Tips From Our Teachers: Discipline, Aggression and Biting

Deborah Simmons is Assistant Director at Eastville KinderCare in Belleview, Illinois. She has 26 years of experience in early childhood education and won the coveted Knowledge Universe Early Childhood Educator Award in 2008. She is a mentor to new teachers and is known among her colleagues as a true “toddler whisperer.”


One of the most frequently asked questions from families who tour KinderCare centers is: “How do you handle aggressive behavior and discipline?” Here are Deborah’s tips based on her observations and experiences in the classroom.


Help toddlers express themselves appropriately. 


Toddlers often don’t have the verbal skills to express themselves. It’s our job as teachers or family members to give them the words. For example, let’s say Jordan takes a book that Johnny is looking at and Johnny gets upset. But Johnny doesn’t have the words to say, “Hey, I was looking at that,” so he hits Jordan instead. That’s when a teacher or family member can step in, redirect, and teach the child a more appropriate response. For example, say, “Johnny, can you tell Jordan he took your book?” and try to help them resolve the conflict by saying, “Jordan, can you give Johnny the book back and we’ll find you a different one?” Toddlers need to be given the words to help them express their frustration verbally instead of expressing it physically. They don’t know how unless we show them. 


Redirect and explain the rules. 


Redirecting and talking about the rule is the next step. Direct the child who was behaving aggressively to another activity in a different area of the room or home. That gives you the opportunity to take him or her out of the situation that was contributing to the aggressive behavior and to talk about the rules.   


Children are capable of learning the rules, but they need to know why the rules exist. “Where do our feet belong? On the floor, not the chair, because they keep us from falling off the chair and getting hurt.” Children don’t know they can get hurt if they fall off the chair. Explaining why a rule is in place is also more likely to help children remember the rule the next time.


That said, while it’s good to talk with children about why we do or do not act in a certain way, we have to be careful with wording those conversations. We try to focus on talking more about the behavior we want to see than the behavior we don’t want to see because very young children tend to focus on the last part of sentences and phrases. For example, with toddlers it is better to say, “Hitting hurts and makes our friends feel sad. We use gentle touches,” while modeling gentle touches, than to stop at saying, “We don’t hit.” 


Stick with the routine.


Children need routines and to know what comes next. The timing may not be the same every day, but the sequence of events and cues can be. For example, we have breakfast and then the children can expect we’ll have activity time. After that, I begin gathering them for circle time, where we will talk about the days of the week and the weather outside; these are signals and routines they are familiar with. Even older children want to know what comes next. If I could share one thing it would be “keep it consistent” – this is key.


Give children choices.


When children show stubborn behavior, give them choices, but be firm. For example, at home, if your child doesn’t want to get dressed for bed, give him or her a choice. Say, “You can wear these pajamas or these pajamas, but if you don’t want either one you can sleep in your clothes.” You can also try offering children something you think they’ll want and something they won’t want. That way, you win and they win!


“What do we bite?”


When it comes to biting, you have to know your children. Some children bite because they want a toy or because there is some other type of conflict going on. Others bite for sensory reasons. Teachers need to closely observe children who seem to bite for sensory reasons and watch for cues that they are about to bite. Biting is a normal behavior for children between 15 months and 2 ½ years, but teachers and families can learn the cues and then redirect children before the biting occurs. 

In my center, if a child bites, we ask him or her, “What do we bite?” We teach the child that the answer to this question is “food” and then we look at pictures of food together. Children can learn that if they bite their friends, they will be redirected to another activity. Then we will talk about why it’s not okay to bite other people, and they can rejoin the previous activity when they are ready to try again. 


Sometimes families will say that their child doesn’t bite at home, only at school. Unless a child is a “sensory biter,” he or she probably won’t bite at home. Families might see biting at home if there are siblings or other children present, because conflicts such as sharing toys may come up. 

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