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?


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