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Adults' Feelings and Actions
Biting: A Tremendous Challenge
Biting is one of the most challenging behavior problems faced by parents and caregivers. Even the most experienced of early childhood educators struggle with persistent biting among toddlers, twos, and young preschoolers. A child who frequently bites creates severe stress for adults and can wreak havoc on an entire family or early childhood program. No other type of childhood aggression engenders the same kind of reaction from adults. Other children may be aggressive by pushing, kicking, hitting, or scratching, but they rarely get kicked out of the program for these behaviors. Biting, on the other hand, raises a huge red flag. Parents of both the child who bites and the child who is bitten are frantic and desperate for a speedy solution.
Parents and caregivers must work together
Dealing with a child who bites engenders a slew of difficult feelings, from blame and shame to confusion and anger. All of these can inhibit effective responses. Ideally, all adults who work with a child who bites will empathize with each other. They will act in a concerted, cohesive manner, leaving behind their own emotional baggage. It is important to appreciate and acknowledge each other's point of view and work together for the child's benefit. Using this book together will provide a road map for combining your efforts, making real progress to help the child and resolve the situation.
Track record for solving biting challenges
I am happy to say that throughout my consulting practice, when teachers and parents have used the methods in this book honestly and consistently, biting cases were resolved positively and very quickly.
While most of this book focuses on biting, these same techniques can be applied to any type of hurtful behavior. In fact, even if they aren't concerned with biting, parents, caregivers, and teachers will find valuable information for understanding young children, as well as many techniques for proactively preventing various problem behaviors from ever developing. As I always say, if you can handle biting, you can handle anything!
Life with toddlers and twos
Toddlers and twos are relentlessly curious about other people, but at this age, they have little concept of anyone else's needs and wants. They are truly self-centered. When things don't go for them as expected, depending on their personality some are prone to act out or fight back through physical actions that can prove seriously hurtful to others. Impulse control is immature at this stage of development. Given certain circumstances, some children begin to rely on biting or aggression as a typical reaction to stress, especially in group settings.
Being with toddlers and two-year-olds is much like being on a rollercoaster ride, whether you are the parent, caregiver, or teacher. It can be awfully tough to maintain your balance. It's hard to be completely prepared for what you will find around the next bend. While children at this age are often hysterically funny and exhilarating to be around, you literally cannot take your eyes off of them because they are so likely to inadvertently get into trouble. Even though they have no concept of safety and don't know their physical limitations, they now have the physical capability to get pretty much anywhere on their own steam in a split second. It is exhausting trying to keep up with their boundless energy and curious nature! While they become more energetic, we grow more tired. Maybe toddlers have so much energy because they magically drain it right out of the adults in their lives!
How parents of children who bite feel
Parents are typically embarrassed by their child's behavior and at a loss as to how to stop it. Being responsible for behavior they cannot control is incredibly distressing. They may even feel ostracized by other parents. Some parents of children who bite overreact by instituting rigid punishments at home, continuing them long after the incident has passed. Others take the offensive, casting all blame on caregivers or on the early childhood program. Some may jump to the conclusion that their child has developmental issues. And others are ashamed, apologetic, and grateful to be in a program at all under these circumstances, bending over backwards to take any advice offered.
Some parents had their child evicted from child care before or have gone through several nannies. They may be afraid of losing their job, having had to miss many days of work due to lengthy child care searches. They may be worried about their child's social development, since these children are often shunned by other families, not invited to birthday parties and weekend playdates. While at work, parents may live in constant fear of getting another call from the caregiver asking to them to pick up the child who bit ... again. Or, at the end of the day, they may feel anxious to encounter yet another incident report and the accompanying glare of the other parents.
How parents of bitten children feel
These parents may be outraged by their child's injury and concerned about permanent scarring, infection, or disease. They feel terrible because they are unable to protect their child and anxious about what they will encounter at the end of each day. At work, they live in fear of getting another call from the nanny or early childhood program, reporting yet another incident. Feelings of blame are common, as are concerns that they are not being taken seriously. Caregivers may have tried to calm them down by saying how normal and common biting is in groups of young children. Parents often hear this as a "wait-it-out" policy, with their child unwittingly acting as the bait for other children who are learning not to bite.
Some parents see biting as a deliberate act of aggression against their child; they want decisive action. They feel desperate and may want a guarantee from the child care program that their child will be protected from the child who bites, even separated from that child during play. They may demand that the biting child be punished in a certain fashion, suspended, or even expelled.
When biting happens at home while parents are taking care of two siblings or two friends, parents may feel incredibly guilty and frustrated. There they are on site at the time of the bite, but may be unable to stop it from happening.
How those who take care of children feel
Caregivers, teachers, and directors of early childhood programs may be stumped by chronic biting problems. They may be about to give an ultimatum to the family, expelling the child if she or he can't stop biting soon. These professionals are in a particularly tough position. They are trying to meet the needs of all of the clients: the children, the parents of the child who bites, and the parents of the victim. They care deeply about the children in their program. And, of course, they also want to alleviate the situation as soon as possible before they lose customers and their reputation suffers.
Nannies, family child care providers, or babysitters are only a "force of one" when dealing with behavior problems. They feel especially vulnerable and alone when trying to deal with a persistent biting problem.
Whatever your role, you are not alone. Few adults feel comfortable handling this extremely challenging behavior, but together we can change that.
"We Don't Put Our Teeth on People!"
One night I got a phone call from a client of mine, Susan. She apologized for calling me in the evening, but explained that she needed to share an experience she just had with her 21-month-old daughter Lily. That evening Susan had been sharing a bubble bath with Lily. At one point, Susan had reached under the bubbles to find Lily's toes, leaning over to playfully nibble on them, saying "Yummy, I love toes!" All of a sudden, Lily stood upright in the tub, hands on hips, shouting at her mother, "Mommy, we don't put our teeth on people!" Susan told me she was embarrassed to have been set straight by her toddler. She was also thrilled that her daughter had internalized a lesson we had been trying to teach her, to avoid her getting booted out of child care for her constant biting. On my website www.stopthefightingandbiting.com there are links to two original children's songs written by Travis and Barbara Poelle of The 2 Tones, which will help your child internalize these new lessons: "We Don't Put Our Teeth on People" and "Someone You Love (The Hug Song)." Lyrics to these songs can be found on pages 122–123 of this book.
Responding to Biting When It Happens
Most people who live or work with young children are always on the lookout for ideas on how to intervene effectively during conflicts between children. This chapter recommends effective ways to deal with these incidents, either at the point of the attempt or right after the incident has occurred. I call this Instructive Intervention.
In later chapters, I will explain how to ask the right questions to get at the roots of the biting problem. Coupling my Instructive Intervention technique immediately with proper detective work later through the Seven Questions will be the secret to your success.
Out with the old, before bringing in the new
Let's look at ineffective responses and why they don't work. You will replace these with Instructive Intervention (page 19).
Extreme misbehavior, such as biting, engenders a strong reaction from adults. They can feel baffled and helpless by children's violent outbursts. Often, adults are actually within arm's reach of the children at play and biting suddenly happens, right under their nose.
Adults sometimes find themselves ranting and lecturing when incidents happen. They feel incredibly tense and angry and try to make an impression about the seriousness of the crime. "How could you do that to your friend, Jose? How many times have I told you we don't hurt our friends? You know how to talk. Why can't you use your words? I can't believe this keeps happening!" These tirades give adults a chance to vent, but they can really ratchet up the stress level in the room. They cloud the issue by combining shame and guilt with a heavy dose of anger. Such an emotional performance can overwhelm the child, taking the focus away from the learning opportunities. Indeed, a strong, clear response is called for, one that is matter-of-fact, simple to follow, and calm.
Reasoning with the child
The most common response to hurtful behavior is the classic question, "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" Inevitably, toddlers look away uncomfortably and two-year-olds may say that they wouldn't like it. Continuing with what they think is a logical approach, adults say something like, "Well, then, you shouldn't do it to anyone else, either. It's not nice." Though perfectly reasonable to adults, this seemingly logical construction of thought means little to young children. Even if they appear to buy into the rationale for not hurting the other child, they haven't received any useful tools for the next time they are confronted with similar stressors. While it is admirable to teach children to care about each other's feelings, this kind of inappropriate reasoning is not a discipline technique. It is no wonder that adults remain so confounded at the persistence of biting and fighting when this is their main recourse.
Putting toddlers in time-out
Some adults punish children with a time-out as a consequence for various infractions. In this technique, children are restricted to a particular spot for a set period of time, depriving them of the adult's attention. As a general rule, the child is sequestered this way for one minute per year of age. Time-outs can be successfully used with many preschoolers, but they are of limited value with children under the age of two and a half, who often see time-out as no more than simply a feature of their biting "routine." (They are also of limited or no value for children with special needs.) In fact, when biting is a frequent occurrence, many toddlers bite and then calmly walk themselves over to the time-out spot to pay penance for their crime. For them, it seems the crime is worth the punishment, frustrating parents and caregivers that much more.
Though a biting child should immediately be separated from the victim and other children, the adult's overarching message should be, "It is my job to keep people safe, so I can't let you near people right now" rather than a provocative "You're in big trouble now, buddy. Get in time-out!" Remember, the more concrete your message, the better it will be understood by young children.
Isolating the child who bites from the group for prolonged periods or all day may seem like a good solution on the surface, but it addresses only the short-term need. Children who act out still need to be around other children in order to learn alternatives to their biting. Of course, this requires careful supervision by adults. This behavioral experience is necessary to reinforce behavioral changes. Only when parents and caregivers do their part to reduce stressors and model effective responses can children learn new strategies to deal with their problems and get along better with others.
What to Say and Do Instead
Instructive Intervention is a short, to-the-point technique for dealing with biting the moment it occurs. It has seven parts: 1. Interrupt the behavior.
2. Help the child who was bitten.
3. Reflect both children's feelings.
4. Define the problem.
5. Clarify the limit.
6. Provide solutions.
7. Re-engage in play.
When used consistently, this technique is very helpful to children who lack skills to solve their own problem. It also provides security for them as there is obviously an adult around who knows what to do every time there is a problem.
Instructive Intervention tools
On page 21, you will find the "Instructive Intervention Guide," the sequence of steps to deal with biting immediately. Keep a copy of this page near you for quick reference when biting occurs. It will help you be consistent and effective.
The "Puppet Show Script" on page 22 is a parent or teacher tool you can use anytime when children are calm and likely to be receptive to new information. You will teach children some ways to handle intense feelings without biting. Role play like this really captures young children's attention —"live" entertainment on a familiar topic, as it were.
Practice makes it easier
Practice what you plan to say during future biting incidents. Included in this book are two tools to help you as you learn new intervention coaching skills. The "Sample Intervention Dialogue" handout can be found in Appendix IV on page 120. Photocopy this handout and use it as a sample of how to include critical messages, as you develop your personal style of intervention. The "Biting Solution Pocket Guide" in Appendix V on page 121 is a handy pocket version of the critical messages. It can be photocopied and laminated to distribute to relevant teachers and parents. Invite others to notice when you use your newly acquired techniques, then discuss the process together. Be patient while people learn a new style of intervention. Expect that using unfamiliar phrases and messages will feel uncomfortable at first.
Getting to the root of the problem
Moving on to Part II, you will find a discussion and how-to of the Seven Questions that will help you get to the root of the biting problem. At the end of each of the next seven short chapters, you will check off the issues that pertain to the child who is biting. This information will provide the foundation for your customized Action Plan in due course.
Injury and Incident Reports
Also useful are Injury and Incident reports. Unfortunately, often an Injury Report form is filled out by caregivers in a rather perfunctory manner, only recording information of when and how the victim was hurt and a description of the care provided afterward. It is best when adults can write a clear description of the play situation prior to the injury, to capture vital information for solving the problem. (Frequently there are no details recorded on these forms specifically about the child who bites. The biter's identity is typically kept confidential because these forms may be given to the injured child's parents.)
INSTRUCTIVE INTERVENTION GUIDE
1. Interrupt the behavior:
 "No biting. Sit down right here in this spot. We'll talk about it in a minute."
2. Help the victim:
 "I know that really hurt. Here, let me help you feel better."
3. Reflect both children's feelings:
 [To child who bit] "I can see that you felt frustrated and angry."
 [To child who was bitten] "And you felt scared and then sad."
4. Define the problem:
 "I see the problem — you both wanted to play with the same doll at the very same time. That was the problem."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Biting Solution"
Copyright © 2013 Parenting Press.
Excerpted by permission of Parenting Press.
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Table of Contents
How to Use This Book,
Part I: Adults' Feelings and Actions,
Biting: A Tremendous Challenge,
Responding to Biting When It Happens,
Part II: Demystify Misbehavior with the Seven Questions,
Question 1 How Much of the Child's Behavior Is Related to Typical Social/Emotional Development?,
Question 2 What Past Experiences or Recent Changes May Be Creating Stress?,
Question 3 Is the Lack of Verbal Skills Causing Frustration?,
Question 4 Is the Child's Physical Condition a Contributing Factor?,
Question 5 What Role Does the Child's Temperament Play in the Behavior?,
Question 6 What Effect Does the Physical Environment of the Home or Early Childhood Program Have on the Child?,
Question 7 What Kind of Limit Setting Is the Child Experiencing at Home and with Other Caregivers or Teachers?,
Part III: Case Studies,
Ethan, 18 Months Old Biting Games, Body Boundaries, and High Energy,
Sophia, 21 Months Old Bad Habits, Challenging Temperament, and Boring Toys,
Lukas, 22 Months Old Bottles, Blame, and Boredom,
Abigail, 2 Years Old Divorce, Negative Attention, and Family Day Care Dynamics,
Jayden, 3 Years Old Social Inexperience, Speech Problems, and Sibling Issues,
Part IV: The Action Plan,
Create Your Action Plan,
Solving Other Hurtful Behaviors with the Seven Questions,
Appendix I Sample Biting Policy,
Appendix II Sample Starter Phrases, Active Listening Feeling Phrases, and Difficult Feelings Words,
Appendix III Turn-taking Tips,
Appendix IV Intervention Dialogue Sample,
Appendix V Biting Solution Pocket Guide,
Appendix VI Lyrics to Two Songs that Teach Alternatives to Biting,
Appendix VII References,