As part of our ongoing Common Questions & Concerns series, we address behavior and discipline issues that many children from hard places often encounter at school:

Question:  My child is struggling in the classroom and is being sent to the principal’s office on a regular basis. He refuses to do some of the art class activities, has melt-downs in music class and withdraws during some class activities. To make things worse, standing in the school lunch line today he punched a child in the stomach and was sent to the prinicipal’s office to sit for the rest of the afternoon (nearly 3 hours!). What can I do?

Response:  Even though the school is handling this situation as a behavior issue, what you are describing sounds a lot like sensory processing issues, formally called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). While it must be formally diagnosed by a trained and experienced occupational therapist, many clues about the disorder are accessible online at websites such as the ones listed below.

Obviously, the school classroom is a high-risk environment for many of our children. Because so many of our children have sensory processing issues, the noise, clutter and chaos of the classroom provide an overwhelming sensory assault. If your child has consistent problems with sensory experiences such as Play-Doh, finger paints and noisy environment (such as music class), responding to these experiences with fight (aggression), flight (withdrawing) or freeze (“checking out”) behaviors, you may want to explore the possibility that your child has some level of sensory processing disorder. It is common in a significant percentage of children generally, and is even more prevalent among children who experienced a difficult pregnancy, difficult birth or any type of post-natal trauma.

There are many quality resources that offer initial guidance to help you decide whether or not to seek further professional assistance from an experienced occupational therapist. We often recommend a book by Carol Kranowitz, The Out of Sync Child. You can find more resources from Carol Kranowitz at her website:  Also, for episodes such as the ones you mentioned with your son misbehaving in the school lunch line there are sensory stories in the form of coloring book pages to help children identify and deal with challenges they face in the school environment (for example, being bumped repeatedly in the school lunch line).

Here are some other great online resources to help parents understand and respond to sensory processing issues.

Symptoms of SPD

How does SPD affect learning?

Taking care of yourself when your child has special needs

Sensory Stories (click on the “Demo” link at top for a free download)

The first link, Symptoms of SPD, provides a helpful checklist for children of various ages that will give parents some initial screening information. The second link, from Carol Kranowitz’s website, contains an article about how SPD affects a child’s learning in the classroom. The third link is an article by Carol Kranowitz focusing on how parents can do “self-care” in the midst of their child’s challenging behaviors. The final link is to the Sensory Stories website. As noted above, the story of a child in the lunch line is available for free download. Others have a small cost.

We hope these resources are helpful to you as in your journey to advocate for and better connect with your child!