Sensory Issue or Behavior Disorder?

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Cross Country Education
July 21, 2022 02:39 AM (GMT-04:00)
Educator Resources

How School OTs Can Recognize Whether Behaviors are Due to Sensory Processing Disorders or Behavior Disorders

To best serve students with behavioral challenges, school-based occupational therapists must seek to understand the root cause of disruptive behaviors. Recognizing whether these behaviors are due to sensory issues or behavior disorders can help therapists, parents, teachers, and others best support each child.

There may be a high rate of connectivity between sensory processing issues and behavior issues (Gourley et al.). However, although there can be overlap, there are also distinct differences between sensory issues and behavior disorders.

Behaviors Associated with Sensory Processing Disorders

Behaviors commonly seen in children with sensory processing disorders include:

  • Refusing to brush teeth
  • Refusing to wear certain clothing
  • Melting down in loud, crowded, busy or bright places
  • Getting too close to others
  • Talking too loudly
  • Being rough or inappropriately physical with others
  • Not being able to sit still
  • Being a picky eater
  • Running from parents or caregivers

Behaviors Associated with Behavior Disorders

In contrast, common behaviors seen in children with behavior disorders include:

  • Being impulsive
  • Showing cruelty toward people and/or animals
  • Bullying
  • Having abnormal mood swings
  • Destroying property
  • Being deceitful
  • Stealing
  • Skipping school
  • Violating school rules
  • Blaming others for one’s mistakes

About Sensory Processing Disorders

Sensory processing disorders can impact activities of daily living (ADLs) such as playing, socializing and showing appropriate behavior. When individuals struggle to process input effectively, they may “have extreme overreactions to what others consider mild stimuli, or to completely shut down and disengage” (AOTA).

There are several different types of sensory processing issues (Miller et al.):

  • Sensory overresponsivity (SOR)
  • Sensory underresponsivity (SUR)
  • Sensory craving (SC)
  • Postural disorder
  • Dyspraxia
  • Sensory discrimination

About Behavior Disorders

Behavior disorder is “one of the most common forms of disability among children and young adults and is the most frequently cited reason for referral to mental health services. The appearance of behavioral disorders is increasing dramatically in our K–12 classrooms” (NSTA).

Behavior disorders include:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Emotional and Behavior Disorders (EBD)
  • Emotional Conflict (EC)
  • Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED)

Both sensory processing and behavior disorders can impact individuals into adulthood and throughout their lifetime. Fortunately, early intervention with therapy can help students who struggle with either or both types of challenges learn strategies to improve their academic performance and the rest of their lives.

Therapy for Sensory Processing Disorders

For more information on therapy for sensory processing disorder, visit:
How to Treat Sensory Processing Disorder (

Therapy for Behavior Disorders

For information on therapy for behavior disorders, visit:
Evidence Base Update for Psychosocial Treatments for Disruptive Behaviors in Children

To learn where your specialized occupational therapy skills are needed most across our nation, check out our school OT jobs today!

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