On preschools and biting: Part 2 — what works

There are lots of reasons that kids bite.  Many of them relate to developmental exploring our senses things and teething, particularly with early biting.  This post isn’t focusing on those– this post is focusing on biting for behavioral/emotional reasons.  Feeling bored.  Feeling frustrated.  Feeling threatened.  Not knowing what else to do to get what you want.

We bought a couple of books.  One of them is really good, On Biting.  The other one, The Biting Solution was less so– the advice basically boiled down to, here’s some questions to ask… then figure out your own solutions with the kid’s help.

The thing about biting is that generally it really is a symptom that something else is not going well.  Same as any kind of conflict.  Treat the underlying problem, not just the symptom.

In DC2’s case there’s a couple of things going on.  The first is, well, let me quote DH here:

Many RI and some RII children are very possessive.
Several RI children use physical violence as the first response to any issue, including biting, hitting, kicking, grabbing, and pushing.

Conflict resolution:
The teachers handle all problems the same way.  They lecture the aggressor, almost always using phrases that emphasize how the teacher is sad about the action.

Result of current methodology:
The victim learns that other kids will try to take things from him/her, and must develop a response. Typically he/she becomes more protective/possessive of things. Since he/she is observing/experiencing physical violence, quite possibly that becomes his/her future response.

The aggressor learns that the teacher is quite regularly sad, and that the other kid gets to have something he/she wants.

If the teacher didn’t see the start of the issue, she often treats the more angry child as the aggressor and the more sad child as the victim.  Sometimes that labeling is incorrect and both the aggressor and victim learn that physical violence can work.

The second thing, that we found out recently, DC2 is a bit bored.  When there’s more to do and more to play with and more interaction, there’s less time to get into these kinds of scuffles and any one toy isn’t as important.  I wouldn’t have thought of this, but it’s in the book and the current temporary solution addresses this issue (temporarily) even if not the lack of conflict resolution.

I hate the way that so many things about this parenting thing have forced me to become an expert on things that I’m not trained in.  I shouldn’t have to know more about PCOS and infertility than my big-city OB/GYN (I’ve had better luck with my small-town docs!) and I shouldn’t have to learn more about biting in a group childcare setting than someone who has been running a daycare for over a decade.  But there you have it.

How to run a daycare:


In a good daycare, culture will be consistent across classrooms.  Instead of relying on the teachers coming in knowing what they’re doing, a good daycare will train the teachers in the culture of the school.

At DC1’s first school, they had property rights.  Whichever kid was playing with a toy would get to play with it until she was done.  If another child wanted to play with the same toy, he was encouraged to trade toys.  If the first child didn’t want to trade, then she didn’t have to.  Those were the rules that everybody followed.

At DC2’s second (religious) school, they focused on sharing.  If a child wanted to play with a toy that another child had, he asked politely.  Assuming that the first child hadn’t just picked it up, she would say, ok, and then hand it to the first child.  A teacher would praise the interaction in the background because yay sharing.

In both of these cases, the teachers were consistent across all rooms and all ages and the kids trained each other.  It was amazing seeing little hellions start at the school and turn into angels within a week.  (And new teachers go from being completely lost to being completely in charge!)  Because culture is strong.

When we asked at this current daycare what their culture was, the director told me, “taking turns” which means that when the second child grabs the toy from the first child, the teacher is supposed to say, “It’s not your turn yet” and then wait and remember to give the toy to the first child when it’s that child’s turn.  She admitted that usually by that point the second child had forgotten if the teacher remembers.

When I asked the assistant director, she said no, taking turns wasn’t what they did, it was sharing.

When DH asked the teachers, different teachers gave him different answers.

In any case, none of them are actually doing what they say they’re doing.  There is no method for sharing/trading/property rights other than violence.

Spreading culture

In a good daycare, not only will there be training from the director and from lead teachers, but teachers will work as floaters (an additional teacher or substitute teacher) on a regular basis and occasionally switch rooms.  They’ll share playground time.  They will train each other and help each other.  The director will also float on a regular basis.

What they should do

There are a number of different options for dealing with conflict.  The best stop conflict before it starts and makes each conflict that does occur into a learning experience so that conflict is less likely to happen in the future.

When something happens, they should talk with the victim first.  They should engage the aggressor in the discussion as well.  They should explain why the action was wrong, not just that it made the teacher sad.  And, importantly, they should talk about the alternatives to physical violence.   What should the child have done instead?  If there’s a good and consistent culture at the school, the child will know the answer to this question.  If not, then the school needs to decide what the answer is going to be and start teaching it.

As we said before, the best thing is to keep conflict from happening in the first place.  When there’s a strong culture and kids know what they’re supposed to do, that helps.  So does that 6th sense that many great daycare teachers have.

Here’s DH again on conflict prevention:

When a child starts to get frustrated, the only responses being used are redirection or lecturing. Redirection is not being done with engagement, but more like just shoving the child off in a different direction.

The teachers are not seeing problems before they start.

And on communication:

“Use your words” is a fine phrase, but being more specific is more educational.  Teach children gestures and words to help them communicate. The 18 mo room teacher, for example, does a good job teaching kids how to handle issues with other kids.  She teaches them body language and phrases.  “Stop”, “no”, (hand up palm out).

There should be no discrepancies between what is told to parents and what is actually done inside the classroom.  Directors and teachers and kids should all be on the same page.

So where are we now?  Well, we visited a few more daycares and got on the waitlist for one of them, a new Montessori where two of DC1’s former teachers are now teaching.  The director said all the right things and believes in continuing education for the teachers and has Montessori certification.  It’s a bit more traditional Montessori than we’re used to, but the culture of the school seems to be good and it seems to be conflict free from what DH saw.  There will be slots available in both the 2s room and the 2-3 year room in January.  It’s also very close to DC1’s school so we’ll be back to only having to do one set of pick-ups and drop-offs.

In the mean time, the current Montessori requested that we move DC2 up to the next room (I’m guessing too many other parents complained).  All of the kids in the new room are 6 mo to a year older than DC2.  The teachers are still not perfect, but they’re a lot better.  Instead of constant Lord of the Flies behavior and screaming in the morning, DH only counted 4 incidents of violence in the 90 min period he observed when DC2 was transitioning.  The kids are mostly better behaved.  (DH related a fun incident this morning– the bully in the room kicked down another child’s block tower, and the morning teacher told the child that she could make another block tower and kick it over herself, and then all the kids there turned to the teacher and told her, “No!  We don’t kick toys!” So maybe some cultural training going on in the new room.)  The teachers are more alert and more cuddly and excited.  DC2 hasn’t bitten since ze was moved.  (The teachers do not seem to have been informed that they shouldn’t praise DC2’s intelligence in front of hir, despite conversations with the director who said of course it would never happen.) DH suspects DC2 will get bored of the room before ze ages out of it.  We think this solution will work until January, but we’ll definitely be moving then.

Update:  related post from Wandering Scientist

Update 2:  Yesterday when I picked up DC2 (which I do one day a week) when I walked through the I room on my way back to the playground there were about 8 kids and no adults in the room.  I waited for the teacher to return (with a child who had just made a break for it) and on my way out told the director that there had been no teacher in the room when I went through.  Before I made it out of the parking lot, the director came out and told me that it wasn’t the teacher’s fault, a kid had made a break for it, she hadn’t been gone any time at all, it was a parent’s fault for leaving the door open, etc. etc. etc.  And I said I’d just informed her because I thought she would want to know.  And she said that she was just telling me that it was a safety issue and that’s why the teacher left the room and it was just for a second, and I said that they should have better systems in place so that a teacher wouldn’t have to leave the room. And then she asked what I would suggest, and I suggested having/calling for a floater, or opening a door and letting another teacher know the situation, and she said that she could tell that something wasn’t working for me and they’re doing the best that they can and that if I was having problems with them I should set up a meeting.  The conversation only ended when I got out my phone to call DH.  I’m pretty sure they will be glad when we’re gone.  But I couldn’t say anything then because we can’t be gone until January.

20 Responses to “On preschools and biting: Part 2 — what works”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    What are the repercussions for biting? Removal and time out? Some other consequence?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When DH asked the teachers, different teachers gave him different answers.

      In any case, none of them are actually doing what they say they’re doing. There is no method for sharing/trading/property rights other than violence.

  2. omdg Says:

    I can’t believe the director tried to tell you it wasn’t their fault that kids were left unsupervised. I guess at least she didn’t try to tell you that your observation had been wrong.

  3. Zenmoo Says:

    All I can say is, *sigh* childcare. I’m not looking forward to organising that agAin.

  4. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    It sounds like they don’t have a clearly-defined plan when it comes to property rights and toys. If one teacher thinks they need to take turns and the other thinks they are supposed to share, then it’s no wonder that there is some confusion! The kids are probably getting mixed messages, or perhaps even no guidance, when it comes to how to deal with toys.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Absolutely none. It’s chaos during free-play in that one room, with teachers going from conflict to conflict and telling kids they’re sad (one of the teachers) or it’s not nice (another of the teachers) when the kid hits hir friends.

  5. Practical Parsimony Says:

    “Until January” is a whole lifetime for a child that age. You may not want to, but you can afford to get a nanny or sitter for the time you need. If my child were biting and being bitten, I would have to do something drastic, not just try to figure it out while this goes on. It is not your job to have to read up on what they should do, but I understand you are trying to help your child. I can imagine they absolutely hate you by now, not that their hating me would bother me one bit.

    My son had a bad kindergarten experience that followed him for several years. He was to the point he was hating school. Everyone in the kindergarten tried to convince me he was hard to handle and needed to just get over being stubborn and submit to the school experience and teachers. The problem was that he had been in a pre-K class the year before and had no problems whatsoever. When I removed him from the first kindergarten, and put him in another, he had problems with extreme nervousness in class but loved the place and had no complaints. Finally, in the third grade he liked school. Back then in Owensboro,KY, kindergarten was not a school program but run by churches and businesses and cost for a child to attend.

    Parents were not allowed in the classroom. To this day, my son will not tell me what was happening. He would just come home and cry and say he did not like “those teachers.” I questioned him over 40 years ago, and he would not tell me what was happening. We were not afforded an opportunity to observe, ever.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Like we said, ze is doing fine in the new room with the older kids. The teachers are much better. There’s been no biting. Lack of consistency and lack of good leadership is only a problem when the employees aren’t very good. The teachers in the current room are ok. We can wait until January, though we couldn’t had ze still been in the other room.

  6. KeAnne Says:

    I sometimes wish I could have a do-over for my son’s time in daycare. So much of what you wrote about isn’t realized until it’s almost too late. In retrospect, I don’t think his former daycare was the best place for him, but we had nothing to compare it to and there wasn’t anything “wrong” per se, just things we wish had been different. I’m appalled at how defensive the daycare was when you reported there was no supervision in the classroom. I get that sometimes things happen and a split-second decision had to be made, but you can’t leave that age group alone. Far better if they had just said, “yes, it was a mistake and we will review our processes to prevent that from happening.”

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m a bit shocked too. At other daycares we’ve pointed out when things aren’t quite right (I promise we’re not “those” parents or nit-picky, just things like the new teacher seems overwhelmed, or in one other case a teacher left a room unattended even though there were procedures in place that the teacher didn’t follow) and they’ve never been defensive about it, just fixed the problem or made sure there wasn’t a problem again.

  7. Rented life Says:

    Giving me a lot to think about as we willbe looking at montessori options in a few months.

  8. Cloud Says:

    We got super lucky in picking our day care, because the standard advice on what to look for was so useless for our situation. “Ask about the child to caregiver ratio” makes no sense when you have laws requiring a good ratio, for instance. Of the questions we asked, probably the only useful one was about teacher turnover, because a high turnover rate could indicate a problem with the culture at the center. But a low turnover rate could just indicate a crap labor market…. so bleh. These days I tell people to ask about biting (like I described in the post you linked) and to look at what the older kids are doing. All of the baby rooms we saw were pretty similar. It was only by observing the older classes that we were able to differentiate our options at all.

  9. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Damn, this sounds heinous.

  10. Tree of Knowledge Says:

    Leaving the kids unsupervised–even for a minute–is a serious violation of their license. When I taught preschool, I had quite a few high-maintenance kids (one year, I swear it was half the class). Two of the kids would escape out the door onto the playground during pickup times (thank god they were in different years). The correct response is to call the front desk and ask for help. I can’t believe the teacher left the room. Having been in that situation, I know the sense of chaos and frustration and fear ze must have felt, and I still don’t get why ze left the room. So not okay. I am so glad you guys have an exit plan; that place sounds toxic.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I imagine she left the room because there wasn’t a plan in place, or if there was, she hadn’t been trained on it, even though this is something that must happen from time to time.

  11. SP Says:

    “I hate the way that so many things about this parenting thing have forced me to become an expert on things that I’m not trained in”
    This is annoying about LIFE, but I bet times ten once you are a parent….

    Good luck with the new room and ultimately, the new daycare. It is so frustrating that they are unwilling to LISTEN, when you clearly took time to become an expert on these things.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When you put it that way it sounds pretty terrible of me. Personally I would rather leave these things to the experts. But I guess not everybody who does a job believes in knowing more about it. It boggles my mind how anyone could run a daycare for so long and just assume they don’t need standard procedure for when things aren’t perfect.

      • SP Says:

        Didn’t mean for it to be terrible. Maybe I’m terrible. I’m usually skeptical of experts until they wow me with competence. Although that is also because many interactions with experts, they are also trying to sell me something, and I have to be informed. Doctors or teachers I would be more inclined to trust.

        Some people really just don’t care as much, or think that instinct is an acceptable way to base decisions. It is a starting point, but…

        And no one cares about our own specific problem more than we do.

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