Infants and toddlers are totally egocentric, believing that the world revolves around their needs and desires. Their brains are too immature to recognize that others feel pain, or that other children are any different from the toys they play with. A one-year-old may show brief glimpses of the ability to take another person’s point of view, but for most children this concept truly emerges around the age of 2½, after beginning to establish autonomy. At that stage of development, when the child starts to incorporate a true understanding that he is separate from others, he also begins to realize that other adults and children may feel different emotions than he. Toddlers who hit, push, or bite are not trying to hurt another child, but to gain some desired goal in the most efficient way they know. A toddler might push another child just as an adult would push a swinging door out of the way, totally oblivious to the fact that while she was intent on getting somewhere another child is suddenly flat on the floor, crying. Understanding this developmental stage is crucial to the ability to be compassionate and supportive to both a child who bites and the child who is bitten.
Biting by one-year-olds and young two-year-olds may be related to emergent language. As one-year-old teachers encourage children to verbalize (starting with the “3M words” of Move, Mine and More – which cover almost every toddler need!) the toddlers begin to understand that they are supposed to say something rather than push, grab, pull hair, etc. In some odd way it seems like children who are beginning to use those words are also more prone to biting when they are under pressure and cannot get the words to come out fast enough. It is almost as though they know that something should happen in the mouth but in their stressed state it becomes teeth rather than words that “speak.” It is the teacher’s job to protect the children from this situation; when they know that a child is inclined to bite it is especially important for the teachers to protect the child’s space. Commonly these are older toddlers whose emerging sense of order is easily upset by the still-chaotic behavior of the younger toddlers – here a 20-month-old is busy working on a puzzle and some 15-month-old comes along and grabs her puzzle piece! She is upset and bites the child before she can get the word “mine!” to come out – but an attentive teacher could have protected everyone by redirecting that 15-month-old before he got so close.
At about the age of 2½ a child’s view of herself in relation to others changes dramatically. The young 2-year-old must “own” everything; part of the way she achieves an understanding of her autonomy is by learning about “mine” and “yours” (if we’re the same being, then “mine” and “yours” are irrelevant concepts because it’s all “mine”). From 18 to 30 months or so learning the boundaries of “mine” and “yours” is a full-time job and extends from objects to include space as well. If the classroom is arranged to acknowledge and support this need it helps the child pass through this rather demanding stage pretty quickly.
Planning carefully so that children have many opportunities for both solitary and parallel play (both doing the same thing, but with separate equipment) means that children can feel secure in their ownership of an activity while learning from the play of another. A child with rudimentary social skills who is absorbed in building a tower of blocks may see an approaching child as a threat to her space and project, so she might hit or push that child away just in case he was thinking of knocking the tower down. The supportive adult, rather than judging, is an empathetic source of information. The teacher can say, “Oh no, look at Jimmy crying! He didn’t like being pushed. Was he too close to your tower? Next time you can say ‘Too close Jimmy!’ Then you won’t need to push him.” This gives the child useful information about the situation while acknowledging the stress a toddler feels when another is too close. The attentive teacher often can prevent this conflict altogether by stepping between the child building with blocks and the approaching child, gently directing the approaching child to observe from a distance or walk around the project. However, even the most attentive teacher will not be able to prevent all interpersonal conflict.
Biting is just a handy tool of the toddler and can occur in any of the above situations, or because a child giving a hug suddenly can’t resist testing the sensation of her teeth sinking into a soft chubby cheek. Toddlers with molars pushing at their gums may also find biting a good way to relieve the pain that has been teasing at their mouths all day; another child’s proximity may just be an unfortunate coincidence or the “last straw” in a series of frustrations. Children may also bite, hit, and push as a way of testing the world around them, to see how another child reacts and how the adults will react. None of these occurrences is pleasant, but they are all very normal parts of toddler behavior and must be accepted as such even as adults work with children to teach them new behaviors (and wait for them to “grow into them”!).
Whenever a child is injured, the teacher can analyzes the situation to see if it can be prevented in the future. For a more detailed description of this process, see Classroom Troubleshooting. Knowing the limited impulse control of a toddler, the teacher recognizes that it is her responsibility to plan in a way that gives maximum support for success to children learning to manage their play. The teachers ask themselves:
- Are expectations for the children age-appropriate?
- Are there space issues? Many toddlers need a “safety zone” of 2 or 3 feet around them when they play; the teacher will help the other children learn to give him space.
- What time is it? Does the child need lunch or a nap a little earlier?
- Is this toddler coping with unusual stress? Is he in a new situation at school, or has something changed at home (new baby, 6-month-old sibling starting to crawl, parent traveling, child living in a new home)?
Keep bite-able toys readily available in toddler classrooms; experienced teachers also know that any time two toddlers are within reach of each other the teacher should try to be there, too. Both parents and teachers can have dramatic emotional reactions to biting. Adults need to know that while it may seem “wild” or “primal” to them it is, to the toddler, no different than any other form of interpersonal injury. Emotionally stressed adults will just add to the trauma and drama, which may make it so interesting that the toddler will want to do it again just to see what happens! Teachers prevent a lot of biting by:
- making sure each toddler has enough “personal space” so he won’t need to defend his territory with his teeth.
- being aware of situations that stress a child who is prone to biting so that the situation can be avoided, or the teacher can be close by when they must occur.
- helping children know the teacher will help them tell other children what they need and/or give them a soft toy to bite when they feel ready to bite.
Despite all precautions, bites do occur when toddlers are together. In this event the teacher gives neutral consolation to both children; while one child is physically injured, the other needs to be reassured that the teacher trusts the child to learn to manage better the next time. The wound is washed well with soap and water and, depending on school policy, antibiotic cream may be applied. If the child will accept it, ice wrapped in cloth should be applied to reduce swelling and bruising. The child who bit needs a supportive hug along with some information. “You really didn’t want her taking your carrot so you bit her arm; look at her crying! Biting hurts. Next time you can say ‘My carrot!’ If your teeth need to bite something you can get a chewy toy.”