Is it sensory processing or is this a behavior? It is our job as occupational therapists to help determine where a child’s reactions are stemming from. Temper tantrums in children are a typical part of development. Children do not yet have the developmental and mental capacities to express frustration, anger, and sadness like adults. There are so many things going on throughout childhood development that it can get overwhelming and stressful. That stress and frustration often results in a temper tantrum. Sensory meltdowns may look identical to a temper tantrum but the root of that meltdown is completely different. Meltdowns result from sensory overstimulation from one or multiple sensory systems (taste, smell, touch, hearing, vision, vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoceptive). The child is overloaded with sensory stimulation and is unable to regulate or modulate, resulting in a reaction.

So is it sensory or behavior? Our occupational therapists at MPPT are educated on the sensory systems and how to identify and address sensory differences in children across the lifespan. Often, there is not a distinct line between sensory and behavior because they look very similar. Both sensory and behavioral systems can be working simultaneously. Our occupational therapists will work with your child’s individual differences to best recommend sensory strategies and/or behavioral strategies as needed to increase your child’s functional performance in daily living activities.

Here are some differences between sensory and behavior to help determine your child’s reactions.



  • Temper tantrums often end once the child’s needs or wants are immediately met.
  • The child will often seek others during a tantrum including looking and waiting for a reaction from the caregiver when needs/wants are not immediately met.


  • Sensory meltdowns do not result in an immediate behavior change. The reaction will slowly dissipate as the child begins to calm down or when the triggering stimulus has been removed. The child will slowly return to an optimal state of arousal. This may require the use of sensory strategies.
  • Sensory meltdowns do not rely on the reaction of a caregiver, whether that be negative reinforcement, achieving their desire, or receiving attention.