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Children’s Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Prosocial Behaviours

20th July 2023 - By Dr Ni Yan and Xiaojing Cao

About the authors

Dr Yan is a professor at the Faculty of Psychology at Southwest University in China. She is interested in understanding how interactions between children’s temperamental characteristics and proximal environments shape their long-term adjustment. Recently, her lab has been engaged in research examining the role of children’s sensory processing sensitivity in explaining children’s heightened susceptibility to environmental influences.

Xiaojing Cao is a second-year graduate student in Dr Yan’s lab.


In two independent samples, we found that children with high sensory processing sensitivity demonstrated higher susceptibility to the influence of positive parenting regarding their prosocial behaviour. In the lab, highly sensitive children demonstrated higher susceptibility to observed negative feedback compared to children with low sensitivity.

Study background

Prosocial behaviours are voluntary actions designed to help or benefit others and can contribute to social adjustment in childhood and successful development in adolescence.

Existing evidence suggests that the development of prosocial behaviours may be differentially susceptible to the role of parents’ socialization processes (1, 2). In particular, children’s sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) may be one of the markers that indicates one’s susceptibility to the environment (3, 4, 5, 6).

It has not been empirically tested whether and how SPS and its subdimensions moderate the relation between parenting practices and children’s prosocial behaviour . Therefore, the present study (7) employed a two-study design, integrating both correlational and experimental methods, to examine the interplay of children’s SPS and environmental influences (i.e., parenting and laboratory manipulation) in association with children’s prosocial behaviour.

Study design

In study 1, we recruited 120 families from one public kindergarten in China before the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents reported on their children’s sensory processing sensitivity, prosocial behaviour, negative emotionality, and parenting behaviour.

We constructed moderation models to test whether children’s SPS and subdimensions moderate the relationship between parenting and prosocial behaviour. Moreover, we controlled for children’s age, gender, family income, parental education level, and children’s negative emotionality. These analyses were replicated in an independent sample in Study 2.

In study 2, we recruited 151 families from four kindergartens in China in the winter of 2020. Parents filled out a series of online questionnaires. With the approval of the kindergartens, we conducted individual tests in a quiet room in each kindergarten.

  1. Adopting a between-subjects design, the current study randomly assigned children to either a positive or negative video feedback group (Npos = 77, Nneg = 77):
    The experimenter led each child into the experimental room. Children were informed that they would obtain tokens during the activities, and the more they got, the more stickers they would receive at the end of the session.
  2. Pre-tests were conducted, including the assessment of children’s affective states (i.e., positive and negative emotions) and prosocial behaviour (i.e., prosocial intentions and sharing behaviour).
  3. Children watched a positive or negative feedback video clip based on their experimental group assignment.
  4. After watching the video clip, children immediately completed a set of post-test measures: children’s affective states (same as the pre-test) and prosocial behaviour (prosocial intention, sharing behaviour, and helping behaviour).

At the end of the experiment, children were given the corresponding number of stickers according to the total amount of tokens left after the sharing task (post-test and pre-test) of the experiment.
We constructed multiple moderation models to test whether children’s SPS and its subdimensions moderated the influence of observed feedback on children’s prosocial behaviour in the laboratory context. Also, we tested the mediating role of emotional arousal in the moderation.

Key findings

Across both samples, we found that children with high sensory processing sensitivity, particularly Aesthetic Sensitivity (AES), demonstrated higher susceptibility to the influence of negative parenting in their prosocial behaviour (Figure 1).

In the experimental study 2, children high in SPS demonstrated higher susceptibility in reaction to observed negative feedback and decreased their prosocial intention compared to less sensitive children (Figure 2). The heightened susceptibility to observed feedback may potentially be attributed to their enhanced emotional reactivity in reaction to environmental stimuli.

Taken together, these findings offer valuable insights into our understanding of whether children high in SPS would demonstrate enhanced sensitivity to both positive and negative environments. In addition, our work provides preliminary evidence that amplified emotional reactions may potentially function as a factor that contributes to heightened environmental susceptibility for children with high SPS.

These findings have implications for future interventions that aim to promote children’s prosocial outcomes such that children’s individual susceptibility to intervening effects should be taken into consideration.

Future directions

First, the inclusion of a full range of environmental influences (from extremely harsh to exuberant) is needed to better understand how highly sensitive children may function in a diverse environment.

Second, evidence from longitudinal studies is needed to better understand how SPS affects the development of child functioning over time.

Third, whether heightened emotional reactivity of high SPS individuals may function as one of the potential mechanisms contributing to enhanced environmental sensitivity requires further research.

Figure 1.

Ni's blog fig1

Figure 2.

Ni's blog fig2


  1. Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (2011). Differential susceptibility to rearing environment depending on dopamine-related genes: New evidence and a meta-analysis. Development and psychopathology, 23(1), 39-52.
  2. Knafo, A., Israel, S., & Ebstein, R. P. (2011). Heritability of children’s prosocial behavior and differential susceptibility to parenting by variation in the dopamine receptor D4 gene. Development and psychopathology, 23(1), 53-67.
  3. Acevedo, B. P. (Ed.). (2020). The highly sensitive brain: Research, assessment, and treatment of sensory processing sensitivity. Academic Press.
  4. Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(3), 262-282.
  5. Scrimin, S., Osler, G., Pozzoli, T., & Moscardino, U. (2018). Early adversities, family support, and child well‐being: The moderating role of environmental sensitivity. Child: care, health and development, 44(6), 885-891.
  6. Slagt, M., Dubas, J. S., van Aken, M. A., Ellis, B. J., & Deković, M. (2018). Sensory processing sensitivity as a marker of differential susceptibility to parenting. Developmental psychology, 54(3), 543.
  7. Li, X., Li, Z., Jiang, J., & Yan, N. (2023). Children’s sensory processing sensitivity and prosocial behaviors: Testing the differential susceptibility theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(5), 1334–1350.