As a pediatric occupational therapist, I often have teachers and parents ask me if a child’s sensory processing is causing them to behave badly in school. In kindergarten especially, we often see “bad behavior” manifest in many ways: kicking or hitting peers, biting friends, spitting, or yelling at others. In some cases, the child’s sensory system may be to blame. In others, bad behavior could be contributed to the child seeking out attention, or avoiding work or non-preferred play. Read below to help identify and understand the difference between the two.
When a child’s nervous system cannot respond logically to incoming sensory input (such as loud talking in the cafeteria), the result may cause the child to appear disorganized, clumsy, or disobedient. Oftentimes, children who are seeking out movement (vestibular input) or body position (proprioceptive input) are often the children who crave bear hugs or body squeezes. These are the climbers, the explorers, and the daredevils as they are attempting to seek out extra information from the environment to feel more organized. When they are not given these opportunities, they may resort to inefficient ways to help seek out information which may manifest into tackling, hitting or biting friends. When these children are given ways to regulate efficiently, such as 10 minutes of heavy work activities on the playground, or intense proprioceptive or vestibular input before sitting down at the table to complete the day’s activities, they are much better able to respond and attend to the activities.
Behavior, which can be defined as the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others, often is the result of a conglomeration of events. For example, a child’s bad behavior may be a response to a negative sensory experience, or it may be the child’s way of receiving more attention from parents, teachers and friends, or it may be both. A child with sensory concerns who often tackles peers or siblings may be attempting to receive feedback from the environment. However, it’s also possible he is looking for ways to get attention from others in his environment. When this is the case, it is important to follow up with a strategic plan. Experts recommend attempting to ignore the behavior as much as possible (not overreacting to the situation, ensuring the child follows through on the task required of them no matter what behavior they are exhibiting, ignoring disrespectful behavior and not responding until the child appropriately requests for help). Rewarding good behavior via a positive reinforcement chart, acknowledgement of a job well done, and praise for completing the task at hand are all examples of ways to reward good behavior.
There is no easy solution for recognizing the difference between bad behavior and sensory processing disorder. Oftentimes, parents and teachers may need to take each event on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not the breakdown occurred as a result of a sensory processing difficulty. To help decipher the difference between the two, I recommend keeping track of the specific behaviors in a journal to help identify any triggers or common events that provoke the child and cause the disruption.