How Sensory Processing Issues May Affect Kids in School

Many children are picky about their clothes, food, and hobbies. But those who are sensitive to sounds, textures, and more may have a sensory processing disorder.

Kids with sensory processing issues may struggle with an itchy shirt tag or noisy crowds. They may also have trouble with bright lights, or food texture. This can affect their sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

A child who has extreme reactions to certain sensations may have a sensory processing issue that needs professional help.

This can limit their ability to learn or socialize.

Here, we’ll explore sensory processing disorders and how they affect kids in school.

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What Are Sensory Processing Disorders?

Sensory processing disorders may affect as many as 16% of U.S. school-aged children.

“We are starting to understand that it is more common than we originally thought,” says Dr. Justin Schreiber, DO, MPH, a pediatrician. Dr. Schreiber is also medical director of the Whole Child Wellness Clinic at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“Sensory processing was very much thought to be connected to things like autism spectrum disorders or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but we’re seeing that this can really live on its own. Sensory processing disorders can be something kids struggle with outside of other health diagnoses.”

These issues may lead to long-term learning challenges. These can include anxiety, trouble focusing in school, and social withdrawal.

“Kids may have difficulty distinguishing different senses, so they might be overwhelmed by senses related to touch, sound, or temperature,” says Dr. Schreiber.

“Normally, your body might adjust and you’re able to tune out different sounds and focus on something else,” he adds. “A lot of kids with sensory processing problems often have difficulty removing that noise — be it physical, sound, or other senses that continue to overwhelm the body without being able to shut it off.”

Signs of sensory processing disorders

Children with sensory processing issues may find the following bothersome or distracting:

  • Clothing fabrics, tags, or labels.
  • Food textures.
  • Light or unexpected touch.
  • Sounds, such as in larger groups of people or a consistent humming.
  • Visual patterns or lighting, such as stadium or classroom lights.

This can lead to poor grooming habits and trouble focusing in school. It can also lead to avoiding group activities.

“Some of the most common signs are kids who, for example, can only wear shorts or can’t wear jeans or anything with tags,” says Dr. Schreiber. “We all may get annoyed by certain clothes, but we’re usually able to tune it out.”

“A lot of these kids have trouble tuning that out,” he adds. “They continue to feel really warm wearing that sweater, even though it’s colder outside, or they can’t focus their attention on what’s happening in the classroom because of all the other sounds around them. They’re getting overwhelmed with each of those sounds.”

How Sensory Processing Issues Affect Kids in School

The clothes a child wears, the food they eat, or the environment they learn in can bother or distract them. This can lead to challenges with:

  • Eating school lunches.
  • Learning, due to lack of focus in the classroom.
  • Social isolation, withdrawal, avoidance, and limitations.
  • Wearing uniforms for school or other activities.

Parents whose child struggles with these should talk to their primary care doctor. They can make sure these issues aren’t because of a past injury or other causes.

Therapy can help

A professional may find these issues are because of sensory processing issues. Both occupational and behavioral therapy can help, says Dr. Schreiber.

They can help children feel better about certain sensations over time. This can ease distracting or overwhelming feelings about them. It may also involve trying different clothes or new foods.

“They can also help come up with support tools to use within the classroom,” says Dr. Schreiber. “Behavioral therapists can help develop strategies, such as using other senses to ground ourselves and not get so stuck on the pants we’re wearing or the food we’re eating in the moment.”

They can do many valuable things for children struggling with sensory processing issues. These include working with teachers and school administrators to better understand children’s needs.

“Schools are often more understanding about accommodating sensory processing issues, so it’s definitely something you can work on when developing the child’s plan,” says Dr. Schreiber.

The UPMC Children’s Behavioral Health Division offers treatment for children and teens. These include those with sensory processing issues. Visit for more information.

Passarello, Noemi, et al. Sensory Processing Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Taking Stock of Assessment and Novel Therapeutic Tools. Brain Sciences, vol. 12, no. 11, 1 Nov. 2022, p. 1478. LINK

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.