by Danielle Carter, MS OTR/L

All children, no matter their age will demonstrate behaviors that warrant correcting.  Sometimes behavioral approaches (setting clear cut rules and expectations, allowing for natural consequences, and implementing discipline) work well.  Sometimes, however, behavioral strategies do not seem to work, leaving adults tired and frustrated.

Behavioral meltdowns and outbursts usually have a social component and children are often looking for a reaction from others.  When their need is met (i.e. you give them the toy they wanted) they are able to calm down.  If a child’s reactions are behavioral in nature, discipline and consistency strategies can be highly effective.

However, when behavioral approaches don’t work, it makes sense to consider sensory processing as a cause for your child’s difficulty with emotional regulation. Sensory processing is the way in which our nervous system receives sensory messages and turns those messages into a response.  It is how we automatically know to turn the oven off when we smell smoke or move out of the way or put our hands up when we see a ball coming at our face.  When sensory processing is happening efficiently, these responses are automatic.  But when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses a child’s daily routines and activities can be impacted and we can see them act out.  When children have difficulties in a sensory system, it means that this form of sensory input is confusing, upsetting, or not meaningful to the child.  Difficulty with sensory input can interfere with a child’s ability to complete important activities as successfully as other children do.  Sensory processing difficulties affects 1:20 children, yet it continues to be commonly misunderstood and under recognized as the cause of acting out.

When a behavior is really a response to a child’s difficulty making sense of sensory information, our approach will look much different than a traditional behavioral approach.  What we see and interpret as “behavior” can actually be a fight or flight response happening in our sympathetic nervous system.   It is important to note that this time of “behavior” does not respond to negotiation or discipline while in this heightened state.  Your child will not be able to hear you or problem solve because they do not have access to higher level decision making centers in their brain.

In this state we need to calm down a child’s nervous system.  Deep pressure hugs and gentle rocking can be helpful if your child allows touch in this state.  Turning down the lights, eliminating visual and auditory distractions, are important to decrease the length of time of the sensory event.  Making sure your child feels safe and loved can help calm their nervous systems down.

The following checklist can help you determine if your child may be experiencing difficulty processing sensory information.  If you suspect this as a cause to your child’s behavior, an Occupational Therapist can help.


Sensory Processing Red Flags Behavior Checklist