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Empathy and Sensory Processing

What does sensory processing have to do with empathy? More than most people would think. But you’re not most people. You’re interested in creating empathy and you have confidence it can be done. That makes you one of my favorite people.

Sensory processing is defined as the organization of sensory information from the body and the external world that allows a person to interact effectively with their physical and social environments

(Ayres, 2005; from Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development (Second Edition), 2020.

You may have heard about sensory processing disorder (SPD) and how many kids are being diagnosed with it and sometimes treated with things like, therapy swings, weighted vests, trampolines, and mid-line crossover activities.

But before we start learning about this diagnosis and its treatments, it's important to understand more about sensory processing itself so we can supply the experiences that help all kids the most.

Sensory processing is how human beings learn. Each brain develops differently but connections must be made in all areas of learning. 90% of those connections are made before a child is 5. When the right connections are made we learn smoothly and effortlessly and we can be self-motivated to do so.

We now know that babies are programmed to learn through experience, exploration, touch, trial and error, and imitation. According to Sam Wang Ph.D., Princeton University, we also know that "a child's brain naturally knows how to get what it needs from the world."

The right experiences in early childhood create the right connections for learning. And interestingly enough, play is the way the brain intuitively learns to make the most connections, even more than, say, sitting down and copying letters or doing worksheets.

The reason play is so important these days in early childhood research is that it uses multi-sensory experiences to create optimal brain connections. In other words, children know naturally how they learn best and playing helps them by being the vehicle to do so.

It’s pretty amazing.

We're drawn to multi-sensory activities. And that's why when a child is engaged in a multi-sensory learning activity, it can be very hard to get them to stop.

This is the cause of the most common mistake well-meaning parents make that can cause a child to develop a poor attitude about learning and be unhappy.

Ever hear this?

Get out of that puddle right now young lady or your gonna get it!! Why don't you ever listen to me? Why do you always make me yell? (grabs the child by the hand and storms off.)

Maybe this parent has tried nicely to get the child to cooperate and now they're nervous. Or maybe they're at the end of their rope.

Maybe they didn't know how to validate their children's feelings without giving in to their demands or whining. So they got frustrated and yelled, yanked the child by the hand, and left.

Not a huge deal. Sometimes kids just won't listen no matter what you try.

Next time, however, they could try saying something like this:

Walk around the puddle (before the child jumps in). You can put water in your sandbox later when we're at home and it doesn't matter if you get wet, but for now, I really want you to keep your pants dry.

Or to the child who won't leave a weekly playdate.

I know you're having a great time playing with Stuart in the sandbox. It's almost time to make dinner and we're taking the bus home!

I gave you a five-minute warning. You can have a long playtime with your new ducky in the tub after dinner (baths are great sensory learning activities) Say goodbye to Stuart and his mom nicely. Say thank you and they'll probably invite us back again next week for more fun.

The child can cry if they want to but you still should leave on time. Soon they'll learn self-regulation and decide not to cry if it doesn't work.

Understanding a child's motivation to learn and keep learning is one of the most effective skills a parent can have.

Behavior experts tell parents to use "distraction". As a parent and a teacher, I know that it's not that simple. Children are observant. They know what we're trying to do so. If so, then distraction won't always work.

Instead of laying blame or shame on a child for being drawn to learning, tell them you understand and show them how to comply through practice and praise for actual compliance when it happens. Don't worry it will happen.

Here's a real-life example.

The parent sees the toddler pull dirt from a large potted plant and drop it on the floor. After being re-directed to another area of the room, he goes back to the plant and tries again. The first thing mom tries is to give him attention in a different way to be sure he's not teasing her to get her to notice him more by pulling dirt, something he knows by now that he's not supposed to do.

He seems drawn to the plant, again and again. Mom tries to get between him and the plant with her body but nothing is stopping him. See uses an I message, “I don’t want the dirt all over the carpet.” and then a complete distraction. She takes him out to the sandbox and lets him dump the sand. She teaches him the word “dump” so she can say “dump outside in the sandbox, I want the carpet clean!”

When he persists over the next 2 weeks to try to get to the plant, she can’t always take him outside right away so she uses a baby gate to help him wait in the kitchen when she can’t stay right by him in the living room. She makes a plan to purchase some fake “rocks” that are attached to a mesh screen to keep kids out and let the water in. But before she makes the purchase, the behavior stops and he leaves the dirt alone.

This parent knew not to punish her child for trying to learn about this dirt situation. But she also knew he needed self-regulation. Her decision to not go ahead and purchase the “rocks” once he stopped trying to take the dirt out showed this.

Since she never blamed him for his overly persistent behavior he didn’t develop a weird a bad feeling about going after a learning goal. He did learn how to meet his learning goals in a more acceptable way such as dumping the sand in the sandbox, or water in the bath.

This story is true and the child grew into an adult who enjoys learning new things, managing other adults, reading, and writing professionally.

I gave you the technical definition of multi-sensory activities earlier, but now I’d like to give you some real-life ideas for activities that help all children learn.

Choose activities that have a combination of auditory, kinesthetic and visual components. Let them play and explore freely, as long as they're safe and conform to the limits of the play area.


Some good examples of multi-sensory experiences that lots of kids love are bath play, sand play, lap reading, playgrounds. swings, (both indoor and out), play dough, putting on plays, music, dance, acting out stories, playing in the snow or at the beach, and the best-loved old standard, playing "house"!

Here are some more ideas for child-directed multi-sensory activities. Including some for older kids and family activities.


family puzzle set up on a table

plays, musicals, and dance shows

cleaning dirty toys in a dishpan with old toothbrushes and soap

cooking or preparing meals or snacks including clean-up

USSR (20 minutes each day of Uninterrupted, Screen-Free, Silent, Reading during which the entire household participates)

Remember to give all children the least amount of help they need to pull off activities successfully. This kind of hands-free or "lazy" parenting increases problem-solving skills in children. Those skills are the tools they need for a lifetime of learning.

Children who feel free to learn things in their own ways feel supported.

That's because when you understand your children, you're showing them empathy. When children see empathy, they learn to understand and help others. Just like there’s a circle of communication, (lesson 1) there is a circle of empathy. We just have to learn to embrace it.

But what if you worry that your child isn’t developing normally? Some signs may be avoidance of certain sensory activities or obsession with them. But where do you start when you have questions?

The CDC has developed an easy-to-use tool to help parents with keeping track of certain developmental milestones. The link is here. I think you’ll have fun with it and learn something about your child also.

It's always best to speak with an early childhood professional, a doctor, or both about what you observe in your child. Remember that you are and will always be your child's first teacher and the one who knows your child the best. The CDC assessments can help you to see if your child is developing normally and also give guidance on where to turn if you're worried that they're not.

If you want to get a free copy of my 21 One-Liners parents can use to get their kids to listen without yelling or time-outs, you can do that and read some more of my blog posts here.

This article is the 6th is a 10 lesson series on Creating Empathy Through Play. Sign up for my community of very important parents and providers and you’ll get the rest of the lessons delivered effortlessly to your inbox as they are written! Or you can just hang around and read a few of my posts about empathy and play!

Thanks for reading this! I know your time is very precious.


Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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