Does Your Child Have Bad Behavior at School, or Is it Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory integration (SI) is the organization of sensory input and sensations (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste, movement, body awareness, and the pull of gravity) in order to produce appropriate responses to situations, events, emotions, and expectations throughout the day. Sensory input flows constantly into our brain from our body and from the environment at a very rapid rate. The brain takes in information from our sensory systems and forms a combined picture of this information so that the body can make sense of its surroundings and react to them appropriately. This sensory information needs to be processed, organized and co-coordinated, and acted upon if a person is to behave appropriately and learn efficiently. If these sensations can be well managed, the brain can form perceptions, then concepts, and then derive meanings which results in acquiring skills and learning. Sensory integration provides a crucial foundation for more complex learning and behavior to develop.

While the process of SI occurs automatically and without effort for most of us, for some, the process is inefficient and is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is a neurological problem, which affects behavior, learning, and  overall daily functioning.  For individuals with SPD, extensive effort and attention are required for SI to occur, without a guarantee of it being accomplished! When this happens, behavior is inappropriate, responses are insufficiently matched to the situation, and goals are not easily completed.

Children with SPD often have problems with motor skills, social skills, and other abilities needed for academic success and childhood accomplishments. For children with SPD, daily functioning does not come as easy as for their peers. They must spend vast amounts of energy and effort maintaining appropriate attention to the teacher, to directions, to their environment, to their performance, and to the task at hand. This can be exhausting and frustrating! They also must spend vast amounts of energy and effort to regulate their arousal level, coordinate their bodies, organize and sequence directions and tasks, transition between activities throughout the day, interact with peers, and process and organize auditory and visual  information in order to pay attention to the important input while filtering out the unimportant input (the door closing, the kids who are talking in the hall, movements or noises from classmates, visually stimulating classrooms). With all of this energy being spent on functions that should come naturally to a person’s nervous system and body on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that kids with SPD demonstrate inappropriate behaviors in the classroom! We as parents, educators, and caregivers must understand that the poor behaviors these children demonstrate are not intentional. Most of these behaviors are an effort by these children to regulate their nervous systems, not because they are intentionally trying to be “bad”, mean, non-compliant, or difficult. It is likely that their nervous systems and bodies are on overload. Some behaviors that children with SPD may demonstrate in the classroom include:

  • Inattentive
  • Distractible
  • Non compliant, Uncooperative
  • “Out of Control”
  • Hyperactive, constant movement
  • Low arousal, tired, disengaged
  • Over-reactive or Under-responsive
  • Squirmy and fidgety
  • Difficulty stabilizing their body when sitting (leaning on others, laying down, moving around)
  • Crashing to the ground, into others, into walls
  • Aggressive
  • Poor impulse control
  • Clumsy
  • Anxious/Nervous
  • Irritable
  • Low self esteem
  • Avoiding or Withdrawing (particularly when feeling challenged)
  • Wandering
  • Scattered/Disorganized
  • Tantrums
  • Inflexible
  • Sensitive to sounds
  • Difficulty making transitions
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Difficulty standing in line
  • Difficulty interacting with peers
  • Inappropriately loud voice

All of us depend on adequate sensory integration to carry out daily tasks in work, play and self-care. SPD greatly influences a child’s ability to function, but also can be so subtle that they easily go unrecognized. Because SPD is generally not a visible disability, the child may be treated unfairly, or the disorder may not be given consideration. It is important to understand that these children are not intentionally misbehaving, and need the adults around them to advocate and help them with strategies and accommodations to help them be successful every day. It is also important for parents not to blame themselves for their child’s poor behavior, but become more educated and aware of their child’s “hidden challenges.”

Please share with me: What did you do to help a child with SPD to function better in school?

Click To Download Our Home/School SPD Checklist Now

Marissa Edwards

Marissa Edwards, M.S., OTR/L is a licensed Occupational Therapist at North Shore Pediatric Therapy. She graduated from Rush University in Chicago with her Master of Science in Occupational Therapy, and decided to focus her career in pediatrics. Clinically, she works with children birth to adolescent, with a variety of diagnoses impacting skill development and daily function. She enjoys working with all children, especially through providing sensory integration therapy.

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37 replies
  1. Deborah says:

    Thanks Marissa! Adults need to look at arousal levels in children. Are they hyper or hypo aroused? Are they over attentive or under attentive or “just right”? Then, we need to be good detectives and find out why. Is it hypersensitivity to many things, low tone and undersensitivity to things? Is a child inattentive because the lights are buzzing or is it because his brain never stops firing? Children with attention deficits of any kind usually have sensory difficulites, and actually with many children with attention deficits, a “sensory diet” can help. Then, if it takes too much energy, we look at other avenues, like cognitive behavior or meds. A “sensory diet” is not about food necessarily. It is a diet of movement or any activities that make that child’s brain get to that “just right” that they are not at naturally that a pill may help, but so may some bouncing on a ball, some rocking, jumping, ball squeezing, etc. We must be good detectives and work closely with a team preferably of neuropsychology, OT, pediatrician/psychiatrist and social work. Thanks!

    • Marissa says:

      Deborah, you are right, we must be detectives and determine “WHY” a child is behaving the way he/she is. Often times, helping the child engage heavy work can have better impacts on behavior than punishment. Im glad you mentioned sensory diets. Using a sensory diet throught the day can help a child self regulate and maintain a “just right” arousal level, resulting in more positive relationships, more positive experiences, better attention, learning, greater success on a daily basis, and more smiles for everyone involved!

  2. David Michael says:

    One of my 10 year old son’s manifestations of SI is his impulsiveness. That, in turn, has led to obesity, which in turn has led to low self esteem on the soccer field. I decided last Sunday at his soccer game to focus my energies on setting a regular habit of jogging with him after school. We started this week. He cursed me the first day. His mood improved the second day. By the third day, he was starting to feel like a champion, and even trying to race me. This has had an effect on the rest of his day, including the next morning. He is more relaxed, and his appetite is in better control. I even look forward to spending this quality time with him. Summer is a good time to take advantage of physical activity, and I recommend trying this approach to others.

    • Marissa says:

      David, it’s wonderful that you have not only discovered how to help your son physically and emotionally, but you’re also teaching him healthy habits, AND you get to do it together and strengthen your relationship as well! It doesnt get much better than that! The great weather in the spring and summer makes it easy to get outside, exercise with your kids, help regulate their bodies, and have fun with your kids. This can have lasting impacts on their success each day and even their outlook on life. David, you and your son could sign up for a 5K race, and run it together! That would be a fun accomplishment for both of you

  3. maureen evans says:

    As a mother of 3 childeren who have various challenges, I know how vitally important it is to constantly re-access what is going on! The beauty of the article is that it cogently explains SID and provides a definitive list of behaviors all parents should be aware of!! Many of the solutions are very simple, like a jogging program, others require a more complex solution. Whatever the direction, it is necessary to recognize the behavior and get help! This is an excellent article!

    • Marissa says:

      Thank you, Maureen. Since SPD (also termed SID) is a nervous system disorder and not something that is physically observable, it can be very complicated and abstract to understand so i appreciate the feedback that this article explained SPD in an easy to understand way. As I work with parents, I find that as they learn more about sensory processing disorder, they begin to be able to distinguish between behaviors that are happening for “behavior-sake”, and behaviors that are happening because the child is disregulated, overwhelmed, under-aroused, frustrated, etc. It’s inspring when parents begin learning strategies that work to help their child function better on a daily basis.

  4. Hartley Steiner says:

    Thank you for the article!

    I would like to comment on the jogging thing first — my son always does better with physical activity, and the reason is because it engages his vestibular and proprioceptive senses giving him more input and allowing him to feel more calm. He eats, not because SPD causes him impluse issues, but because the act of chewing gives him the input required to maintain calm and organization in his body. When he is calm and organized, he is in a better mood! Jogging — or exercise of any sort — is great for our kids. I would highly recommend other forms like swimming or Tae Kwan Do for you as well.

    To answer the question about school, the answer is almost the same as above: Make sure he has a sensory diet in place that includes regular vesitbular and proprioceptive activities. These are really simple things, like movement (class messenger, passing out papers, etc) and heavy work (moving tubs of books, pulling the lunch wagon, or helping restock Xerox paper on shelves). Keeping his senses engaged during the day allows him to learn, plain and simple.

    Thanks agian for bringing attention to SPD in the classroom!
    Hartley Steiner

    • Marissa says:

      Hartley, you suggestions are great. You obviously have good experience with solutions for helping kids process sensory input better! Some other simple suggestions for self regulation at school could be putting the chairs on top of the desks (or taking them off of the desks in the morning), carrying books back to the library, holding doors open for classmates, dance/movement breaks to music for the whole class, erasing the board, sweeping the floors, animal walks, and many teachers I’ve worked with allow the child to go to the gym and jump rope for a few minutes in the middle of the day. Your kids are lucky to have parents that are so knowledgable, advocate for them in the classroom, and support them in being more successful.

      • Marissa says:

        Have you found that your teachers are welcoming of different ideas for accommodations to help you children perform better and be more successful?

  5. Leslie Wood says:

    I believe my daughter has SPD. Her involvement is in the touch/feel department. She has had this as long as I can remember. She is now 7 yrs. old. She does not like to wear socks or tennis shoes b/c they “bother” her. Will only wear crocs, flip-flops or “slip-on” shoes. She does not like the way certain textures feel on her skin, no sweaters or certain materials. No tight-fitting pants or shorts. Her underwear also “bother” her. She has this one favorite pair of underwear that she constantly wants to wear and also the same thing with a certain pair of pants. I did not even know of SPD or SID until I did some reasearch this morning on the internet. I just thought my daughter was being defiant and unruly. I cannot tell you how relieved I feel to know that it is not something that she is alone in and it is an actual problem. I feel really bad now b/c I would get so frustrated with her and yell at her and it wasn’t really her fault. I am going get the reference books as noted and I have done a lot of reading today on the internet.

    • Marissa says:

      Leslie, I can’t tell you how often I work with children who have issues VERY similar to what you describe in your daughter. Her wardrobe options are very minimal, aren’t they?! What you describe is called tactile hypersensitivity and she may have tactile defensiveness as well. Her behavior is often unruly and defiant because she feels so uncomfortable with the fabrics rubbing against her skin. Tactile sensations from clothes touching the body and other sensations from the skin are constantly entering one’s nervous system. The typical nervous system is able to naturally inhibit its perception of these sensations, which prevents the nervous system from responding to that constant input. The nervous system of the child with tactile hypersensitivity or defensiveness is not able to inhibit these perceptions, which results in the sensations making them feel uncomfortable and irritated, and can cause them to react negatively. The child may also perceive tactile sensations as threatening, and may often be in “fight or flight” mode because of this, also resulting in irrational and inappropriate responses to normal, everyday things.
      As an occupational therapist, this is something that I commonly address with families. One of the many strategies that we use is a brushing program that is done on the child’s arms, legs and back to help with desensitizing the tactile receptors.
      Leslie, Please let me know if you have more questions.

      • Leslie Wood says:

        Thank you so much for your explanation and advice. I am going to make an appointment with her pediatrician and hopefully they can refer me for some occupational therapy. I had actually brought this up to her pediatrician last year at her physical, but I guess her pediatrician was not familiar with this as she just stated it was something she would probably grow out of and she stated as long as it was not disrupting daily activities too bad, not to worry about it. I did tell her it was a daily struggle and it was disruptive, but I think she sort of minimized the situation. I was sort of at my wits end yesterday and was doing some intenet research and was stunned when I saw that other children were going through EXACTLY the same thing she has been. I actually started crying w/ relief and regret because, as I stated before, I just thought she was being difficult and I would lose my temper w/ her a lot. My only question would be- in your experience, does the occupational therapy for the tactile hypersensitivity show good results? And, is it something that gets better w/age?


        • Marissa says:

          Leslie, Im very sorry that your pediatrician did not act on this sooner to get your daughter some help. North Shore Pediatric Therapy tries to educate doctors in the Chicagoland area as much as possible on sensory processing disorder so that issues and concerns like your daughter’s tactile sensitivity do not get overlooked or minimized. Your pediatrician was right in that it’s something you want to address when it affects daily activities and daily functioning, but it seems like your pediatrician did not quite understand that your daughter actually is struggling with this on a daily basis.
          You are not alone in the conflicted feelings of relief and regret as you learn more about sensory processing. I have seen so many parents go through it, but the great thing is that you are learning more about it and that is the first step to helping your daughter’s life improve. To answer your questions, YES, occupational therapy can have VERY good result in reducing tactile hypersensitivity! I highly recommend that you get a referral from your pediatrician for OT. As for it getting better with age, it’s different for every child, but for most I would say not really. Especially if it’s something that you are dealing with frequently. It doesnt necessarily get better with age…I would say that as kids get older, they create ways of avoiding the negative sensation/feeling/experience, and/or compensating for their areas of challenge. For example, as a child gets older, they might ONLY wear a certain kind of fabric and figure out how they can make that work for every occasion, or they HAVE to cut the tags out of all of their clothes, or they just won’t wear blue jeans ever throughout their life… as they get older and smarter they find ways of getting around it, although it may be a GREAT inconvenience for them or those around them, and could have social impacts as well.
          If you do start OT, one of the most important things EVERY parent needs to know is that following through consistently with your home program that your OT should instruct you in is absolutely crucial for seeing results. 1 hour or a few hours of OT a week are very important, but following through at home will make changes to the nervous system happen faster. It takes some work from all parties involved, but the results are worth it!

          • Leslie Wood says:

            Thanks Marissa, I really appreciate all your help. I am making an appt. with my pediatrician to hopefully start OT soon.

  6. emily interlandi says:

    Hi Marissa,
    Great to meet you. I have been working in the pediatric setting for 3 years. I am currently working in the public schools. I have come across many autistic children with weak grasps and poor pencil pressure when writing. I have tried using proprioceptive input with animal walks etc.. Any suggestions that have worked for you?
    Emily Interlandi MS, OTR/L

    • Marissa says:

      Hi Emily, This is a tough one because the same strategies don’t work for all kids, and their weak grasps and poor pencil pressure most likely are really rooted in more foundational issues such as poor trunk control and stability, poor proximal stability, overall low muscle tone, and decreased body awareness. Animal walks are certainly a great place to start, not only to wake their bodies up, but also to help with overall stability and muscle tone throughout their bodies, and help with body awareness. I think anything you can do for core strengthening will help give them a stable base to suport their arm and hand movements at the table.
      Prone on elbows during writing/coloring (making sure they are not weightshifting to the side) might help increase pressure when writing because of the weight baring on their forearms.
      Try fine motor games prior to writing to warm up the intrinsic finger/hand muscles (ex. where’s thumbkin; putty/playdoh games; shooting marbles; cottingballs etc.; thumb wars).
      Try using pencil weights, finger weights, or pencil grips to help position the pencil correctly in their hands; also, wide barreled pencils and markers can really help improve the grasp of children who are having difficulties holding a pencil.
      Try having the children color with paper on top of patterened/textured plates so that they have to press firm enough for the pattern to show through.
      Spirographs require a good strong grasp on the pen in order to move the plastic piece around the design.
      Geo Boards (stretching the rubberbands across the board to hook them around nails and create designs) are good exercise for the finger muscles.
      Always be sure they are seated ergonomically at the table so they have the proper positioning to allow them optimal performance.
      Try writing in clay/playdoh/putty…whether they are pressing too firmly or too lightly with the pencil, they will get immediate feedback.
      I hope some of these suggestions are useful for you, Emily. Please let me know what strategies you try and if you find success with any of them. Also, please let me know what other strategies you have found successful.

  7. Sara Lambert says:

    Thank you for such an informative article. My daughter just turned five and was diagnosed with SPD last year. She went through some OT and is doing really well in most areas. The one area that I am very concerned about is her social interaction with others. She is extrememly controlling and bossy – to the point where some kids don’t want to play with her. She insists on always being first, winning, and basically expecting everyone to do and say exactly what she wants. If something doesn’t go her way, it results in anger or a meltdown. I am thinking about getting her back into OT since she will be entering Kindergarten. Is this social behavior something an Occupational Therapist can help her with? Or should we seek treatment elsewhere and with what kind of specialist? Thank you so much for reading this and for your valuable feedback!

  8. Marissa Edwards says:

    Hi Sara,
    Thank you for your questions. It would be helpful to know where your daughter’s behaviors stem from. Children with SPD often behave in the manners you described as a way of gaining control of a world in which their bodies feel out of control. When they have insecurities about how their body will react in a situation, or maybe that their body won’t be able to react quickly enough or effectively enough, they can compensate by trying to control any situation they can. If your daughter’s behaviors are “defense mechanism” types of responses because her senesory system is not processing information efficiently and she goes into “fight or flight” mode, or because her sensory system becomes overwhelmed and she has a hard time being flexible, OT is definitely the way to go. I would probably recommend she perticipate in an OT group so that she has the opportunity to engage with peers in a controlled environment with facilitation of the OT. If her behavioral responses with peers are strictly behaviors because she chooses to respond and behave that way, or because she does not know how to respond appropriately, bahvior therapy would be beneficial for your family. Again, I would recommend a behavior group for the same reasons-so that she has the opportunity to engage with peers in a controlled environment and has the guidance and facilitation of the behavior analyst.
    Not having met your daughter, I cannot recommend one or the other. Do you feel your daughter’s OT issues have resolved? Have you ever witnessed her behaving appropriately with peers in regards to the examples you gave?

  9. marylou says:

    Hi. I am wondering if you can help me. My daughter has a mild form of SPD although she seems to be regressing. She just started a new school (Kindergarten) and it is a completely new enviornment forher. Everything is different. It is very strict. She has been separated from OT services for nearly 6 weeks . Which I believe has caused a lot of the regression. Everyday she is getting notes home or being sent the Principal’s office for hitting or kicking and not listening when told to stop. She is crying she does mean to be a bad girl or do mean things. I know she does not. The shcool does not have an special ed program but they do provide OT and other related services through IEP. Can you provide any insights to what could make her so angry and how we can help her? She is very bright academically so the behavior is the issue. i am afraid she will be labeled a behavior problem for the wrong reasons and perhaps be asked to leave the school. She is just turning 5 in a few weeks. Thank you for your time.

  10. Sensory Processing Disorder says:

    Sensory processing disorder is a condition that may affect up to the 5% of general population. It is typically defined as the neurological disorder that means sensory input can materially affect a person, to the point where they become withdrawn, aggressive, panicked, or hostile. Simple noises, tastes, touches, or the sights can so significantly affect daily living that normal activities are not bearable or are impossible.

  11. Luvy says:


    Your site is very informative. We have a Son in fourth grade that was diagnosed with Aspergers last year. He finally has an IEP although we might need a better advocate this May when we revist it. Other then that we haven’t done much for him as far as professional help.

    He seems to have issues with team sports. For example, in soccer he would run in circles and flap his hands even though it was sell into his second season. T-Ball same thing or he’d pick grass or play in the dirt. Tennis lessons are a little better, but when there are more then three in the group he starts to make noises and get distracted. Is this a sensory issue and what one exactly and what would you recommend? His second grade Sister seems to be naturally athletic and he takes it hard when she outperforms him. Also, at school his pull out is during PE. We live in Vernon Hills, IL.


  12. Luvy says:


    Oh yea, I forgot to mention that when we was younger he had a hard time sleeping due to seeing spots, shadows and would focus on the light on the fire alarm. I’ve read this is also common.


  13. Laura says:

    Do you ever come across children with SPD who also have anxiety/panic attacks? My daughter who is 11 was diagnosed at age 6 with sensory processing disorder. We were only able to do OT for 3 short months due to limitations with our insurance. She did not qualify for help through the school district because she has no small or gross motor skill deficits. I have been homeschooling her for the past 3 years. About 2 years ago she started having intense anxiety/panic attacks, fears of dying etc. We got her into therapy then and she now sees a psychologist and a psychiatrist for medication therapy. She has been on Prozac, Zoloft, and now Celexa, none of which makes a dent in her level of anxiety. My suspicion has been that her SPD is at the bottom of this, but the psychologist and psychiatrist don’t believe OT is that helpful in the long run. It’s heartbreaking to see her spending so much time under this cloud of fear and not being able to get her any relief. Any input you might have would be helpful. Thank You!

  14. Marissa Edwards says:

    Hi Laura, I have certainly worked with older children with SPD who also have anxiety/panic attacks. In my experience, it is not uncommon for SPD and emotional issues to go hand in hand. It’s difficult to discern which came first, the sensory processing difficulties as the foundation which creates the anxieties/panic, or were the anxieties there all the time which influenced the nervous system to shut down and not process information efficiently? I am sorry to hear that your daughter is not getting any relief from the medications that you have been trying. It must be very difficult for her to get through the day. I have gotten good results with other clients by working on desensitization for their bodies in OT, and having them work with a mental health professional to focus on desensitization for their emotional levels. You may want to talk with your psychologist about what type of therapy techniques your daughter is getting. Are they doing exposure therapy and systematic desensitization? These types of therapies have documented evidence of helping children with these anxiety/panic issues. Typically, fears wont go away until there is some kind of exposure to get over it. She may have general disregulation that occupational therapy can help with, but that would be better determined by an OT evaluation.

  15. LBianco1985 says:

    Hi Marissa,

    I know you are a pediatric OT, but I was wondering if I have spd also…. I am 27 yrs old, with Mild MR, ocd, hypotonia….. etc… When I am in the car with my mom, and a car comes to close to us, I freak out thinking its going to hit us….. I was told I have visual perception problems, I was just wondering if this is some kind of sensory thing…. Thanks, Lauren

  16. Chadiazouhri says:

    This is my son he had the sensory question air done on him.sadly he was below average for 17 Diffrent areas.he is now being brushed and having a sensory diet.he is very very impulsive.does it mayby cause him to be violent.he is like a engine that doesn’t stop.he is 6 yrs old.thankyou from chadia

  17. Farhaana says:

    Hi Marissa,

    I have just found out about SPD while listening to a friend talk about her experiences with her son. A lot of the symptoms fit but a lot don’t. He is almost 10. He is homeschooled so we have not encountered situations in a classroom. He doens’t like being in loud places. He does go to weekend school and complains that it is too noisy. We always just thought he was a picky eater and didn’t like certain textures. Since he was 2 he has insisted on picking out his own clothes and has had many meltdowns over how his socks, shoes or clothes felt. He doesn’t like getting his hands messy and doesn’t like getting any water splashed on him. He has a hard time sitting still except when reading, which he loves to do. We have a hard time getting him away from books. However there are many symptoms of SPD that he does not fit? Are these all just idiosynchrices that are particular to him or can it be something more like SPD?

    Thank you for the info.

  18. H says:

    We did everything we could to help our son function better in school – squeezy ‘stress balls’ seamless socks, chewy toys, tried to work with the SENcO and teachers etc, but the attitude from school was that he was ‘attention seeking and naughty’. He was having daily meltdowns so we decided home educating was a better option. We have been doing it for a year now and he is doing great, he has a sensory area at home, can wear what he wants, and take time out when he wants. He is learning how to self regulate now, and is aware of when he needs sensory stimulation or time out. Best thing we ever did was taking him out of school, but there must be a huge gap in the system if these children are not catered for. Really sad.

  19. Lori Britton says:

    This sounds a lot like my grandson. He was diagnosed with PDD-NOS. He has most of these. Should we return to the Klingberg Center to be re-evaluated?

    • North Shore Pediatric Therapy
      North Shore Pediatric Therapy says:

      Hi Lori,

      A re-evaluation is never a bad idea. We are also able to conduct these evaluations at our Neuropsychology Diagnostic and Testing Center. Please call 877-486-4140 for an appointment or for more information.

  20. SKCube says:

    Hi Marissa. Great article. Chiropractic treatment, diet, gut fermentation treatment and brushing have transformed my daughter. She previously displayed so many of the behaviours listed above but is now transformed. The change has been life-altering.

    • Mindy says:

      Hi, I would love to hear more about our diet changes and the gut fermentation treatment. We currently do brushing and have removed gluten (and casein) from my daughter’s diet, and have seen great improvements, but I am very interested in the gut fermentation treatment, since I think this would help both my daughter and myself.


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