Our daughter is fighting and biting in creche

angry-toddlerQ. We have a 2½-year-old daughter whose behaviour is causing a lot of worry and concern. She has a 4½-year-old sister and I am expecting my third child in three months. The main problem is her behaviour in creche. For about a year now she has intermittently gone through a biting phase, which at times has been relatively mild with only one or two incidents a week to many attempts in any one day. Many unfortunate victims have been left with marks on their face or arms as a result.

She has moved in recent months to pinching and scraping other children as well. Her behaviour is by no means perfect at home, although not anything as bad as it seems to be in creche. She is strong willed and will pinch her sister and at times bite her to get a toy. She is generally okay when she is in the company of her cousins or my friend’s children, and I suspect this is because there are not as many children as in creche and it is easier to manage. The creche has been very tolerant, and together we have tried a number of strategies, from timeouts and denial of rewards to offering rewards and stickers for a day of good behaviour.

This has had mixed results and right now none is working. They are understandably under pressure from other parents who are annoyed that their children are getting scraped or bitten. I am planning on meeting the creche manager to discuss the situation tomorrow and to agree some options that we can work on in creche and at home to be consistent. One option is to take her out of the creche for two weeks to give her a break, although this is not a long-term solution as my husband and I work full-time and we can’t reduce our hours for financial reasons. 

A. At one and two years of age, frequently children bite, scratch and scrape as a means of expressing their needs. At this stage of development, children have a clear sense of their own will, are mobile and “into everything” yet do not have a knowledge of social skills and, in particular, how to share with other children. Frequently, biting is a means of asserting themselves and of expressing frustration as they do not yet have the language to state their needs and do not appreciate the harm the behaviour causes.

These behaviours can present significant challenges in creches and childcare settings, where groups of children at the same developmental stage spend large amounts of time together which means these behaviours can easily get copied and reinforced. With staff ratios of about one adult to six children it is very hard for childcare staff to monitor and prevent all these incidents. This is especially in the context of a long day within the creche with many flashpoints, times of tiredness, frustrations and conflicts. In addition, because of visible impact and harm on other children, biting presents a particular challenge for creche managers who have to respond to the other parents’ understandable upset.

Whereas with other developmentally related behaviour problems for two year olds, be it whingeing or tantrums, you can wait for them to grow out of the problem and to learn more appropriate responses, this is not the case with biting when there is pressure to sort it out immediately. Unfortunately, this pressure can sometimes make the problem worse as it can lead to the child who is biting getting a lot of negative attention for the behaviour, which can reinforce the pattern.

So given these challenges what can be done? The first thing to do is to closely observe your daughter in creche and at home and to note any specific patterns. Is her behaviour triggered by certain situations or stresses? Is it more likely to occur at certain times of the day (eg when tired) or with certain other children? What is the gain for your daughter in biting or pinching in each situation? What is the need she is communicating when she does it?

Once you have an understanding of what is happening, you and the creche staff can consider what changes can be made to the routine and how the groups are constituted to avoid problems in the first place. You can also reflect about how to teach her more socially appropriate ways of communicating her needs. Though it is hard to do in practice, the key is to anticipate a problem situation and then to divert your daughter with a more positive alternative behaviour that expresses her needs.

For example, if you notice she is getting frustrated and about to pinch a child, get in early and say “I know it is hard to share, but you are doing a good job . . . here let me help you” , or “let’s ask Julie to share the toys” or “let’s all take a break now for a minute”, etc.

In the longer version of your question you ask whether it is a good idea to let your daughter use her soother at the creche but you were worried this might be a backward step as she currently uses it only for sleeping.

As the most important thing is to reduce the biting/scraping at the moment, if giving her the soother works as a calming distraction during flashpoints then this might be worth trying. Certainly, if she has an oral sensory preference (which might also contribute to her expressing frustration through biting) then the soother could be a relaxing antidote.

It is quite likely that your daughter will grow out of the biting and pinching as she learns other social strategies so it is worth giving her lots of options in the short term.

Reducing hours at the creche even in the short term may help as it can reduce the pressure in the coming months and give her more time to learn pro-social behaviours.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.