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Improving Your Child's Behavior in Public Settings

By: Rick Lavoie

An LD OnLine Exclusive!

Or "If you don't behave, the manager will tell you to leave the store"

Many parents report that their child with attentional problems has significant difficulty behaving and interacting appropriately in public settings. A routine trip to the grocery store, the doctor's office or the mall can become an embarrassing disaster. Of course, the humiliation is compounded by all the other parents who witness your child's meltdown, looking at you disapprovingly with scowls that clearly say, "What kind of parent is she? If that was my kid…"

Some parents elect to avoid these public scenes by minimizing the child's community excursions. Unfortunately, this strategy denies the child the opportunity to practice and master the public social skills that he will need in order to participate appropriately in his community.

It is important to understand why public settings are so challenging for the child. Every person has five basic physical needs that must be met. If any of these needs are unfulfilled, the person may feel anxious, uncomfortable or threatened. These needs include:

  • Hunger (need for food or nutrition)
  • Thirst (need for drink)
  • Air (need for open space)
  • Rest (need for relaxation; reduction of stress)
  • Exploration (need to satisfy curiosities)
  • Elimination of waste (ability to conveniently access the bathroom facilities)

When a child is in his home, all of these needs can be readily met. Snacks are in the pantry, juice is in the refrigerator, the backyard provides him with plenty of room to romp, his bedroom offers a restful sanctuary, he can wander and explore to his heart's content… the bathrooms are familiar and readily available. The child feels content and comfortable in this familiar setting.

When Mom takes the child to the local video store, he is aware that those needs are not easily met and this can create significant anxiety.

"If I'm thirsty…where can I get a drink? Supper is in two hours…but there is nothing here to eat…it is SO crowded in here…where are the bathrooms…what's that police car doing in the parking lot…I want to go check that out, but Mom said that I can't leave the store…"

There are two other reasons why public settings present a challenge for the child with poor social skills. First, a community excursion -by definition -represents a transition for a child. Transitions are historically difficult for children with social skills problems. Any change in schedule or routine, particularly a sudden and unexpected change, can create anxiety for the child.

Second, most trips into the community have "conflicting objectives". When Dad takes Debbie to the grocery store, his objective for the journey is to retrieve cash from the ATM, buy a gallon of milk and a bag of potatoes and return home in time for a 5pm phone call from his traveling boss.

However, Debbie's objectives for the trip are quite different. She wants to check out the lobsters in the seafood tank, see if the new Green Lantern comic is on the rack yet and search for errant quarters under the gumball machines. Because their goals for the trip are different and ,possibly, contrary to one another, conflicts are inevitable!

I have outlined several reasons why community settings present a significant challenge and obstacle for kids with social problems. These settings greatly enhance the child's frustration or anxiety. Most adults would acknowledge or accept that the dynamics of a visit to the community are a social minefield. However, adults expect children to be on their very best behavior when in public. Because the child's inappropriate behavior is embarrassing for the parent, children are expected to behave more maturely in public than he does in the comfortable, familiar surrounding of the homefront. Ironic, eh?

So what steps can parents take to help the child improve his social behavior in public settings?

  • You can decrease a child's social anxiety in public settings by ensuring that his aforementioned physical needs are met by: bringing snacks and juice boxes (hunger, thirst), providing him with opportunities to explore a bit when in a novel or unfamiliar setting (exploration), making him aware of the locations of the restrooms in the building or making sure that he uses the bathroom just before you leave home (elimination or waste), giving him an estimate of how long the excursion will take (rest) and minimizing the amount of time the child must spend in a crowded or confined area; allow him to sit at the front of the store to wait for you if the setting is overly crowded.
  • Whenever possible, give the child advance notice before taking him to a public setting. Children with attentional or social problems generally don't respond well to surprises or sudden changes in routine.

    Ben, remember that we are going to Dad's office at 4 o'clock to take him to his dentist appointment. That will be in about 45 minutes. You will want to get dressed soon and put the lawn toys away…

  • Discuss the objectives for the trip prior to your departure from home and gently remind her before entering your destination.

    Debbie, I need to be home to receive an important call at 5 o'clock. You can come into the store with me, but you will have to stay with me. Next time we come, we will have time to explore a bit, but today's trip needs to be a quick one.

  • If your child will be participating in an activity in a novel or unfamiliar setting, a "dry run" may be helpful. Visit and explore the site before the event.

    Deval, this is the hall where you will be having your scout meeting tomorrow evening. Let's look around a bit. The Boys Room is over there…see the flags…let's go over so you can see and touch them, but you will want to leave them alone tomorrow night…Look! The projector is just like Dad's…don't touch it , but if the scoutmaster shows a DVD you can volunteer to help because you know how to use it…you can hang your coat on the hooks over there.

    By doing this, the child's anxiety is greatly allayed. He will have lots of things and names to learn at the meeting, but at least the setting will be familiar and unthreatening.

Although public settings can be challenging for kids with learning problems, they can also provide parents with invaluable opportunities to enhance and increase the child's social information. Because learning is not a natural, instinctive process for these kids, they often fail to absorb basic information. This is often referred to as "cultural literacy". I recall a very, very bright fourteen-year-old student with learning problems who was astounded to learn that French fries were made from potatoes. Adults are often astounded by the basic, seemingly simple facts that have not been mastered by children with learning disabilities.

Use public excursion to foster social information:

You see that man over there, Paul? That green symbol on his T-shirt is called a shamrock. It looks like a four leaf clover, but it has only three leaves. It is often a symbol for Ireland. If you ever see that symbol again, think of Ireland…See that sign on the wall with a picture of a shopping cart with a red circle and a line through it? That means no shopping carts here. Anytime you see a word or symbol with a red circle and a line, it means that the object is not allowed there…

Most kids learn these facts seemingly by osmosis. Children with learning disabilities need to be taught these concepts directly. Parents can play a critical role in this process…and your community excursions become more interesting and enjoyable for parents and child.

Again, these community trips can be complex and challenging for families with special needs children. The child's unusual and age-inappropriate behavior can be embarrassing for Mom and Dad.

But remember the sage proverb:
A child needs love most when they deserve it least!

Lavoie, R. (2007). Improving Your Child's Social Behavior in Public Settings., Exclusive to LD OnLine.