How We Respond to Biting Incidents in School

It is very common for toddler-aged children around 1.5 years old to about 3 years old to display ‘aggressive’ behaviours such as biting, hitting, pushing, scratching, or pinching. Children of this age often lack appropriate verbal skills and resort to signs of this sort of behaviour to achieve their goals. This is often due to their developmental phase, as the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain that controls emotional regulation, reasoning, aggression, and self-control has not developed yet. This is why children in this age group sometimes are not able to control their urges or express their feelings in a positive manner.

Sometimes, children just need to have oral-sensory stimulation or exploration, it is part of their physical development. They could also be exploring cause and effect, seeking attention or perhaps they are just curious!

During this period, when your child interacts with other children in school, they are also beginning to learn social skills usually not experienced at home or in smaller social settings with other family members.

These are precious childhood experiences and opportunities for children to grow up. Through these interactions, they gradually start to understand how to protect themselves, learn how to face setbacks, and develop resilience to face life bravely.

In this blog post, we would like to share with you the House on the Hill approach when faced with common challenging behaviours amongst children in school. We will also share some useful tips as to how to respond and  help guide your child through this developmental phase.

What to do? Our Response to a Biting Incident in School

· Prevention

Our first goal is to try to prevent an incident from happening, or recurring. Our teachers are trained to observe, and will try to identify a situation where a child may be triggered to bite or exhibit any other anti-social behaviours. In the moment, teachers will need to provide attention to both children and help them talk about the situation. These are important teachable moments for the children.

For example, if the biting was about to occur because of a frustrating situation, our teachers will help the child to vocalise his needs. They will provide the simple phrase for the child, “Please”, or “May I? as an alternative to snatching or grabbing a toy from their friend.

Here is a re-enactment of such a scene, where the teacher will describe the situation to both children:

“Oh Damien, I can see that you really want to have this zebra now. But Mary is playing with it right now. Why don’t you ask Mary, “May I have this zebra?”

The teacher will then turn to Mary as the next focus, and to also show respect for her time with the toy. She will be provided with a time reference of when she can pass the dinosaur to Damien.

“Mary, you are using the zebra as part of your zoo. Can you please let Damien have the zebra when you are done with it?”

· If the biting incident has already occured 

We don’t want to give too much negative attention to the biter, so the teacher will be brief, calm and firm. The main action will be to show a look of disapproval with a stern face and simple phrase, “That hurts.” The biter will be immediately removed from the play, and talked to sternly. “I can see that you really wanted that zebra, but I cannot let you hurt Mary. Teeth are not for hurting.” We know that shaming or harsh punishments will not reduce such incidences, rather, they are more likely to increase a child’s fear and worry, and potentially increase such incidences instead. These responses also do not teach the child the social skills they need to cope with these sorts of situations.

For the child who was bitten, care and immediate comfort must be provided to soothe them first. Appropriate first aid will also be rendered if necessary. Sometimes, if suitable, showing the biter how their friend has been hurt can also help to reinforce the consequences of their action. The child may be invited to help to soothe the pain, perhaps by helping to apply a cold compression on the area.

We will immediately log the incident and inform the parents of both children. We will also share with parents our observations of the child’s trigger reasons for the behaviour, and the action plan to prevent and minimise such behaviour in the future. While informing both families of the incident, the school will maintain complete confidentiality of all children involved.

Image: Antonio Diaz via Getty Images

How should parents react? What can you do to support these learning lessons? 

We would like parents to reinforce these lessons after school, at home. It can be disheartening to learn about your child’s upsetting behaviour, or to hear about your child being hurt in school. But we want you to know that such behaviour is very common and can be addressed. The swifter action is taken, the better.

The role that parents and caregivers play at home is hugely influential. Parents should take this as an opportunity to work alongside with the teachers in school, to understand the best approach to react to such situations in a calm and collective manner.

When encouraging your child to talk about the experiences in school, please do not reinforce the experience negatively. Avoid using negative questioning to approach your child.

For parents of the child who was bitten, instead of asking questions like “Did your friend bite/hurt you today?”, rephrase to, “I see you have a band-aid today over your arm. This must have hurt a lot.” Your child may then begin to share with you their experience. Otherwise, you may also want to use what their teacher has shared with you, to reinforce the response to the trigger behaviour. For example, “Damien must have really wanted your zebra. Next time, tell him to “wait, please. I will let you know when I’m done.” This helps to teach your child how to defend their own rights and protect their own playtime, while at the same time, showing them how to say ‘no’ in a polite manner.

For parents of the child who did the biting, it is important to know what stage of development your child is at. Our teachers will work with you to identify patterns, triggers and age appropriate behaviour, to find the cause behind the behaviour. For example, if your child is at a teething stage, and displaying similar biting actions at home, a simple recourse may be to provide the school with teething rings to help soothe your child’s gums. Together, we will plan an approach for addressing the behaviour that can be applied consistently at home and in school, to help your child to find their voice and replace biting with acceptable behaviours.

Some ways of doing this might include:

· Reinforce what teachers are saying in school and use similar language or phrases, “Teeth are not for hurting”.

· Have role-playing games at home to recreate similar scenes at home. Ask your child to practise asking for their turn or their toys, instead of snatching or biting to get what they want.

These short delayed gratification opportunities will allow your child to experience success, and grow in confidence. They will be more likely to understand and use such behaviour in school in real situations.

Parents can also use books to read to children to reinforce how biting hurts, and what could be done instead. Some of these popular book titles include:

Teeth are not for biting by Elizabeth Verdick

No Biting by by Karen Katz

No Biting Louise by Margie Palatini

Learning to co-exist with one another is an important part of growing up. Responding appropriately will give them the tools and foundation to learn how to set boundaries at an early age, protect themselves, face disappointment and build resilience. We also want to nurture children who are responsible and understand the consequences of their actions.


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Biting in early childhood and how to respond


Feature Image: Antonio Gravante via Canva