Meeting Learning Challenges: Working with the Child Who Is Sensory Reactive

Helping the child who over or underreacts to the feelings, sights, and sounds of the environment

  • Grades: PreK–K


Building Healthy Minds: Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., et al. (Perseus, 2000; $18.95)


  • For a sensitive child, take the turtle's approach to life, helping him go into the water one toe at a time.
  • For the underreactive child, introduce a calm, soothing approach to life, with a lot of regulation.
  • For the child who is underreactive, but pulling away into his own world, very gradually bring him out into the world of human interaction that involves sensation.

Each child needs a slightly different approach, requiring us to recognize where he is at the start. Far too often I see children in the preschool years who have been misdiagnosed as having severe problems, when the individual differences in their sensory systems have just gone unrecognized.


I have a 4-year-old in my pre-k class who does well socially, but he avoids things like digging in sand or working at the water table. He's also very uncomfortable with swinging on swings and other kinds of outdoor play. I'm not sure how to address his squeamishness about these activities.

Many children show differences in the way they react to different sensations. There is great variation in the way children react to touch, for example. Some children enjoy all kinds of touch-playing in sand, squishing up mud, getting their hands into clay and paint-while other children find these experiences unpleasant.

Such reactivity often reaches its height in the preschool years. This is a time when children are expected to get involved with all kinds of activities involving touch, such as fingerpainting, sculpting with clay, and making sandcastles. Also, in preschool settings, children are often interacting in larger groups than ever before. There's a much greater likelihood of someone bumping into or rubbing up against them in line or in a circle. If a child happens to be very sensitive to touch, this can lead to tantrums, irritability, withdrawal, or even aggression toward others. A child who doesn't enjoy these activities will often appear to the teacher or parent to have a major problem. However, the challenge may be quite a small one, which can be easily worked around.

We need to appreciate the way each child's sensory system is working. At the beginning of the year, consider how each child in your classroom reacts to each of the senses' pathways. In each sensory pathway, from touch to sound to movement, any child can be highly sensitive. Some children find highfrequency sounds, like opera singing, very aversive. Others find low-frequency sounds, like the vacuum or the boiler, very difficult to tolerate.

The level of light can also bother some children. Some find bright light, even sunlight, very harsh and do better with subdued lighting. And sudden movement in space, such as swinging, can be overwhelming for some children. While some crave the experience of swinging, others can be very upset by this kind of movement.

Smell, as well as responses to the textures of foods, should be examined. Some children get upset from the smell of perfumes or flowers, while others love them. Some children are finicky eaters because they are very sensitive to the smell or the texture of food.

It's also important to understand that some children have the opposite tendency. Instead of being overreactive to such sensations, they are underreactive. The sensation will hardly register, so they'll seek it out. A child who's underreactive to touch may want to bang into everything. The child who's underreactive to sound may seek out or create loud noises. A child may run around all the time to create movement.

Understanding that all the sensory pathways can be either relatively sensitive or insensitive can help us know how to approach each child. It will create an environment that will be helpful and adaptive. If we recognize these differences, we can work with children in the following ways:

  • For the child who is oversensitive to touch, we can introduce firm pressure, gradually combining it with light touch. Similarly, with sound, we can help to protect a child from very high- or low-pitched sound and gradually expose him to a greater range, over a long period of time, with a lot of comfort and careful regulation. The same goes for movement and smell.
  • For a child who is underreactive and craving more sensation, we can provide what I call modulation and regulation games. We can teach such a child to interact with his world, gradually-moving from super fast to fast, from making loud sounds to softer sounds to very soft sounds. This allows the child to feel he controls the level, and gets what he wants, while he is adapting.

  • Part of Collection:
  • Subjects:
    Child Development and Behavior, Five Senses, Special Needs

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