When Sensory Over-Reactivity Underlies Behavioral Challenges
*Updated June 2021
Grant, age four, was asked to leave two preschools because of misbehavior. With tousled brown hair, big brown eyes, and a playful spirit, he both charmed and confused most of the adults in his life. He had such difficulty following directions that his teachers had to reprimand him every few minutes. They described him as totally confusing, “adorable and sweet one minute, then breaking the rules the next.” Most challenging was that he typically laughed when he was disciplined. His behavior baffled everyone.
When a multidisciplinary team looked below the surface of Grant’s apparent defiance, they learned that what caused his inappropriate laughter was likely embarrassment and confusion. A sensitive child who was prone to self-doubt, he laughed when he felt anxious. It was an automatic response to his failed attempts at good behavior.
Grant didn’t know or understand that certain things in the environment sent him into a stress response. His sensory over-reactivity (extreme sensitivity to certain sounds and types of touch) caused stress responses, propelling him to break rules without intentional malice, giving the impression of misbehaving. Not grasping why he continued to get in trouble, Grant responded by laughing. This often left the adults in his life not only puzzled but also annoyed, making it difficult for them to engage warmly and connect with him.
When we look only above the surface, we tend to blame the child, the parent, or the caregiver. Looking below the surface of behaviors opens new pathways to help the child, and engage in supportive interactions. When we properly understand children’s behaviors, we can better support their emotional development by attuning to what they need in the body and mind.
The way we make sense of children’s behaviors informs everything, from our interactions with them to the discipline strategies we employ.When we look at deeper explanations about a child’s challenging behaviors, we can properly support healthy emotional development at the same time.
When we look at behaviors at the surface level, we may be tempted to think that children are purposely misbehaving, attention-seeking, oppositional, defiant, testing limits, lazy, or avoidant.
When we look below the surface of behaviors, we can think of them as adaptations to a child’s perception of the world and relationships.
We can then expand our notion of chronically challenging behaviors as a child’s emotional response (e.g. shame or embarrassment), stress response (fight, flight, or freeze), and/or adaptations to sensorimotor processing, physical pain or discomfort. That’s how we helped Grant. When his teachers understood that it was his body’s challenges in sensory integration causing what appeared to be misbehavior, they became more patient, and compassionate with him.
Looking below the surface opens new pathways for seeing the child’s behaviors as adaptations to internal needs, resulting in more compassion and less blame. When we properly understand children’s behaviors, we can better support their emotional development by attuning to what they need in the body and mind.
I share more about how to better understand children’s behavioral challenges in the book Beyond Behaviors, and in a new course detailing the Beyond Behaviors approach.