Sunny Days Blog

How Our Senses Affect Behavior


Your child is acting out, and you aren’t sure how to respond. Many questions arise for parents and caregivers when struggling with a child’s behavior. Do behavior issues stem from sensory needs? What can I do about unwanted actions? 

While a child who is acting out may need to work with a behavior therapist, there is not a clear line between sensory perception and behavior response. Rather, sensory perception and behavior response are two continuously connected elements in the neurological process. We use them in daily life, which allows us to function in our environments.


How Our Senses Work

The senses—smell, vision, taste, hearing, touch, vestibular (balance), and proprioceptive (muscles, bones, and tendons controlling posture)—scan our environment and continuously tell us what is happening to and around us.

The brain processes information from our senses. Based on memories of prior experiences, we determine if we feel calm, tired, alert, anxious, scared, happy, sleepy, distressed, content, angry, furious, loving, disoriented, or relaxed, to name a few developed perceptions.

Then, depending on the feeling our senses trigger, we cognitively produce the behavior matching that perception. Behavior is the response showing that we are enthusiastic, supportive, upset, sad, or disengaged.

Because every person has a different set of memories, the behaviors of two people can be very different when faced with the identical sensorial perception or experience. This ability to interpret and respond to the environment in a specific way is what makes every person unique.

Typically, the behaviors that follow sensory experience are appropriate to the situation because behavior is contextual, meaning it is analyzed according to the place where—and reason why—it occurs. 

But sometimes, behavioral responses fall outside of contextual expectations. When this happens, parents, family members, and educators become worried and start asking questions to help children function better within daily family activities.

Why Do Behaviors Occur? 

Regardless of whether an action is wanted or undesired, all behaviors occur because they meet the person’s current need.

From birth, babies learn that certain behaviors will get a response from their parents or caregivers. When a baby cries, a responsive parent/caregiver will pick the child up, hold close and console, check and change a diaper if needed, and/or feed the infant. All of these actions are manifestations of attention, and it is this early in life that children learn that their needs are met with actions. 

As the child’s cognition and communication advance, social and emotional behaviors become more predictable. But for children whose attention span is very short, or who cannot understand what is happening, or for those with poor communication skills, behavior becomes a form of communication. Because the child lacks the ability to control impulses, some behaviors can become aggressive.


How Do We Fix Problem Behaviors? 

The best way to stop problem behaviors is to prevent them from happening. As we discussed above, every behavior has a cause. Start by learning about the four functions of behavior.

Additionally, behavioral specialists and therapists can identify the reasons behaviors occur and then design a process the family and caregivers can use to modify the events which drive undesired behaviors. Make an appointment with a behavior specialist if you need help identifying the root cause of problem behaviors.

Children and their families must learn the coping skills needed to remain focused and calm amid frustration. In understanding this, the entire family learns to change behaviors, which will alter the environment and teach the child how to successfully navigate life, creating a positive sensory/behavior connection that will lead to a calmer life.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if your child has difficulty with communication or behavior. We are here to help you.


Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash


Carola d'Emery, PT, PhD

Carola, a native of Chile, is responsible for the supervision of all trainings created by the Sunny Days’ Clinical Education Team, as well as for the creation of new trainings focused on refining the clinical skills of the Sunny Days’ practitioners in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and California. She also trains Early Interventionists via live webinars that are announced on our site. A bilingual English/Spanish Physical Therapist with more than 30 years of experience in the clinical field, Ms. d’Emery is also a former member of the New Jersey State Interagency Coordinating Council. Dr. d’Emery joined Sunny Days in 2007 as Targeted Clinical Educator, and became the Director of Training and Clinical Quality Assurance in 2019. She has a PhD in Movement Sciences from Columbia University and a MPT in Kinesiology from the School of Medicine of the University of Chile. She is a member of the International Society of Early Intervention and of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Physical Therapist Association.