One of the most frequent questions we get from parents when they come to us for pediatric therapy in California is, “How can we tell if our child’s tantrums are sensory-based responses or behavioral reactions?” It’s not always easy to determine if a child’s behavior is due to a sensory processing disorder or a behavioral issue.

At Developmental Pathways for Kids, our pediatric therapists specialize in the evaluation of your child’s ability to register sensory information, self-regulate when things change in the environment, and demonstrate skills (e.g. social-emotional, communication, motor skills, and cognition).

Below are some of the key differences between attributes related to behavior and sensory needs.


A behavioral reaction is based on the child not getting something they want. It can look like this:

  • The child is seeking attention or a specific reaction.
  • The child asked for or demanded something prior to their reaction.
  • The child is still aware of their surroundings and others.
  • The behavior may end abruptly, particularly if the child gets the outcome they desired.
  • The behavior is a choice, purposeful, and meant to influence the situation or person.

The four functions of behavior include sensory regulation, escape/avoidance of a non-preferred task, seeking positive or negative attention, and receiving a tangible item. When negative behavior occurs, it often is to achieve one of these four functions. It is important to isolate and determine the cause of the behavior; therefore, an appropriate response can extinguish a negative behavior and outcome.

Often times, a behavior can have multiple functions. A behavior may begin as a regulation purpose, which removes a demand, which eventually leads to a learned avoidance. For example, a child who begins fidgeting in class is allowed to leave and take a walk; this leads to a learned avoidance of completing work. A child who begins to complain when given chores is given 1-1 attention from an angry parent, is eventually stopped being asked to complete that chore; eventually, this leads to a learned way to receive attention and escape household demands.


A sensory response or meltdown is a biological reaction to feeling overwhelmed by a situation, environment, or sensory input. It can look like this:

  • The child is not concerned about your reaction to the behavior.
  • The child is usually not asking for or demanding anything before the reaction.
  • The child is not in control and does not appear to be aware of their surroundings or others.
  • Meltdowns can last longer and the child can need more time to fully recover afterward.
  • A meltdown is not a choice, it is considered a biological response (fight, flight, or freeze).

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) refers to the ability to receive, process, and react to incoming sensory information within our surrounding environment; this can include movement, information from our muscles/joints, and our sense of touch, smell, vision, and taste.

SPD occurs when our bodies and our brain cannot organize and make sense of this information, therefore producing an inappropriate response. When sensory stimulation is hitting our body, we always want to be in a “green zone” for allowing us to attend and focus on a task at hand; in other words, if our bodies are not regulated, how can our mind be regulated?

Some people do not have automatic coping skills for getting their body in that “green zone” automatically. The outcome is either being under-responsive (therefore seeking more sensory input) or over responsive (therefore seeking less sensory input.) Not every person is the same; not every person’s body reacts the same to sensory stimuli from the environment.


When a behavior is linked to sensory processing, it is important to acknowledge the behavior, address the sensory regulation, and find appropriate alternatives for that child. If only the behavior is addressed, the child may continue to seek that sensory need and therefore continue to exhibit behaviors. If only the sensory deficit is addressed, the child may associate bad behaviors with feeling “good” and therefore continue and/or increase the behaviors.

It is important to understand that not all behaviors are linked to a sensory processing deficit. It is important for a specialized pediatric therapist (OT or PT) to evaluate your child, guide you through scenarios, determine the causes, and provide appropriate interventions that will address your child’s sensory needs, behavior needs, and/or both simultaneously.

At Developmental Pathways for Kids, a pediatric clinic in Redwood City, California, we believe every child is different, and every child has specific needs. Unfortunately, there is not a “one size fits all” procedure for intervention. However, given the appropriate tools and education, every child deserves to feel regulated, calm, happy, and confident.

If you are interested in finding out more about our pediatric therapy services, contact us at

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