Biting, Hitting, and More: Is This Behavior Normal?
In this post, we take a look at the top four concerns first-year families often have, and discuss how to support your child through them
A young child’s transition from home to school is a big leap! This shift in routine can trigger new behaviors that are undesirable, such as biting and hitting, leading many parents to worry. However, in the majority of cases, these new reactions are developmentally appropriate and not indicative of a problem.
Here is a look at the top four concerns first-year families often have, and how to support your child through them.
Biting and Hitting
It can be startling for parents to see children choosing aggressive behaviors. As adults, we do not hit or bite, so where do our children get this from? First, take a deep breath, and know that hitting and biting are common behaviors in kids aged two and three.
Toddlerhood is a challenging time with respect to social, emotional and language development. Children of this age begin feeling their emotions more intensely, but they may not have the ability to outwardly communicate how they are feeling yet. Hitting and biting become an easy outlet for these big feelings. Once they gain more skills needed to identify, express, and cope with their emotions, it often resolves.
What can we do in the interim? It is our job to de-escalate a young child’s overwhelming emotions – not further escalate. Punitive tactics like hitting or biting back only fuel the fire with shame and fear, and measures like time-outs can confuse children because the isolation leaves them without any guidance on what to do instead.
Teaching – which is the true meaning of discipline – is highly effective. Use clear and concise language to help them identify their emotions, and introduce them to coping strategies, like deep breathing, that they can use in place of hitting and biting.
When a child is overwhelmed, they are already in a reactive brain state and are not capable of learning something new. Avoid being dismissive by trying to rush the tantrum and focus on protecting safe boundaries – “You feel angry, but I cannot let you bite.” Later, introduce or reinforce calm-down strategies during neutral moments.
Did you know? – On Guidepost’s back-to-school shopping list, there is a section for mindful tools that can support calm-down strategies! Check it out here.
You may have been warned about this one, but it can still catch first-year school families by surprise. It’s understandable, though. As adults, our immune systems have had time to mature. The average healthy adult will experience just two to three colds per year. By contrast, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers get sick eight or more times per year. It’s known as “daycare syndrome.”
Certainly, your school or daycare should have a diligent Health and Safety Policy, with specific guidelines on Campus Illness Protocols that minimize the spread of childhood illnesses. Even with these protections in place, it’s normal for children to fall sick frequently, especially in their first year.
If you are concerned about an immunodeficiency, however, seek your pediatrician’s medical advice.
This starts in infancy when older babies grasp the concept of “object permanence,” or the idea that you are still there even if they can’t see you! It’s the same reason that peekaboo is fun, but seeing you walk away is stressful. It’s normal for separation anxiety to continue through early childhood, but it can prove particularly challenging for school drop-off.
Separation anxiety varies widely between children, so if your child confidently walks into their classroom – it’s not a sign that they are not attached to you. Similarly, if your child expresses major reservations and cries when you leave – it’s not a sign that they are too attached to you. Both scenarios are okay!
Even a child who has been in school for a while may revert to experiencing reservations depending on their age and other social factors. Nine months, 18 months, and three years are common times when children experience heightened separation anxiety.
To support your child through this, it’s best to:
- Validate. While it may be well-meaning to say things like, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t cry,” these phrases are dismissive. Try swapping with phrases that offer concrete acknowledgment, such as, “It’s okay to feel sad. You might feel better after you cry. Sometimes I struggle to start a new work week, too.”
- Be quick. Intentionally greet your child’s teacher to showcase trust in who you are leaving them with and commit to walking away with confidence after you’ve said your goodbyes. This “cool and collected” approach helps your child feel safe. If our goodbye is hesitant, it can fuel their hesitation.
- Be concrete. Time is abstract to young children, and so phrases like “I’ll pick you up at 3 p.m.,” could be unclear. Try framing your child’s day with anchor points that they can grasp. “I will pick you up after nap time,” and, “I’m going to leave you after we exchange two hugs and one kiss.”
Some children regress with sleep due to new school routines. They may revert to taking naps that they once grew out of or struggle to get to bed at night. At first, this can be worrisome and leave parents feeling frustrated. Should my child be napping again? How should we manage bedtime struggles on a school night? Do they need less sleep, or more?
Often, the underlying reason for the “preschool sleep regression” is an ask for greater connection due to the increased time spent away from mom and dad. While it's helpful to be consistent with a bedtime routine, layering in more intentional quality time before you even start your routine can help in this context.
You’ll also want to partner with your child’s teacher to ensure they are getting enough total sleep in a 24-hour period by clarifying how much of their sleep is now getting fulfilled during nap offerings at school; This will impact their nighttime sleep. We love this framework on sleep expectations by Sarah Ockwell-Smith in The Gentle Sleep Book. Keep in mind these are averages, but they can help pinpoint if sleep struggles are due to too much or too little sleep.
- One-to-two-year olds need 13 hours of total sleep in a day, and most will take two of these hours as a daytime nap.
- Two-to-three-year olds need 12 hours of total sleep, and most will take one of these hours as a daytime nap.
- Three-to-five-year olds need 11 years of total sleep, with three-year olds often napping for at least 30 minutes and growing out of naps by age five.
Biting, hitting, germs, tantrums, and sleep struggles –– it’s all normal. These transitions are ultimately growth opportunities, and soon your child will also step forward with more trust in themselves and their surroundings!
Jenna is a trained journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is.