I thought I would take the time to share some whakaaro and understanding about these particular natural developmental behaviours.
I will start by acknowledging how upsetting, but more so, how stressful and confusing that this behaviour can be for all involved (kaiako, whanau, and tamariki) when these incidents do take place, before venturing into some of reasons that they occur. There is a definite stigma around biting and why it occurs, but the reality is, that this is a very common and natural impulse that is far cry from a place of revenge or malice.
While children are developing fundamental communication and language skills, self-regulatory coping skills, they will often use physical gestures to make their point and to get their message across. There are a multitude of different factors that can come into this also, especially changes occurring in children’s lives that leave a child feeling anxious, confused, and aware of a particular shift taking place that they cannot control or really understand (whanau separation, health and nutrition, developmental, environmental, sleep patterns, teething, another sibling on the way and what this means for them, the factors here are ongoing). Recognising that these behaviours are not calculated plans of aggression or revenge, or forgive my bluntness, the often labelled “naughty” or “terrible two” behaviours, these are developmental natural impulses and responses to their reptilian survival brain, and their developing limbic system. The reason I have touched briefly on development cycles of the brain, is that figuring out developmentally appropriate expectations means you are better equipped to recognise, and to respond to them. Self-regulation, socially acceptable, and rational behaviour takes time to develop, it unfolds uniquely for each person, and although we are born with most, if not all, of the neural cells we will ever need, over time these connections are shaped by our interactions with the world. The main way to support desirable behaviours from tamariki, is to begin to try understanding those less desirable but natural behaviours, because only when there is some understanding, can we better respond to the child’s needs with empathy, love, and guidance.

Some of the ways can we successfully respond to these behaviours

Recognising the message and/or the motivation for the child to behave or act in these ways is key in unfolding misconceptions surrounding some of this perceived aggression, and to share light on how to prevent and/or better support them through these heightened emotions.  Our whanaungatanga/relationships, manaakitangi/ love and compassion, and mana reo/communication, is vital is supporting emotionally safe experiences help our brain to regulate and produce the conditions needed for learning and engagement.    The best way for tamariki to actively participate and meaningfully engage in their environment is when they feel connected, in an atmosphere that they are heard, valued, and loved.  Hey, even when we do not quite understand what is happening for you, you can see we are doing our best to recognise, highlight, and then validate your emotions.

We create confusing connections when we say things such as, “Teeth are not for biting” “Hands aren’t for hurting” or, “we don’t hit” and “we don’t bite”.  Well for starters, this is confusing because teeth are for biting, yes obviously not for biting flesh but you can understand the confusion.

Meanwhile saying “we don’t hit” when the child is in fact hitting or biting, this creates unnecessary confusion.  The real and honest language that we use is quite crucial here.  We do not need to overcomplicate, or go into detail about this with the child, this can unintentionally reinforce the behaviour.  Some examples could be “I can see you are mad, but I can’t let you bite me”, “that hurts, I won’t let you bite me”, “I can see you are frustrated, but I can’t let you bite your friend” or if a child did in fact bite, afterward, “You wanted a turn with the bike, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you. I am here now”, briefly supporting them with a positive solution to the original problem or re-directing them into another activity.  Working through those emotions together, from a place of calm and labelling the emotions felt so that they can begin to understand and recognise them when they are happening.  Letting them know that you understand them, you are immediately coming from a place of aroha, and can recognise that impulse as a ‘response of’ while realising it was out of their control.  These are some ways to make the child feel safe, feel heard, feel valued and more likely be able to turn to you for help when these feelings occur next time.   Using praise effectively, making sure to acknowledge and appreciate desired behaviours from the child that is biting, and be very specific about it, (making sure not to over praise).  Using proximal praise, so highlighting the desired behaviour and celebrating that in front of other children can be extremely empowering, this is an extremely effective tool when used correctly. While prevention is not guaranteed, this is always by far the best strategy.  By knowing the child and their needs/ interests, we can ensure that they are calm and engaged, new challenges and stimulation is a positive way to redirect this behaviour.

While I place so much value on ways of responding to this behaviour, I do not by any means want to leave out how important it is to tend to the child that is on the receiving end, the child that is hurt.  Tending to the hurt child is key in this moment because this is an opportunity to genuinely role model concern, compassion, and empathy for the other child to see.  “Oh my goodness, ouch that really hurt. *applying first aid* I’m sorry this happened to you.  Our friend was feeling *angry/jealous/upset* because they wanted a turn.  Next time they could ask you for a turn”, offer cuddles, make your body language explicit.  These create links in the brain that promote understanding for both children, as children are very effective in reading body language and energy.     Trying to understand the underlying cause of the biting will ultimately ensure that you develop an effective response accordingly.

What not to do

SHAMING does not work, in fact it can have adverse effects where it increases fear, anxiety and will often increase the particular behaviour we are trying to avoid while creating more undesirable behaviours.

Biting back as some research may suggest, is not an appropriate or successful response. This just role models the behaviour that we are trying to prevent and produces ever bigger problems.

When to seek further help

If your child is older than 4 years old and you believe you have been trying different strategies to understand and support this behaviour, then it may be time to discuss concerns with your child’s teachers.   Keeping the lines of communication open is key, this can support you and your child to get appropriate help.

The message that I hope to get across through this article is although this behaviour can be stressful, it is a developmentally normal phase.

Rochelle Cole

Bachelors of Education (ECE)

ECE Teacher at Our Kids Glen Eden & Onehunga

Rochelle is a fully qualified teacher with a Bachelor of Education from the University of Auckland. She has a particular interest in enhancing learning outcomes for all ākonga through empowering leadership. Rochelle’s passion includes enriching authentic connections with te taiao, open-ended creative collaboration, and supporting mana reo through inclusive and intentional teaching.

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