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Why Do Toddlers Bite? (Educator’s Version)

I work with toddlers in an early childhood education program, and I have an 18-month-old in my group who frequently bites his peers when he gets frustrated or wants a toy that someone else has. He doesn’t appear to have any language issues, and I have spoken to him (and his family) about how biting hurts his friends. Nothing seems to be working! What else can I do?
—Concerned Educator

Dear Concerned Educator,

Good news — you’ve taken the right first steps by looking for the cause, speaking with the child about how biting hurts, and making sure the parents are involved.

As you’re probably aware, biting is a normal part of infant and toddler development. There can be several causes, including teething discomfort and the inability to verbalize feelings of frustration, anger, or excitement. But if you’ve already ruled out other causes, it may help to think about biting as a toddler’s form of problem solving.

Biting as Problem Solving

That’s right — biting really can be a way for toddlers to problem solve! Infants and toddlers are always investigating and experimenting to figure out how things work.

  • As they are observing their world and learning how to solve simple problems, infants and toddlers begin to draw logical conclusions based on cause and effect.
  • At the same time, very young children are still developing the brain capacity to handle more complex problems, especially those relating to people.
  • There are limits to what they’re able to do to reach their goals, and they can’t always manage their emotions when faced with a challenge.
So as he is learning how to play together with his peers, the toddler in your group may have discovered that biting gets the friend to give up the toy he wants. 

If he gets frustrated in his interactions with other young children, and biting puts an end to the frustration, it might seem like the right solution to him.

Understanding the Why is Key to Prevention

Our bite wheels (in both English and Spanish) help caregivers understand how to respond to the child who bit and the child who was bitten, and learn how to prevent biting in the future.

Teaching Alternative Strategies and Providing Support

It’s important to prompt toddlers through social problem solving. To support this child in moving past biting, you can model problem solving and help him develop more appropriate strategies for meeting his needs. Adults’ responses to infants’ and toddlers’ social cues, which create back-and-forth social communication and reciprocity, help to enhance children’s earliest social experiences with other adults and children. With practice, educators can become quite good at interpreting what children think, want, and feel in social situations.

Behavior guidance that flows out of consistently warm, nurturing interactions that build strong attachment is a much broader, more complex undertaking than simply getting children to be obedient. In a relationship-based approach to behavior guidance, the educator considers the “whole”: the whole child, the whole educator, and the whole relationship. (Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™, 2017)

Let’s look at some strategies to consider when using a relationship-based approach in behavior guidance. (These strategies are derived from the Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™ Promoting Socialization and Guiding Behaviors curricula):

  • Provide tips and problem-solving strategies that he can explore and begin using in place of biting. Use a variety of cues (verbal, visual, modeling and physical) to guide him.
  • Support self-regulation and socialization during peer play by commenting on and supporting children’s emerging cooperation skills.
  • Proactively support positive behavior by setting up conditions that minimize the potential for misbehavior, such as encouraging specific on-task behavior, offering a variety of play options, positioning to provide support, and providing multiples of favorite play materials.
  • Model appropriate behaviors for children.
  • Redirect children’s inappropriate behavior by offering choices to defuse minor conflicts and manage extreme emotions.
  • Model phrases that the child can use when he wants to share a toy or wants someone to stop doing something.
  • Encourage empathy when reminding him that biting hurts his friends. (“I wonder how she felt when you bit her. How do you think you would feel?”)
  • Provide encouragement and make it clear that you’re part of his support system. Be sure to highlight the positives of his day along with any biting incidents when you speak to parents or caregivers at pickup time.

Looking for further resources?

With your support and encouragement, children can develop natural problem-solving skills and learn to use new strategies instead of biting.

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