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  • Writer's pictureJessica Kaminski

Is it Misbehavior or a Sensory Response?

I have to admit, as a teacher, I have my fair share of stories of some strange behaviors. Many of them I would attribute to weird quirks or flat out misbehavior. Labels such as ADHD, ADD and now Autistic Spectrum would fly around quickly for some of these behaviors. But as a mom, I've looked at these behaviors a little bit differently. Think about these behaviors:

The kid who has his jacket on when it's 80 degrees outside. It's completely zipped up with the hood on tied tightly.

The student who appears to have no impulse control. She just grabs things or touches things, including people, making it a challenge to keep her from bothering other people.

The student who appears to be super clumsy. He falls all the time, spills everything, and can't be trusted with paint or anything valuable.

The child who panics every time there is a fire drill, bad weather drill, intruder drill, etc. because the sirens are extremely loud and this will set the tone for the day.

Or even the student who sits on the carpet and chews his toenails. Yes, his toenails. (This image is forever burned into my brain.)

What if these behaviors were actually the child's way of responding to stimulus instead? How would this change the way I respond as a teacher or as a parent?


Did you know that you actually have more senses instead of just the 5 we typically think of- sight, smell, touch, hearing, and tasting? There are 2 more that are internal: vestibular and proprioception. These are body-centered senses that exist without our participation. Within these senses, you can have an avoidance tendency or a seeker tendency as well. These tendencies can even be mixed. You may be an avoider in one area and a seeker in another. Check out this chart below for some examples.

The interesting thing about these senses is that we all have them, and we all have a response to them. As soon as I mention sensory struggles, many people automatically assume I'm talking about a child on the autism spectrum. However, a person can have sensory challenges and not be on the spectrum. In fact, if you look over the chart above, you probably found some behaviors that you have.

It's the difference between the thrill seeker who loves to ride roller coasters versus the person who hates them. It's the preference to find solace in quiet versus being surrounded by noise and people. Every single person has sensory preferences (seeking or avoiding), but as adults, most of us can manage them well. We know how to express when we have had enough and can change our settings to help our brain process what's going on.

Most children don't have that ability, because they can't conceptualize what they are feeling, much less communicate. Most kids don't walk up to the adult in the room and say, "I'm sorry, but I need to find a quiet spot in the room. I'm overwhelmed by the smell in here and can't think of anything else."

Instead we see children who shut down completely (refuse to participate, talk, move) or who act out (throw, scream). If you work with younger grades like PreK, Kindergarten or 1st grade, you probably see this more often, because the prefrontal cortex of these students are still developing. This is the part of the brain that helps you make decisions and reason through what's happening around you. If your senses are sending you signals, but you lack the ability to reason through them and react, you might react in the only way you know how- fight or flight, the body's natural response to stress.

Furthermore, some children do have a severe sensory issue which is now called sensory processing disorder.


I struggled with writing this blog post, because in doing so, I have to admit that I once looked at many of these behaviors and made quick judgments. I thought there was a lack of discipline at home. I thought this child is just a bit strange. I may have even pushed to test a child for a diagnosis that may not have been necessary, because I thought surely there must be something WRONG with this child.

But one of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou- "When you know better, you do better." I have now been confronted with sensory struggles in my own life and have learned so much about them. I now walk into classrooms and almost have a sensory radar. I see a child who appears to lack engagement in the lesson, but who is actually trying to cope with a sensory overload. I see a child bouncing off the wall who needs sensory input and will be able to sit quietly.

My hope in sharing this blog with you is that it does the same for you. Whether you are an educator or just someone who interacts with people, this can change your perspective on how you see people. Here is a great resource:

Another great side note is that we are seeing changes in the way kids develop. There's a ton of new research coming out about how some of these behaviors are due to the retaining of primitive reflexes. Primitive reflexes, as I understand it, are reflexes that babies typically have to survive. As our bodies develop, they are replaced with more complex reflexes. However, some children may fail to develop the more complex ones and still function with the primitive reflexes causing some different behavior.

The good news is that we can work on some of these skills and may see a change in the behavior. I have seen this first hand that working on helping kids develop these reflexes changes the way they respond to stimuli. Imagine how this knowledge could help our children who are struggling to navigate the world around them! Check out the links below for more information:

As I said, this was an eye opener for me. I now look at behavior differently and ask myself whether this is really a behavior issue or a sensory issue. It invites me to investigate further and problem solve, which is what good educators do. I hope you find this helpful in your practice too!

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