelihood of a child biting another in the first place?
A: There are lots of reasons why children bite and even with a range of strategies in place to minimise the incidents that occur, it is impossible to eliminate it completely. This is due to the range of reasons children may choose to express themselves through biting and the speed in which a biting incident can happen.
When an incident does happen it’s important to identify the key reasons behind it. Does it tend to happen at specific times of the day, e.g. lunchtime? Are children arguing over a precious object such as a favoured toy? Is the child seeking some oral stimulation? Is the child unable to verbalise their feelings? Gather as much information about each incident so you can plan which strategies need to be implemented to reduce further incidents – for example, sitting a staff member next to the child at the lunch table, or, for a child seeking oral stimulation, providing crunchy snacks throughout the day or chew toys to provide the stimulation they need.
Q: How do you broach the subject with parents?
A: It’s natural for parents of both the biter and a child who was bitten to be upset, so you must acknowledge their feelings. Explain that biting is a form of communication and while distressing, is a stage of development that many children pass through. Find out if there have been incidents of biting outside of nursery and if there have been any changes that may be affecting the biter. Share the strategies you have in place to prevent and minimise biting and agree a joint approach.
If a child has bitten previously, take more time to share your methods of dealing with the child in the immediate aftermath. Talk to parents about how to support their child to develop empathy with others. Make sure you include what they should never do, such as physically scold the child or even bite them back to show them what it feels like. This will only add to the child’s and the family’s distress.
Q: What about the family of the child who has been bitten?
A: It’s a good idea to contact the parents before they arrive to pick up their child if he/she has been injured, so they are prepared rather than shocked and upset in front of the children. Again, explain to them how the nursery deals with these incidents and why. Do not promise to eradicate biting completely, as this won’t be possible, but reassure them that you have effective strategies in place to reduce the number of incidents.
Fiona Bland is an early years adviser at NDNA, which has developed Biting: Responding Sensitively – an online course that looks at the reasons why children bite and supports practitioners to deal with biters effectively. As well as providing a step-by-step guide for dealing with biting incidents, it shares helpful strategies to minimise biting and helpful downloadable resources. Visit ndna.org.uk/training.