Dear Polly, A 3-year-old in my group this year seems to have a terrible biting habit. Every time I intervene, the child hangs her head, as if she understands and won't do it again. The next thing I know, I hear screaming from another victim!

So many teachers of young children are concerned about biting. A small amount of aggression, such as grabbing, hitting, scratching, or even biting, is normal in toddlers (1- and 2-year-olds). It usually happens when a child is trying to defend her possessions, protecting herself from children who attempt to invade her space, or trying to acquire something she desperately wants from another child.

Respond Calmly, Clearly, and Directly

Usually, repeatedly offering consistent, calm admonitions and advice during this early stage of life is sufficient to guide children away from physical aggression and toward the patient, peaceful, verbal ways of interacting with peers that we prefer:

  • "No! We don't [grab, hit, scratch, bite]."
  • "Tell [Jimmyj what you want."
  • If appropriate, say, "I'll tell you when it's your turn." (Then be sure that the antsy child waiting for a turn gets it in a short time.)

Make Prevention Your Strategy

Regardless of the form violence takes, it's better to prevent it than to deal with it after the fact. A skilled teacher knows which children are quick to lose their cool, and watches closely when their frustration is growing. Intercepting a blow or a bite, accompanying the action with the above words and deeds, is important.

Try Not to Panic

It's unusual for a preschooler to bite, but biting is within the range of normal behaviors for 3- or 4-year-olds. Nonetheless, biting must be prevented.

It upsets the child who is bitten and her parents more than any other form of childhood aggression. (Being confronted with the distress parents display when their child is bitten is probably a big part of why teachers are so anxious about it.)

What You Can Do:

When you have a child who bites in the classroom:

  • Hold a meeting with all of the parents involved. Discuss all of the above with them, and listen to their feelings. Establish the fact that no one thinks biting is OK. Make it clear that as a team you will stop the behavior.
  • State that an adult will shadow the child who bites to physically block any attempted bites.
  • Urge target children to be more assertive. Suggest that children say, "No! You're not allowed to hurt me!"
  • Give children who bite many other ways to feel powerful.
  • At group time, initiate discussion of whether or not children like others to hurt them. Be sure children who have been bitten say their piece. Don't moralize, but encourage children to help anyone who bites to learn better ways to act.

As with solving most behavior problems, determination, a united front, and a belief that "inch by inch, it's a cinch" will be effective.