Child Development from Below the Surface, by Mona Delahooke PhD

Healthy child development is often a puzzle to parents and teachers alike. Like many young children, Johnny displayed some challenging behaviors. In kindergarten, he struggled to stay in his seat, and teachers constantly reprimanded him for not complying with simple instructions. At home, his parents often felt confused by his constant need for movement and his habit of jumping off couches and tables. His teacher secretly wondered whether his parents were setting proper rules and limits, or whether lax parenting was to blame. At the same time, his parents secretly wondered if Johnny might have ADHD or hyperactivity. These behaviors affected Johnny’s relationships and sociability.

Each year, as children return to school, parents anxiously await news about their transitions. Some children, like Johnny, experience a rocky start. But Johnny was lucky. His public school has a “student success team” (SST) whose goal is to support child development by identifying early difficulties as soon as possible.

Two months into the school year, the SST met with Johnny’s parents. During the meeting, an occupational therapist came up with an explanation for his difficult behaviors. She surmised that he experienced challenges in body awareness, and that his constant movement was his body’s way of coping. When he jumped around, feedback to his system of “proprioception” (input to the muscles and joints) allowed him to feel where his body was in relation to people or objects around him. She urged the team to consider that his actions reflected a need coming from signals in his developing brain and body, rather than intentional misbehavior.

Johnny’s occupational therapist was trained in a developmental relationship-based approach to understanding child development and childhood behaviors. Such approaches prioritize an understanding of the child’s individual differences within the context of warm and caring relationships. So when she observed Johnny in class, she asked these questions:

  • Ÿ What individual factors might be affecting a child’s ability to have calm, focused, and alert attention?
  • Ÿ What impact does this have on healthy child development, particularly a child’s ability to have warm, connected relationships?

In Johnny’s case, his need to move and problems with sustained attention were already affecting relationships at home and at school. His parents and teacher had formulated their own reasons for his behaviors. And they were wrong. Johnny’s behaviors stemmed from neither poor parenting nor ADHD. Rather, they reflected differences in the way he processed sensory information, a little known concept in child development circles.

The profound shift in thinking about his behaviors led to a plan for supports at school and at home. At school, his teacher gave him opportunities for frequent “movement breaks” and recruited him to help her move around heavy objects, calming his body’s need for input to his muscles and joints, and making him feel important at the same time. At home, he helped his mom carry grocery bags, and she enrolled him in a gym class. With the team’s focus on alternative explanations for his behaviors, his mother suddenly had more compassion and less worry, allowing her to more greatly enjoy her son. As for Johnny, the support strategies led to increased focus and attention, and to a successful school year. When his parents and teachers considered options other than intentional misbehavior, everything changed for the better. *

3 Child Development Tips

If you are concerned about healthy child development, particularly challenging behaviors, here are some things to consider:

1. Explore below the surface of challenging behaviors.

Think of behaviors as the tip of the iceberg, and all the potential reasons for the behaviors as the larger chunk underneath. For young children, underlying reasons for challenging behaviors include sensory, motor, cognitive, language, and emotional distress, among many other aspects of child development.

2. Give children the benefit of the doubt.

While our first reaction may be to explain a behavior as willful disobedience, we need to understand that children also have an innate desire to please.

3. Prioritize loving relationships as the foundation for regulation of emotions and behaviors.

Warm, positive emotions support positive child development and learning.

Again and again in my practice, I have observed empathic, loving parents and professionals attempt to reason in vain with children about behaviors that stem from causes beyond their awareness or comprehension. When we shift the lens to look at child development with mindful compassion and an appreciation of each child’s unique differences, new doors open. With this fresh approach to challenging behaviors, parents and professionals alike can understand and support young children when they need us most.

(*Johnny’s sensory issues were mild and were addressed within a school consultation with an accomplished occupational therapist. For more information about sensory issues that may require therapy, including sensory processing disorders, visit the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.)


Ben-Sasson, A., Carter, A. & Briggs-Gowan, M. (2010). The Development of Sensory Over-responsivity From Infancy to Elementary School. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 1193–1202. DOI 10.1007/s10802-010-9435-9

Ben-Sasson, A., Carter, A. & Briggs-Gowan, M. (2009). Sensory Over-Responsivity in Elementary School: Prevalence and Social-Emotional Correlates. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37, 705-716. DOI 10.1007/s10802-008-9295-8

Bialer, Doreit & Miller, Lucy J. (2011). No Longer a SECRET: Unique Common Sense Strategies for Children with Sensory or Motor Challenges. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons Press.

Greenspan, Stanley & Wieder, Serena. (2008). The Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders Diagnostic Manual for Infants and Young Children-An Overview. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 17 (2), 76-89.

Photo Credit: BlueOrangeStudio

Published: September 28, 2015