Monday, September 20, 2010

Gosh you taste good!

I was eighteen years old when I first was hired to "teach" preschool. I was shocked and amazed by the fact that I could be a teacher right out of high school! (Okay, that was a little tongue-in-cheek, although I was quite naive and thought very highly of myself). I was put in charge of a group of sixteen- to twenty-four month olds from two to six p.m. I was a teacher! And what I didn't know about children could have filled a world book encyclopedia set--or more likely, a decade's worth of sets.

Here were my qualifications: I had a high school degree, I had experience babysitting children, and I was eighteen years old. That's quite a resume, right? Well, that's the typical resume for most afternoon staff at child care centers. So it's difficult when, at age eighteen, you encounter very typical but difficult behaviors of children that you've never encountered before, and you don't know what to do.

For toddlers and two-year olds, one of the most common (but troubling) typical behaviors is biting. When I was eighteen and handling toddlers who bit, I had no idea what to do, other than to try to separate the children who were biting. And often, that's the first line of defense. You identify the biter and you identify the "prey", so to speak. For some children, any old kid will do. These children are biting for various reasons, but the primary reasons include a need for sensory input, a lack of impulse control, and sometimes a lack of communication skills. Some children bite out of frustration, which is often due to a lack of expressive skills--when you don't have the language yet to tell somebody you're upset or angry, you resort to other ways to communicate your idea, and this sometimes includes biting. Some children just enjoy the feel of biting. They may bite toys, chew on random objects, and occasionally bite people. This is more sensory driven. Still other children are exploring cause and effect. What happens when I bite someone? What's the reaction I get? Children exploring this will often bite and then watch carefully what happens around them.

Then there's another kind of biter...the child who bites a specific other child. I got to experience this firsthand as a mom, when my daughter was two and her "best friend" (can you have best friends at two?) decided she tasted really, really good. I'm talking, sprinkle some salt on my kid and we'll call you dinner kind of good. I remember my little girl being bitten six times in a two week span. Her teachers were frantic. Her daddy was getting upset, too, finally telling me, "Michelle, we have got to do something here...she's getting bitten way too often and it has to stop." As an early childhood educator AND a mom, I felt caught in the middle. I understood what was going on from the other child's perspective--that biting is a typical behavior at this age and will most likely pass in time with no problems. But I also understood the impact on my daughter, especially when one day she viewed a bandage on my finger and asked me, "What happen, Mama? Someone bited you?"

Our situation ended up being remedied by careful observation and trial and error on the part of my daughter's preschool teacher. She figured out that the biter really enjoyed the sensory feel of the bite, and that my daughter just happened to be easily available, because the two girls played together regularly. When the biter began to move in, the teacher gave her a clean rag to chew on. I know it sounds strange, but it took care of the urge to bite and my daughter was never bitten again. Success for both kids!

There are two important things to remember about biting. First is that it's a typical stage that many, many children go through. A biting child is not a "bad" child--a biting child is in need of something, and it's our job to figure out what that something is. Often children are ostracized for this very typical, very normal behavior, and it's incredibly sad to see that.

The second thing to remember is that there are multiple reasons that children bite, and as teachers and parents, we must work together to find patterns and figure out the reason a child is biting. Is it out of frustration or anger? If so, we need to help a child redirect his or her feelings more appropriately. Is it impulsive? We need to watch carefully to step in and redirect. Is it a sensory issue? Can we provide the child with other sensory input that would feel as good or preferable to biting? And for the child learning cause and effect...yes, biting hurts! And we need to take care of the person who got bitten, right away. And boy, it would be a lot more fun if we didn't bite because then instead of holding ice on the person who got bit, we could be playing with everyone else.

Biting is a real problem in toddler classrooms but doesn't have to be a frustrating one. When parents and teachers work together, biting issues can be solved more easily, leading to a pleasant environment not only for children but for teachers and families as well.

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