Sensory Processing: Is it Sensory or Behaviour?

Helpful information in understanding sensory processing and using the sensory system to solve common behaviour/ attention problems in the classroom.

What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing is the ability to organize and interpret information received through the senses in everyday activities. The sensory information can include touch, sight, sound, taste, smell, sensation of movement in space (vestibular), and awareness of the position of one’s limbs in space (proprioception).

Difficulties in sensory processing may lead to maladaptive behaviours frequently seen in class. Children can be:

  • Sensory defensive - children who experience sensory stimulation such as light touch, loud noises, bright lights, and rough textures as distressing.
  • Sensory seeking – children who crave and seek sensory stimulation.
  • Sensory underresponsive – children who require high-intensity sensory input before they are able to respond.
What you may see Strategies
Sensory defensive behaviours

  • Responds negatively or emotionally to light touch sensations.
  • Avoids messy play such as sand, fingerpaint, paste, glue, mud and clay.
  • Avoids touching certain textures.
  • May appear irritable or fearful when others are close by.
  • Fearful of climbing or descending stairs.
  • Withdraws from classroom participation and avoid group movement activities.
  • Be distressed by loud noises, sudden noises, and high-pitched sounds.
  • Avoids bright lights and sunlight
  • Avoids eye contact.
  • Overrespond to physically painful experiences.
  • Exhibits behavior that seems stubborn, rigid, inflexible willful, verbally or physically pushy.
  • Watch for cues – overly stimulating environment
  • Provide of “quiet” spaces – help the child regroup and organize.
  • Allow tactile defensive children to stand on the end of the line or arrange classroom seating
  • Seat child away from open windows and doors.
  • Use tools such as hammers or paintbrushes in activities that involve the use of glue, finger paints or paper maché.
  • Let the child’s peers know how close is too close
Sensory seeking behaviours

  • Uncoordinated, distractible, impulsive, or a safety risk
  • Needs to touch and feel everything in sight.
  • Frequently removing socks and shoes.
  • Gets very close to others and touching them even if his touches are unwelcome.
  • Enjoys movement that provides strong sensory feedback.
  • Needs to keep moving as much as possible.
  • Constantly chewing on objects.
  • Appear to be aggressive.
  • Seek bright lights and direct sunlight.
  • Seek visual stimulation.
  • Communication based problems: Does not know when to stop talking or when to take turns in conversation



  • Let child be a teacher’s assistant (e.g hand out items)
  • Allow child to stand at the desk or work on the floor on his/her stomach
  • Wrap bungee cord or any elastic band around chair legs to provide sensory input
  • Allow child to sit on gym ball or move-and-sit cushion placed on the chair
  • Encourage active recess:
    • Swinging on play equipment
    • Rope climbing, pulling
      Pushing wagons or trolleys o Carrying weighed objects
    • Wheelbarrow walking
  • Allow for movement breaks.
  • Sensory box: fill a container with objects that provide different kind of sensory stimulation
    • Pebbles
    • Fabrics, cushions, bean bags o Soft or squishy toys
    • Prickle balls
    • Rubber bands, beads
Sensory underresponsive behaviours

  • Unaware of messiness on his face.
  • Shows little or no response to pain from scrapes, bruises, or cuts.
  • Fails to realise he has dropped something.
  • Hurts other children during play.
  • Seems to lack inner drive to move actively.
  • Appear clumsy, uncoordinated or do a lot of crashing and banging into or on objects.
  • Provide interactive input and exaggerated gestures.
  • Incorporate proprioceptive exercises:
  • Wall Pushing
  • Hand Rub
  • Finger Pulls
  • Clapping
  • Back-to-back Pull
  • Elbow Push-ups
  • Songs with gestures, high rhythmic movements (such as clapping and stomping)
  • Use visual prompts that are colorful and of high interest
  • Stretching activities
  • Incorporate tactile component to tasks (introduce resistance) to increase sensory feedback while writing.
    • Writing on vertical surface or incline
    • Sandpaper under writing surface

Useful Websites:

  • For further understanding of sensory processing and difficulties in sensory processing:
  • More about sensory processing with classroom strategies for teachers:
  • Examples of sensory diets: