Is It Bad Behavior or Sensory Processing Disorder?

A behavior is an action that can be observed or measured. This can include eating, running, jumping, laughing, screaming, kicking or punching. With such a broad definition of a behavior it is hard to decide whether a behavior is adaptive or maladaptive. In order to determine this, you must decide what the function of a behavior is.

Functions of a Behavior:

Attention maintainedIs It Bad Behavior or Sensory Processing Disorder?

  • Receives positive and negative attention contingent on the behavior occurring
    • Ex: Mom on the phone/tantrum
  • This means that the child always gets attention immediately after the behavior – good OR bad attention.

Escape maintained

  • Escapes the instruction/task given contingent on the behavior occurring
    • Ex: Time to brush teeth/tantrum
  • This means that the child always gets out of a direction/task after the behavior occurs

Access to tangibles (items)

  • Receives item (toy, electronic, food, etc.) contingent on the behavior occurring
    • Ex: iPad
  • This means that the child always gets some object after the behavior occurs

Sensory maintained

  • Receives a good “feeling inside” contingent on the behavior occurring (A bit different than Sensory Processing Disorder-SPD) This means that the child is not getting much else out of the behavior other than the feeling itself.

If the behavior can be classified by one of the first three categories of behavior, then it can be modified by changing your response to the behavior.

Remember that Sensory Processing Disorder can result in behaviors that are a result of a difficulty or inability to process sensory information. These behaviors may also be unconscious and used as a form of “relief”. For children with sensory integration dysfunction, consider their behavior as defensive, rather than defiant.  They may be pushing themselves to the limit of their processing capabilities, rather than challenging authority.

If it is a “bad behavior”, create a proactive and reactive plan. A proactive plan is one that gives access to the maintaining function of the behavior through the use of an appropriate behavior. A reactive plan is one in which you do not allow the “bad behavior” to access the maintaining function. Here are examples to help identify a proactive plan and a reactive plan for the four categories of behavior.

Proactive and Reactive Plans for Encouraging Good Behavior:

Attention Maintained:

Proactive Plan Teach your child the appropriate way to get your attention, and highly reinforce each time he or she uses the appropriate behavior

Reactive Plan Do not give ANY attention (or at least as possible) after the behavior occurs.

Access to tangibles:

Proactive Plan- Teach your child the correct way gain access to items.  At first you may need to reinforce asking appropriately, but as your child is successful, fade bake reinforcing instances of appropriate requests for tangibles.

Other Ideas:

  • Give your child a 5 minute warning as to putting toys away
  • Let your child know the expectations when going to a store (no toys)
  • Use a timer to indicate a transition from preferred items

Reactive plan Do not allow the child to gain access to the item as a result of an inappropriate behavior.

Escape Maintained:

Proactive Plan create reinforcement system that the child can earn reinforcement for completing tasks.

Other tips:

  • Use first/then (first brush your teeth, then we will read a story)
  • Visual Schedule of tasks to do
  • Help with difficult tasks

Reactive Plan The child needs to follow through with the task given, regardless of the behavior occurring.

Sensory Maintained:

Proactive Plan – Allow the child to access the feeling in a more appropriate way. Reinforce the amount of time child goes without engaging in the behavior. As child is successful with not engaging in the behavior over a short amount of time, expand the amount of time slowly.

Reactive Plan The huge focus is on the proactive plan with sensory maintained behavior

Always give the least amount of attention to the behavior, make sure the child follows through on tasks given, and the behavior doesn’t inadvertently allow the child to gain access to items.

The behavior could turn into a “bad behavior.”

Other tips:  Time outs don’t typically help nor does yelling at the child.

Information for this blog was taken from the webinar: Is It Bad Behavior or Sensory Processing Disorder? Click here or below to watch the full recorded version.


Is it Bad Behavior or SPD?

NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!