Updated: Apr 11
A fun and spirited toddler has been playing with me in our early childhood classroom. She joyfully ran toward me with both hands raised for what I assumed was an energetic hug. Instead she clocked me on top of the head. "AAAARG! Why did you DO that?!?!"
Toddlers have many reasons why they may, at any moment, bite, hit, push, and exhibit other aggressive acts. Thankfully, there are numerous ways to prevent aggression and helpful responses that will diminish aggression over time. What you do will make a difference!
Below you will find helpful information and tools including
Two short video segments detailing helpful responses to toddler aggression and an effective "Influential stance" to toddler aggression (cut from our live webinar that is now an on-demand class). If interested in the full session and/or to receive training hours, join us for the entire 2-hour course on this topic with the Live Webinar or self-paced learning on this topic.
A video outlining a helpful 4-step system for addressing aggression
A prevention cheat sheet that matches "WHY" they do it to helpful ways adults can prevent aggression from occurring.
Short article detailing a process for addressing toddler aggression
Links to valuable resources
Learn more about how to address persistent aggression behaviors in a way that will help them learn not to do it in the first place! These methods match toddler's development stage and lack of communication skills. Join us for our Live Webinar or self-paced learning!
Toddlers have many reasons why they may, at any moment, bite, hit, push, and exhibit other aggressive acts. Around 10-months-old, they start to have very clear likes, strong dislikes, and very intense desires. Yet, they do not have the words to communicate these needs with words others understand. Consequently, these young humans often use aggression to get their needs met and let others know how they are feeling:
"Give me space."
"I am super excited and want to play!"
"I am overwhelmed."
"I am SO MAD!"
"I want that toy - NOW!"
Toddlers will need a supportive adult to teach them what they need to learn to stop using aggression and, instead, use appropriate words, phrases, and actions.
Toddlers also lack the higher level thinking skills to manage strong impulses. They have little empathy and cannot see the world from another person's view. They are consumed with their own drive to explore, be autonomous, and own things. Evidence of this can be heard by the common "ME DO IT!", "Mine!", and "NO!" coming from toddler classrooms and childcares. In reality, these youngsters do not have the verbal, social, or emotional skills to manage these feelings and needs. So, when overwhelmed, hungry, tired, stressed, or someone is in their way, they bite, hit, scream, and push to communicate and get what they need.
The best way to work with toddler aggression is to prevent it in the first place. Adult caregivers can reduce aggressive acts by meeting the need driving the behavior. Here is a short list detailing five common reasons and the top tip to prevent it that matches.
The above strategies and have been shown to reduce toddler's negative behaviors. However, even with adult's savvy prevention skills, there will still be unavoidable toddler hits and bites. The reality is, it will take many lessons for toddlers to learn to channel their aggressive instincts to more appropriate responses.
What can we do when these disruptive acts occur to build the skills needed so future aggression is reduced? There is one main word to think of when toddlers find themselves in an aggressive moment...
What you do during these difficult. moments will make all the difference! But, which response will be most help-full?
This video has details helpful responses or read on. To access the entire 2-hour course on this topic and/or to receive training hours, you can also sign up for our Live Webinar or self-paced learning on this topic.
To address toddler aggression, HELP! During difficult moments, imagine they are holding a help sign. In order to help build the skills needed to prevent future aggression...
H – Have a plan. When toddlers are aggressive, it is natural for frustrated adults to raise their voice, use many words to explain why biting is not okay, and try to quickly redirect the behavior. In order to help toddlers learn to handle these difficult encounters, it will be important to use an influential stance, detailed the following video. Pinpoint a useful planned response before aggressive acts occur so you can stay calm when yet another frustrating behavior happens. Be ready to:
INFUSE CALM with use the INFLUENCE approach. In Envoy, Micheal Grinder details nonverbal strategies that help you get cooperation while promoting better behavior. Approach from the side in a non-threatening manner and avoid eye contact in order to avoid a stress response in the child. Use a quiet “Private” voice so the toddler can tune into your message. After all, we do not want the child to run, fight, or freeze. Use few words – "No, biting hurts." We want to re-engage their brain!
E – Eliminate distraction. Help the toddler "hear" you by getting at the child's level and setting down anything else (even a book in hand can distract from your message).
L – Label what you observe. Show empathy for the child who has been bitten. Help soothe the child, offering comfort.
P - Prompt the child who has bitten. What can the child do to help? Promote the behavior you want to see in the child through modeling and reinforcement.
"You're mad! ... Sounds like, 'I'm MAD!'"
Prompt with a gesture such as "help" or "stop."
Wait. Watch. Listen. Attune. And label again. HELP the children communicate. See NN #52 Blog post for a video illustrating a helpful response to aggressive acts.
Here is the sign for help and a video illustrating it.
When aggression continues (and it will for some time, this will be a difficult lesson to learn!), be patient and keep teaching. Look for patterns and try to identify when the aggression occurs and with whom. Watch for signs the child is going to bite and prompt before the action happens. You may need to shadow the child and redirect many times a day. Below are several resources to learn more.
Remember to avoid labeling the biter. Better to label the child as needing help. After all, I have not met one adult who is perfect when it comes to appropriately dealing with strong feelings, stressful situations, and conflict. These toddlers have only had a couple of years of experience. They will get it! How do I know? Because they have YOU to help them! Keep on loving up those kiddos! And, know... what you do matters!
Excellent Resources to read and share with others who care for the child:
Useful Article from the Center on the Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL): Responding to Your Child's Bite
"Ouch! That hurts!" - Excellent article from the University of Maine. https://ccids.umaine.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/26/2009/12/biting120309.pdf
Coping With Aggression and Teaching Self-Control by Zero to Three
NAEYC - Understanding and Responding to Children Who Bite
How to help reduce and address aggression -