A Functional View of Sensory Processing

Categories: Sensory

As a school-based OT, I am frequently asked to consult with school staff about sensory processing.  As we start the school year, I want to highlight my biggest advice for you when thinking about sensory processing and how it impacts your students. 

We All Have Sensory Preferences

It is important to keep in mind that sensory processing is something everyone does, not just our students.  We all have sensory preferences and that is ok! Think about yourself and what you like or dislike.  For me, noise can be very overwhelming so I choose to drive home from work in silence as a way to decompress.  I also find that chewing minty gum helps me stay alert and focused during important tasks.   As I have become more aware of my sensory preferences, I have adjusted my behavior and routines to meet those needs.  You probably have too!  

Now, let’s think about our students.  Our students have sensory preferences as well and also may have adjusted behavior and routines to meet those needs (and some may still be working on this skill).   However, there may be certain sensory behaviors that are concerning to the team.  Maybe a child is seeking sensory input in an unsafe way, or is so overwhelmed by certain sensory input that he becomes upset and dysregulated very quickly.  When sensory processing impacts a person’s ability to successfully participate in activities that they want or need to do, this may be cause for concern and more specific, individualized support.  The key difference between sensory preferences and more significant sensory processing difficulties is the overall the impact on the person’s daily life.  

Keep It Functional

When you observe a student engaging in a behavior that may be related to sensory processing, take a step back.  Does it impact participation or safety?  If so, there may need to be more discussion with the team and a specific, individualized plan for support.  If not, let it be!  I encourage you to focus on helping students understand their own unique sensory profiles and how to advocate to ensure those needs are met.  This is a super important life skill.  Not every sensory based behavior needs to be changed or addressed.   

Finally, remember that someone else’s sensory preferences don’t have to make sense to you.  Maybe a child enjoys flapping his hands, or standing while working, or watching items spin out of the corner of his eye.  Before you sound the alarm, remember that those behaviors meet a need for that child, just like chewing gum or exercising may meet a need for you. As you start the school year and get to know your students, I encourage you to keep the big picture in mind when thinking about sensory.  As always, be sure to collaborate with your OT who can be a wealth of knowledge and support in this area!  



  1. Thank you for this. Understand what is the reason for the behaviors before you try to correct it

    • Happy to hear this was helpful! Thanks for reading 🙂


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