Is it Sensory or Behavior? Why That's the Wrong Question, and What to Ask Instead

You’re standing amid stacks of folded laundry, when your little one toddles up, looks you right in the eye, and pushes a stack of freshly laundered shirts to the floor.

Your five-year old is currently rolling himself across the floor.  He says you’re not his friend, because you told him to go brush his teeth.

Your seven-year old loves karate class, but he leaves the mat with crossed arms whenever something doesn’t go his way.  He’s missing out on practice, while the others stay engaged.

Are these sensory issues or behavior issues?  If you said behavior, you’re right!  If you said sensory, you’re… also right.

If you said the question is a distraction from what really matters in each of these situations, you are oh, so right. 

Every animal has senses that detect what’s happening in the environment, so a behavioral response can be selected.  Human behavior is also affected by ideas and rules we’ve learned from each other, but that does not make us exempt from the laws of nature.  We will do the best thing we know how to do in that moment, every time.

For any person to choose a new behavior, certain conditions have to be met:

  • We must feel safe and receptive to new information.  If there is stress or anxiety, only compulsive or fight-or-flight behaviors are likely to be selected.

  • We must recognize what parts of the situation need a response.  Whether it’s a feeling, a facial expression, your words, or some specific part of a daily routine, if there are pieces of information not registered, it will affect our response.

  • We must practice the new behavior with support, so that we can quickly recognize what we’ve done right and do more of what works.

Neglecting either the sensory or the behavioral components of this process leads to frustration.  Professionals in child development address both aspects so naturally and intuitively that we can’t even articulate all of the things we do to help a child learn.  We turn to one one school of thought or another, when what makes us effective is our awareness of both.

So, rather than follow the old “Sensory or Behavior?” argument, let’s ask these two questions instead:

What is this child ready to do in this moment?

What need is served by the behavior we’re concerned about?

The questions are simple, because why complicate them?  To find the answers, you need to be fully connected to what’s happening in the moment, not up in your head thinking about theory and strategy.  Asking these questions while staying connected in the moment will take practice.  I’ll briefly explain each, to help you begin.

What is the child ready to do in this moment?

Look at his posture, breathing, and activity level.  If he is over-excited, over-tired, detached, or anxious, he may be ready to check in on these feelings, calm down and reconnect.  He is not ready to do higher-level things like listening, making choices, or anything that is not already habit.  Even habits can fall apart if he is below his peak functioning.  For example, the over-tired child might brush his teeth after you carry him to the bathroom, but will fall apart if asked to walk there.

If the child is calm and receptive, consider how this situation matches up to his previous experience.  Is he throwing his dirty clothes on the floor?  What does he usually do when he takes off dirty clothes?  What does he need to see (the laundry hamper), hear (a reminder), or feel (more relaxed, less rushed) to select the behavior you want?

If he isn't ready to do what you expect, what is your child ready to do right now, in this moment?

What need is served by the behavior we’re concerned about?

I know you’re already baffled by this behavior, so I’ll narrow it down.  All behavior serves a basic human need, which means it always either increases comfort / pleasure or it alleviates discomfort / pain.  Comfort-driven behavior might be a sensory seeking or compulsive habit, clinging to a familiar object, person, or routine, or getting attention from others.  Discomfort-driven behavior includes controlling (doing things only on his terms), escaping a demand, and demanding attention (because attention = help changing the situation.)

If you're confused about the function of a behavior, tune into the whole scene the next time it happens.  What changes when the behavior happens?  What starts, and what stops?  

When you can see what your child gains and what he escapes with this behavior, you have a chance to change it.  You cannot change the basic need, but you can teach a new way to serve that basic need.

You will never separate sensory input from behavioral response.  I hope I've shown you a path toward seeing both aspects of the amazing little creature that is your child.  Now it's your turn, but I hope our conversion doesn't end here.  If you find this helpful, subscribe to this blog or follow me on Facebook - I'd like to know how your practice is going!


Laura Hackle, OTR/L