As an occupational therapist, I am frequently asked by parents and teachers to analyze a child’s behavior and determine whether it is “sensory-based” or “behaviorally-based.” Hands down, this is the most frequently asked question of my 18-year career.
At a recent behavior course, I was reminded that all responses are behavior. The definition of behavior is “the actions or reactions of a person in response to external or internal stimuli.” It is up to us to determine the cause of the responses.
When attempting to discern if a behavior is a result of sensory input or lack thereof, there are factors that need to be considered. We must be a detectives to determine the root of the problem. Parents and teachers must know their children well, including their sensory preferences, in order to determine cause of a meltdown, tantrum, or simply a bad day.
The first question I ask parents or teachers is whether the response develops at specific time of day or whether they see a pattern to the specific behavior. Is the child tired or out of his/her typical routine? Did he/she miss a nap or a meal/snack? In order for a child to be at his/her best, all these factors need to be in place. All of us have difficulties in situations where these basic sleep or eating patterns are disrupted. Children with disabilities or difficulties with sensory processing are especially sensitive to lack of sleep and disrupted meal schedules. My number one recommendation to parents of children with difficulties in behavior is to first work to establish routines in sleep and eating and then to maintain the routines.
Once routines are established, if the child continues to demonstrate difficulties, you need to scrutinize the environment. Is the child responding to an oversensitivity or lack of stimulation in the environment? You must consider all sensory systems: vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, visual, gustatory, and olfactory.
This is where it gets tricky. Remember that a child can be over-sensitive (hypersensitive) in one sensory system and under-sensitive (hyporesponsive) in another. Is the child responding negatively to loud noises in the environment? Does he/she dislike bright lights? Most classrooms and other learning environments have fluorescent lighting, which is harsh for children with sensory difficulties. Does the child respond negatively to a smell in the environment? Does the behavior appear in the cafeteria when the child is bombarded with sights, smells, noises, and a variety of food textures? The grocery store is another environment that can become a sensory child’s nightmare.
Once you have examined the child’s environment, you need to dive in and adapt the environment to meet the child’s needs. Then, establish a sensory diet that is on routine intervals – a sensory activity every one to two hours addressing specific areas of need. A well-trained pediatric occupational therapist can provide your child with a custom sensory diet based on his/her specific sensory preferences.
If none of these strategies work, the last point to be addressed is behavior. The child may just be having a downright behavioral issue. If there is no pattern of sensory defensiveness or hyporesponsiveness, then it should be clear that the child may require a behavioral approach.
When giving your child directions, mean what you say and say what you mean, and always follow through with any consequences you have threatened.
As a parent myself, I find this very difficult, especially with a busy lifestyle. The children quickly pick up on the fact that we are distracted or in the middle of a conversation and expect that we will forget that they need to behave. In the end, it is our job as parents to follow through on behavioral expectations and help our children learn obedience.
Determining whether a behavior is sensory-based can be a complicated process, especially if a child routinely experiences a variety of different environments. If you or your child’s teacher have questions or concerns, call us. We would be happy to help!
From our family to yours,
Melissa Hough, OTR/L, C/NDT
Owner, Children’s Therapy Center, PSC
Melissa Hough, OTR/L, C/NDT is an occupational therapist with over 20 years of pediatric experience and certifications in Sensory Integration (SI) and Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT). Melissa has a professional and personal perspective when working with children because she is also the adoptive parent of a child with special needs.
Since 2002, Children’s Therapy Center, PSC has served thousands of families in Louisville, Kentucky, by providing high-quality therapy services and parent education.