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  • Writer's pictureDr. Pamela Cooper, MA, MBA, PhD

Why children chew on everything: Part 1 of 3

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Just think, how many times when working with children, they seem to always have something in their mouth or are always chewing on something. How many times have you said to the same child to ‘take that out of your mouth’ or ‘stop chewing on your pen’ or ‘spit out that gum’ and perhaps to stop chewing on paper because it is dirty or chewing the paper will make the child sick?

Chewing on an item is a physical need not an act of defiance: Children are often asked to stop biting on their pencil, to remove fingers out of the mouth, stop chewing on paper, biting their nails, chewing gum, sucking their thumb and/or digits or to remove other objects from their mouth. Some children continue to chew non-food items well past the mouthing/teething stage. For some children, chewing is a passing phase while other children will always have a need to chew continuing into adulthood. Thus, due to a psychological or physical need, some children have a written medical diagnosis or a school plan to address these needs.

School plans may include an Individualized Educational Program (IEP), an Individualize Health Plan (IHP), Intervention Referral Service Plan (I&RS), or a Section 504 Plan with chewing accommodations; much like when a child needs to carry and drink water during the school day.

STRESS / ANXIETY: The most common explanation for why some children chew is because of stress and/or anxiety. Chewing provides proprioceptive input to the jaw that is very calming and organizing. Chewing is why some children might bite their fingernails when they are nervous, pace back and forth, do deep breathing, tap their foot or suck the thumb/fingers.

Mouthing, chewing, sucking are self-soothing techniques; ways to cope with stress.

The stress children experience may be everyday stress, i.e., frustration, anger, inability to perform a task, change in routine, hunger, foster care placements, group home placements, homelessness, parentized, side-effects from a medication, tired (often lately from playing games on their computer/Chromebook in place of sleeping), etc. Chewing will typically increase relative to the amount of stress and how well children deal with stress.

Chewing is an easy way for children to calm themselves because:

1. It is a known motor plan (the ability to organize the body’s actions, knowing what steps to take, and in what order to complete a particular task).

2. There is always something nearby that the child can chew on, whether it is safe or inappropriate. Example, some children are apt to chew on a piece of clothing, pencil, pen, gum, something picked up off the floor, etc.

3. Children can control what goes in their mouth.

Sensory Needs/Stimming: Chewing as a calming mechanism is especially true for children who have Autism, PTSD, Visual/Auditory Processing Disorders, AD/HD, and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is also known as sensory integration dysfunction; a condition where multisensory integration is not adequately processed to provide appropriate responses to the demands of the child’s environment.

Children with sensory issues process the world differently and oftentimes it can be very overwhelming. Lights might be brighter, sounds louder, touch can be painful, staring at them might become threatening, etc. Some children wear a hood during class to meet a sensory need. Some children put their head down within the arms to buffer light or sound and at times pull a clothing item over their mouth or ears.

Stimming is short for self-stimulation. Stimming is one way that children with sensory issues organize themselves and manage the extra sensory information bombarding their systems. Stimming is typically anything repetitive, such as flapping one’s hands, rocking back and forth, spinning things, repeating certain words, chewing, getting up to sharpen a pencil several times, etc.

Look for part 2 of this series in the June 12 Health & Fitness pages in The Gazette.

Dr. Pamela Cooper, MA, MBA, PhD. is a learning disabilities teacher-consultant in the Winslow Township Public School District, Camden County. She can be reached at


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