Dear Polly, I have a young 3-year-old in my group who bites. This is my first experience with this behavior, and I'm not sure I'm handling it very well I was so upset when I saw her actually bite another child! The child who was bitten is fine, but I'm worried about managing this behavior.

Although biting is not a common behavior in threes and fours, this behavior does sometimes occur. When it happens, say to the child very sternly and disapprovingly, "It's not OK to bite. Talk when you want something." Then turn your back to this child and give full attention to the victim. Wash the bite with disinfectant immediately. Give sympathy along with first aid. Engage in soothing rituals such as blowing on the booboo.

When talking with the parent of the child who is biting, say, "You probably feel as bad about this as the bitten child's parents do. I'll do everything I can to help her outgrow this approach to human relations." (Then laugh-the parents are undoubtedly feeling tense and defensive.) Suggest that the parent say to the child, "Biting is not allowed in preschool. Get the teacher to help you."

Who Bites and Why?

Children who lack impulse control. Some children haven't had consistent help at home in developing self-control. But impulsiveness also has a biological base, both in temperament and in the pace of maturation.

Children who lack sufficient language. Children who have trouble communicating verbally may become intolerably frustrated when their words don't work. Also, extremely bright children whose ideas race ahead of their ability to express them may bite in their haste.

Children who delight in the feeling of power they derive from biting. It may be the child who lacks opportunities to test her own skills by developing competencies, by making age-appropriate decisions, and by successfully communicating and negotiating with friends.

What Can We Do About Biting?

Try to prevent it from happening. A successful bite gets someone's absolute attention, making it very "rewarding" to the biter. Do what it takes to ensure that the child does not get this reward.

Observe closely. When and who does she usually bite? Catch onto the pattern. Shadow the child who is prone to biting as she goes about her business.

Offer alternatives. Teach the child to use words and to have patience. Strengthen her social skills. Make these your priority goals for this child.

Make her wait minimal. Gradually extend the amount of time the child is expected to wait to get what she wants.

Enlist other children's help. Say: "Jo asked for the ball so nicely. She's learning to talk, not bite. Let's clap for her!" This gives the child attention from peers without biting.

Work privately with parents. Ask if the child bites at home, and if so, what adults do to prevent and deal with it. Ask them to try your plan for a month, very consistently. Do all this consistently for a month and the problem will probably be solved. Intensive focus of all involved, including parents and children, almost always does the trick. Biting upsets us, but it is rarely a long-term or complex behavior to eliminate if these steps are taken.

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