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Children's Behavior: Sensory Processing and Sensory Regulation—a Different Perspective

Rose Mary, an Occupational Therapist since 1987, is experienced with pre-term infants, early intervention, school therapy, and home health.

Some have wondered if it is sensory or behavior. In reality, it's likely sensory processing that leads to problem behaviors.

Some have wondered if it is sensory or behavior. In reality, it's likely sensory processing that leads to problem behaviors.

What Causes Problem Behaviors?

Problem behaviors in children can be due to sensory regulation problems. Understanding sensory processing can help parents and teachers be more patient and tolerant in dealing with children with these issues.

How Adults Use Self Regulation

To better understand the problems children have paying attention, think about things we do as adults to help us focus our attention. Some people doodle, rock their leg, or chew on a pencil during meetings. Many of us would never make a morning meeting without our coffee! Some people suck on hard candy or chew gum in church. Some of us listen to music while we work. Others would never work with music. There are many inconspicuous, socially acceptable things that we can do to help us pay attention or stay awake.

There are other times when we have too much stimulation, and can’t concentrate because we are over-aroused. We may try to minimize the noise, activity or other factors that have overwhelmed us. We may need to escape the overly stimulating environment.

Not only have we found ways to help us attain and maintain that “just right” level of attention and arousal, we have developed strategies to help us act appropriately in a variety of situations. We may exercise regularly to help control stress. We may take a few seconds to breathe deeply and relax, several times throughout the day. Said another way, we have found ways of coping with life’s demands. We have learned self regulation.

Just as we sometimes have difficulty with self regulation, so do children. It is perfectly normal for any of us to be better at self regulation on some days or in some situations more than others. How then can we use the concept of self regulation to help us recognize and better understand behaviors in children?


The Impact of Self Regulation on the Daily Lives of Children

Children exercise different levels of self regulation throughout the day, every day. When children are unable to find a successful strategy to increase their arousal level, they may be considered to be inattentive. Often children find a way to help them pay attention better, but others find these strategies distracting. The strategy the child chooses for self regulation may be perceived by adults as deliberate misbehavior. Strategies that may be distracting to others include drumming on the desk, making noises with the mouth, and repeatedly tossing something in the air. Children and adults who become distracted by these strategies then have self regulatory problems of their own!

Obviously the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Rather than eliminating the behavior however, we need to assist the child in finding a more acceptable alternative.



Sensory Defensiveness

Sensory defensiveness is a concept that can help us better understand self regulation. Each of us deals with multitudes of sensations throughout the day. Sensations include things we see, hear, and smell. Sensations also include things we feel, including touch and movement. Many people have a few sensations to which their systems over-react. That is, they are hypersensitive to certain stimuli. For example some people do not like loud noise or loud music. Many people do not like scratchy wool sweaters. Sensations that we find unpleasant, but that do not bother the general population, could be areas of sensory defensiveness.

Now let us look at sensory defensive behaviors in children. A child who has auditory sensory defensiveness, or defensiveness related to sound, may cover his/her ears when he/she hears a vacuum cleaner, an airplane, or other loud sounds. A child who is sensitive to movement may not enjoy playground activities, or may only swing or ride the merry-go-round if their feet can be in constant contact with the ground.

Probably the most common form of sensory defensiveness is tactile defensiveness, which refers to sensitivity to touch sensations. A child may not like to get his/her hands messy, such as with finger-paint, sand or lotion. The child may have many clothing likes and dislikes. Labels in clothing may be annoying. Soft clothes, like sweats and tee shirts may be preferred. Many children with tactile defensiveness prefer baths to showers, use their hand rather than a washcloth, and do not like their hair washed or combed.

Most children and adults have a few of these “quirks”. We learn to deal with them, but some days our “normal” sensory defensiveness may be easier to deal with than others. We may feel jittery if we consume too much caffeine. Subsequently we may be more sensitive, or over-stimulated by normal daily sensations. We may feel a cumulative effect. If bombarded with the sensations we don’t like throughout the day, we may feel over-stimulated and irritable. When this cumulative effect happens to children, they may not be able to regulate this overload of sensation, and may have an explosive outburst that we perceive as “bad behavior for no reason.”


Special Considerations

Some children have more pronounced sensory defensiveness. Instead of a few tactile sensitivities, they have many. Some children may have multiple sensitivities in several areas, such as touch, movement, seeing and hearing.

Tactile defensiveness has been associated with distractibility, poor attention, and increased activity. Many children with mild attention problems, as well as children with attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD), have a higher level of sensory defensiveness, particularly tactile defensiveness, than the few “quirks” that most people have. These children are hypersensitive to sensations most people ignore, such as the feel of clothing on our bodies. When more prominent sensory defensiveness is present, children are bombarded by annoying sensation. This bombardment may result in distractibility, irritability, restlessness, or excessive movement. With a higher level of sensory defensiveness, children are trying to process these numerous pieces of sensory information. They can’t seem to filter out “background” noises, sights and other stimulation that is unnecessary for the task they are trying to attend to. Imagine trying to do math when you had 12 cups of coffee, or a medication that made you feel wired! Children with ADHD, with this level of distractibility, are often given medication such as Ritalin, which may help them filter out unnecessary information.

A very common event is for children with more pronounced tactile defensiveness to get in trouble while waiting in line with their class. If they are inadvertently touched by a classmate, before they can think, SMACK! Eventually, after getting in trouble a number of times for hitting a classmate “for no reason,” the child may learn to control that reaction. Learned control however does not mean the sensation no longer bothers the child.

Another common occurrence is for young children to say “ouch” when touched. The touch, though light, may feel painful to the child, or the child may not have the understanding to say, “I didn’t like the way that felt.” Sometimes children say nothing, but “brush off” where they have been touched.


Some children seek out sensory opportunities while others are avoidant. Photo from

Some children seek out sensory opportunities while others are avoidant. Photo from

Other Issues of Registration

Also associated with attentional problems is under-registration of sensory information. Some children may perceive a much smaller amount of stimulation than they actually received. For example, they may receive a “gallon” of touch sensation, but perceive a “pint”. Therefore, the child may not receive enough stimulation to maintain a good attention level for school work. The child may be “stimulation seeking”, looking for additional touch, movement, or other sensation to attain a better attention and arousal level.

Settling into a beanbag or big pillows can be very calming.  (Also Sebastian is so cute, I just wanted to sneak him in.)

Settling into a beanbag or big pillows can be very calming. (Also Sebastian is so cute, I just wanted to sneak him in.)

What About Really Extreme Levels of Sensory Defensiveness or Under-Registration?

Some children exhibit extreme levels of sensory defensiveness and/or sensory under-registration. A child may have so many sensory defensive behaviors that he/she is unable to develop strategies to cope. The child’s sensitivities may be disruptive to family life or prevent successful interactions with other children. Children with severe under-registration problems may be at constant risk for injury due to poor safety awareness.

Children with autism exhibit extremes of sensory defensiveness and/or sensory under-registration. Some children may be incorrectly diagnosed with autism because they have severe sensory regulation problems. While the doctor recognizes these “odd” and disruptive behaviors, which are common in autism, he or she may not realize a child might have a Sensory Regulation or Sensory Processing Disorder.

The child may benefit from a referral to an occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration or sensory processing problems. You may need to discuss a referral with your child’s pediatrician. Although your child may need a sensory integration therapist, most healthcare plans will not pay for sensory integration therapy. If the child has fine motor or dexterity problems that have a negative impact on handwriting or self care, then your doctor should write an occupational therapy consult for these problems. Then shop for an OT that has certification or experience with sensory integration.


What is Sensory Processing Disorder?


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Wilbarger, P. & Wilbarger, J.L. (1991). Sensory Defensiveness in Children aged 2-12. Santa Barbara, CA: Avanti Educational Programs.

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Koomar, J.A. & Bundy, A.C. (1991). The art and science of creating direct intervention from theory. In A.G. Fisher, E.A. Murray, & A.C. Bundy (eds.) Sensory integration: Theory and practice. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

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Trott, M.C., Laurel, M.K. & Windeck, S.L. (1993). SenseAbilities: Understanding sensory integration. Tuscon, AZ: Therapy Skill Builders. 1-800-211-8378.

Photo Credits

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


TeachableMoments from California on August 18, 2012:

Thank you for the useful information about SPD. Many people do not realize SPD exists and the effect it has on countless families. This hub is a valuable resource for families and educators who "sense" something is going on, but don't know to get help. Thank you.

Voted up, useful and interesting.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on October 01, 2009:

Alexander Mark,

Your comments are very gratifying and I'm glad you found some peace with my article. My next piece on this topic will be on strategies to help kids. I also am thinking about doing a piece on more serious sensory processing issues with autistic spectrum, and one geared to adults with ADD. As such an adult, I certainly have lots of sensory "quirks". Those 1 hour times to yourself, I call "down time". I can relate.

Alexander Silvius from Portland, Oregon on October 01, 2009:

A good friend of mine steered me to your hub because she recognized some symptoms in me that might be caused by a sensory processing problem. There are much worse cases than mine, but this has started to shed some light on a problem I never realized was so common. My symptoms have changed over the years, and I blame some of my problems on the way I grew up and my own apathy - but I look at my problems with crowds and the need for peace and quiet as a blessing. I am a writer, and this condition helps me to be more reflective.

It does help to have a name to this condition, because I always have felt guilty for the ways I compensate, which is lots of time at the bookstore, and taking an hour to unwind after work or I am unable to function, or taking an hour after I wake up to relax and watch a TV show on Hulu. Once I get into my chosen career - freelance writer, I will be able to do that job better than if I didn't have this issue, hence the blessing.

Perhaps more people with this problem could look at how it could be a benefit along with solving the negative behavior issues at the same time.

Thanks for an enlightening article!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 30, 2009:

Thanks judydianne for such a nice compliment. Fear not. I made myself a loan from my investments. Figure I can stay at home and write for at least another 3 months.

Veronica I am tickled pink over my HubNugget confirmation. It's a marvelous compliment that I helped you understand your kids better. Thank you.

Veronica Allen from Georgia on September 30, 2009:

Congratulations on your nomination - the results are in and you place number one! Can't wait to see what else you have for us. This hub was very informative and helped me to understand just why my eldest is so afraid of crowds, and why my youngest always says "ouch" when she's touched. This was a real eyeopener.

judydianne from Palm Harbor, FL on September 30, 2009:

This deserves to be a HubNugget. Congratulations on your success. I learn many good things from your Hubs. Please keep writing them!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 30, 2009:

Earth Angel thank you so much for your high praise. It makes me feel like I accomplished some of my goals: To help people understand better. To give people a language and framework to express what they see or experience.

Earth Angel on September 30, 2009:

This is a wonderful and informative Hub rmcrayne!!

Thank you soooooooooooo much for sharing!! I see many of the local children, and my seven God-children in your loving words!! Most of all I see myself!!

Although I look very "social" on the outside, it is sooooooooooo hard sometimes to explain to people that I can not attend one more event!! I get "peopled out!!" I regain my equilibrium with quiet, calm, six fur-angels, writing and meditating!!

Marvelous Hub!! You deserve to be a featured Hubber!!

Blessings always, Earth Angel!!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 30, 2009:

Thanks Money Glitch for your ongoing support.

Thanks myownworld for such heartfelt words. The way I see it, all 10 of us are winners, and past that the top 5 are all equally HubNuggets. If I were not in this batch, I would have had a really tough time deciding between your hub and Paradise7's. I consider myself in fabulous company.

myownworld from uk on September 30, 2009:

This deserved to win! Congratulations...sending much love and inspiration your way..!

Money Glitch from Texas on September 30, 2009:

Hey rmcrayne;

Congrats, on making Shirley's HubNugget Roundup!

Keep up the great work... Another great Hub by the way!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 28, 2009:

Thanks Paradise7. Although I will publish a follow-up piece with strategies for dealing with children’s behaviors, indeed my primary purpose was to shed some light and help people understand a little better.

I initially diagnosed myself with ADD at age 43. This was 2002. At that time, the “adult providers” did not feel comfortable with the diagnosis, and I was sent to a child psychiatrist! The symptoms were always there, but things fell apart a bit at a time when I had only recently been more chief than Indian. I have participated in an adult ADD group, which provided a lot of great insight from other adults. When you search, make sure to search “adult ADD”. I have found good stuff specific to women with ADD, so assume there is male-specific info on the net too.

On the surface, your relative’s problem does sound more serious than ADD. I’d look into autistic spectrum disorders, for which the umbrella term is Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Look at Asperger’s. Maybe also look into simple schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder. I hope you find something that helps your family understand your relative better.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on September 28, 2009:

Good hub, rm. I was thinking about doing a spot of research for ADD (attention deficit disorder). It affects a family member and was unfortunately not diagnosed until he was in his early 30's. He has a lot of troubles, can't keep a job, is dependent on his Grandma, as a result.

Now I'm wondering if that was the right diagnosis.

This hub is very good, to help people help and understand kids better.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 26, 2009:

Thank you Song-Bird, fellow WannaBe, for stopping by and reading.

Renee Hanlon from Michigan on September 26, 2009:

What a great written hub! I found it to be very interesting and informative.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 26, 2009:

Thanks ripplemaker, you can visit me twice on any hub! I am thrilled over my HubNuggets nomination. It's gradifying to be selected.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on September 26, 2009:

Hey I was already here a week ago! I'm back again to congratulate you this time! LOL Yaaayyy! So glad for your Hubnuggets nomination. To check out the latest updates on the Cirque Du Hubnuggets, check this link out:

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 25, 2009:

Thanks for your support Jerilee. I have the bones of the follow-up piece, just want to add additional strategies. Should be a quick project after Healthcare HubMob week. Maybe I'll challenge myself to get it out despite my current addiction...

Jerilee Wei from United States on September 25, 2009:

Looking forward to the companion piece, this is a subject I'd like to know more about.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 25, 2009:

Thanks for reading and for the comment Storyteller. I have a companion piece, but it has taken a backseat to this week's HubMob topic.

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on September 24, 2009:

Great hub! My sister in law works with this effect in her Wisconsin Special Children's Center. It is so important to recognize it and help children realize they can manage it with help. Thanks for calling attention to it.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 24, 2009:

OMG! Where are the nominees listed? The Hubbers Hangout HubNuggets forum post is still about last week's. I was wondering what I was getting rebekah's vote for!

Thanks Duchess for stopping by and for the compliment. And thanks for your vote rebekah.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 24, 2009:

High praise indeed rebekah, and I really appreciate it. Stay tuned for my tips and strategies (which I'm afraid will have to wait until after Healthcare HubMob week).

Duchess OBlunt on September 24, 2009:

what a wonderfully informative hub. I never looked at it this way. It is definitely worthy of receiving a HubNugget Wannabe nomination! Congratulations.

rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on September 24, 2009:

wow, absolutely excellent article! I am in the field and it's a subject that is extremely important to anyone working with children. You have laid out examples and make it very easy for anyone to understand. Bravo. You're getting my vote!!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 19, 2009:

Thanks for the compliments. I feel humbled.

@Ripplemaker, I wrote the first incarnation of this in graduate school 12 years ago. My peds instructor couldn’t wait to get it to her sister, a teacher.

@Earnestshub, I worked school-based therapy, peds, NICU for 12 years for the Air Force. To the kids I was “Miss Rose Mary”, except 1 who called me “Miss Raspberry”!

earnestshub from Melbourne Australia on September 18, 2009:

I really enjoyed learning many new things here today. I see a lot of love for children in this too.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on September 18, 2009:

Hi Rm, I am bookmarking your hub as I find this to be interesting and helpful. I work with kids and would love the teachers to read this as well. Many thanks! :)

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 18, 2009:

Thanks so much BC. My writing is something I have always taken great pride in. I'm glad you decided to come back to HP.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on September 17, 2009:

Thanks Dori. I will have a companion piece in a few days on strategies and techniques.

Dori S Matte from Hillsborough on September 17, 2009:

A very well written and informative hub, thanks.