The word alone sends shivers down every preschool teacher’s spine.
It happens in an instant! All of your (sweet-as-can-be) toddlers are joyfully playing around a sensory table, not a foot away from us, and out of nowhere there is a blood-curdling scream! You look to your right and the tiny two-foot-tall, eighteen-month-old angel standing right next to you has firmly implanted her teeth into her best friend’s shoulder, and she’s not letting go.
Did you know that more than one-third of preschool teachers in the U.S. reported expelling a child last year for a behavioral issue? Did you know that children who are expelled from preschool are ten times more likely to drop out of high school? They are also ten times more likely to face incarceration.
The Problem With Expulsion
Biting is a scenario we see every year in countless toddler classrooms. Why, you ask? Because biting is a very common developmental strategy for non-verbal and young toddlers to communicate what they are not able to say in words. When we expel TODDLERS from preschool because of a behavior that stems primarily from as-yet-undeveloped social skills, we are delaying any opportunity they have to learn! We may also be delaying identification of any underlying special needs issues that may be uncovered had they stayed enrolled in preschool. Our challenge as educators and early childhood specialists is to understand the reasons for biting and to help these children learn new skills and tools in order to communicate what they are trying to say.
Why Do Preschoolers Bite?
Every day, adults face socially challenging situations: navigating a new work situation, riding a crowded subway and someone walking up to us and nudging us, unknowingly (or knowingly), right out of our seat! Most adults have a tool kit of strategies to deal with these challenging situations.
Unlike (most) adults, toddlers lack the social and emotional tools to respond in an acceptable way. They are babies after all! They’re in preschool to learn these most valuable tools and it is our job to teach them so that when faced with a new and uncomfortable social situation, they have a strategy to deal with it that doesn’t involve teeth.
There are generally three reasons why a child bites: frustration, fear or imitation. (Yes, the copycat biter!) These may present differently in different children, but when each biting situation is boiled down it’s typically one of the three.
Oftentimes a biting situation escalates to DEFCON 1 the minute a teacher shares the news with the parent of the child on the receiving end of the bite. And this is entirely understandable. Parents are—rightly—very protective of their babies, and the sight of a perfect set of tiny teeth surrounded by a purple bruise on their baby’s shoulder will send an otherwise completely calm parent off the deep end. The biter’s parents can then become defensive, making an already-fraught-with-tension situation even more so.
To make matters worse, we all know that biting isn’t a one-time offense. As mentioned earlier, it’s a completely normal (yet unacceptable) developmental tool—unfortunately, it’s also one that’s habit-forming quite quickly. One bite is typically not enough for the biter to rid it from their tiny system. It is a strategy that’s used for lack of an alternative.
In other words, it’s going to take time—and likely more casualties—before a new tool or skill is learned.
How to Stop Biting
There is no magic wand to wave biting away. It is a process and like all processes will take time, consistency and loving-kindness to resolve. These challenges are our opportunity to teach and to make a difference in the development of a child. It is one of the duties we signed up for when we chose to be early childhood educators. Expelling or suspending a child for biting (alone) is an unacceptable practice that allows us to abandon a child who presents a challenge. We didn’t sign up to teach only the “easy” children! All children need to feel safe, they need to know they are seen and understood. These children were put in our lives to make a difference and fulfill our promise to never give up on a child.
Our very first point of action must be to educate and prepare teachers on how to respond to children who present challenging behaviors. And that means, first, that our teachers must have their very own tool kit. They must be able to self regulate their emotions and respond to difficult situations appropriately. If teachers are able to access their own social tools and skills when needed, they will be able to share them with children. Teachers need to know that administrators are there to intervene, coach and support them in challenging situations, just as children in their classrooms need to know they are safe and that they too will be supported in challenging social situations. The connection between teacher and child truly is where the magic actually happens. Without this connection, children are essentially left to figure it out without the toolbox and will default to fight or flight—and bite.
We have spent far too long focusing on academics in preschool, believing that 3- and 4-year olds need to know the days of the week, or that children are deemed successful if they can recite the alphabet, write their name, or “read” a page from a book. We need to rewrite those rules and start believing that true preschool success is having a joyful classroom or watching one child hug another who may be feeling sad. True success looks like cooperation in the block corner, a teacher on the floor with a group of children caring for baby dolls, or one child sharing a car with another. This is learning, too. This is the most important learning of all because without these social and emotional skills and toolset, children can not learn. These skills have to come first, so that the biters have a fighting—and non-biting—chance.
US Departments of Health and Human Services and Education (2014). Joint policy statement on expulsion and suspension policies in early childhood settings. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/policy-statement-ece-expulsions- suspensions.pdf
NAEYC, 2017; US Departments of Health & Human Services and Education, 2014; Zero to Three (2017). Preventing Expulsion From Preschool and Child Care. Zero to Three. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/preventing-expulsion-from- preschool-and-child-care