Attention and Behavior Problems Considerations in the Community

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Children with attention or behavior difficulties can flounder when they are out in the community.  There are so many unknowns when a child steps out of his front door and into an unpredictable environment that is the community.

A child has typical routines in his home or classroom.  He has predictable and familiar habits in the car or school bus.  But, when it is time to move to unfamiliar locations in his community, it can overwhelm the child with attention or behavior problems.  

Attention and behavior problems in kids and tips and strategies to help them become more independent and safe in the community.

Attention and Behavior Difficulties and Kids in the Community

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Children are guided by parents and adults as they function in the community. They are led through the grocery store, overseen in the library, accompanied across streets, and attended to in the public restroom.

But sometimes, kids have difficulties that prevent an effortless outing. 

Inability to focus, impulsive actions, lack of awareness of one’s self, of others, or the surroundings, risky behaviors, and hypersensitivity to sensory input from the environment might lead to difficulties in the community.

Behaviors in public spaces can be considered obnoxious or inappropriate and while they might be easily corrected through a behavior plan and recurrent within the family, they could be misconceived by the public who are also sharing the space.  Sometimes, behaviors in the community lead to unsafe situations.

Attention concerns in the community can also lead to safety issues.  A child who has difficulties maintaining attention could put themselves at risk. Attention requires an ability to respond to priority information while disregarding and inhibiting simultaneous sensory input.  

This concept of attentional ability coincides with an individual’s cognitive, sensory, and physical abilities.  Constantly forgetting things or difficulty focusing can be a result of several diagnoses or learning issues.  

Attention problems can result in poor processing of information or difficulty with filtering out important information.

Behavior and attention difficulties that limit ease in the community could be a result of sensory issues.

Consider the community environments that children participate in with or without their parents, depending on age and ability level:

Friends’ or family’s homes
Public restrooms
Shopping centers
Grocery Stores
Mall hallways
Retail stores
Public transportation 
Play spaces
Office spaces or places of business

There are endless possibilities of public spaces that make up  child’s community.  Each situation will be different and the way that the child interacts with that location will be unique.  Therefore, it is essential that a community assessment be preformed for each individual child.  Given a through evaluation of the child’s community environment, modifications and adjustments can be put into place.  

Consider the problem areas that could be affected by attention or behavior issues:

Bolting into a crowded street
Yelling out in a quiet space
Lack of assertiveness to ask for help or modifications
Frustration with rules and consequential acting out
Poor attention when crossing a street
Lack of sustained attention to count change
Social barriers limiting interaction with community workers
Difficulty organizing or sequencing tasks in a grocery store
Difficulty retaining information when distracted by the environment
Trouble processing information in a timely manner 
Poor ability to concentrate on one task at a time when in a crowd

For adults with attention or behavior issues, there is much work to be done following an assessment of the community.  Many goals can be written regarding community reintegration for functional independence in the community. 

For the child, concerns of safety for the child and others are a primary concern.  Functional independence may be limited by behavior and attention difficulties. As they age, kids should be expected to perform more and more community skills on their own.  The older child with attention or behavior problems will need strategies designed to maximize independence.

Strategies for Assisting Kids with Attention or Behavior Problems to Function in the Community

All community environments should be assessed according to the individual’s needs.  Some strategies that may help with attention and behavior concerns:

  • Prepare the child for what’s ahead. Discuss the day’s plans, stops in the community, and what needs to be done at each location.
  • Visual Schedules can be used for each community location or for a day’s list of community interactions.
  • Address visual memory, decision making, or motor skills that may interfere with safety in community mobility.
  • Checklists
  • Daily planners
  • Visual or verbal cues
  • Social stories
  • Rehearsal of tasks
  • Address strengthening of executive functioning skills in order to pay attention to tasks, plan, prioritize, and initiate tasks.
  • Alert community workers such as librarians
  • Positive reinforcement
When a child with attention or behavior problems has a tendency to run away from parents or bolt away, there is a real safety concern.  Given a large crowd of people or a busy street, safety is priority.  The above strategies should be used in safer conditions.  
One community safety tool that is controversial among parents and non-parents is the safety harness.  Called a “leash”, it can be a source of discontent among those with and without children.  

Attention and behavior problems in kids and tips and strategies to help them become more independent and safe in the community. Child safety harness or leash and reasons they are appropriate tools for safe outings, detailed by professionals.

Therapeutic Reasoning for Using a Child Safety Harness by the Professionals:

A child safety harness can be a valid tool for those children who have a real safety risk.  A child could could run away from parents given sensory concerns, cognitive reasons, behaviors, fearlessness, age, or impulsivity and inattention.  Regardless of the reasons, a child who potentially run away from parents in unsafe conditions could use a child safety harness and to reduce fears of the parents in community settings.

A few thoughts on child safety harnesses from some Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists:

Given the sensory input that an outing in the community provides, a safety harness can add the right amount of proprioceptive input for the sensory overloaded or impulsive child.  That deep pressure through the chest can calm during the outing.  
“Would rather see a child on a harness than sitting in a stroller for long periods of time”. Margaret at Your Therapy Source
“I think there are definite proof that things like “leashes” can be helpful, especially when multiple children are involved in an outing in a crowded place.” Heather at Growing Hands on Kids
Around airports, busy roads and unfamiliar crowded city streets (for example), it is not worth risking the safety of a curious toddler/little one who does not ask to go somewhere (or asks but does not wait for an answer) and runs away FAST! Harnesses are helpful for children with impulsivity and poor safety awareness.”  Anna at Kids Play Space

“Harnesses have their place- some kids- some places- sometimes- they are just the right support!” Anna at Kids Play Space
Attention and behavior problems in kids and tips and strategies to help them become more independent and safe in the community.


For the child with attention or behavior difficulties, they might use the above strategies to improve safety when crossing the street.

  1. Parents could prepare the child for what’s going to happen as they approach the street.  
  2. A visual schedule could be provided to show stopping, looking both ways, holding an adult’s hand, and walking across the street at the corner. 
  3. Visual memory and decision making could be addressed through practice and social stories.  
  4. Visual and verbal cues might be used to promote independence and improved safety.  
  5. Rehearsal of crossing the road could happen on a lawn followed by on a quiet street.  
  6. Children can practice the skills needed to plan and prioritize crossing the road in a safe manner by verbalizing the steps.  
  7. Positive reinforcement can be used for safe crossing.
Attention and behavior problems in kids and tips and strategies to help them become more independent and safe in the community.
Looking for more ideas on attention and behavior?  Try these strategies:

Be sure to stop by and see recommendations for Attention difficulties at home and at school, part of a recent Organization series that we’ve shared:

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