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Is Your Child Not Looking Both Ways When Crossing the Street?

Woman in pink shirt pushing boy on a swing.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 18 May 2022
Published 12 Apr 2022

What Are Community Living Skills in Childhood?

Community living skills in childhood fall within a category of skills psychologists call ‘adaptive skills’ or ‘daily living skills.’ 

Community living skills include the ability to stay safe in public, look both ways before crossing the street, and exercise caution around strangers. Children, teens, and young adults with good community living skills can go on an outing with a peer, take the bus or use other transportation, and make it to appointments on time.

It falls on the family to help instill good community living skills by helping their child, teen, or young adult practice these independent skills and help when needed. Family relationships can build a foundation of support. 

Services are available, like therapies and job training programs, for those approaching adulthood who wish to live independently but perhaps have developmental disabilities or other challenges holding them back. 

Some laws guarantee equal access to those with disabilities. For example, transportation services like access-a-ride and assistive technologies are available for those who struggle with language and mobility.  

Training programs can help teens transitioning to adulthood practice and master practical skills like shopping for food, taking the bus, and getting to doctor’s appointments. Programs can also help these young adults secure and keep employment.

Symptoms of Community Living Skills Problems in Children

  • Unsafe in public: your child gets too close to cars or bicycles, or you may find your child running around at the grocery store
  • Needs supervision: your child needs constant check-ins or supervision to navigate the community 
  • Forgetful: your child forgets your phone number, street address, and who to contact in case of an emergency
  • Unsafe on the street: your child doesn’t use the crosswalk and doesn’t wait for the light to turn green; your child walks right in front of cars
  • Losing things: your child leaves their belongings all over the place; forgetting their wallet at the store
  • Distracted: your child seems unaware of their surroundings, even with constant reminders
  • Wandering off: your child walks away from you at an amusement park, the zoo, or the mall
  • Unable to make purchases: your child struggles with buying essential items at the grocery store or convenience store, counting change, or paying a bill at a restaurant

Causes of Community Living Problems in Children

Children and teens who struggle with adaptive skills may have difficulty in a few areas.

  • Attention challenges: your child may struggle with paying attention which can lead to spacey behavior, not paying attention to their surroundings, failing to follow directions or navigate successfully, and impacting community living.
  • Immaturity: your child may not be as mature as other kids their age causing your child to rely on you and other adults more than they need to, wanting a ride instead of walking to the park with a friend, and not wanting to be away long enough to walk to the counter and buy a drink or order a meal.
  • Extreme shyness: your child may be timid, leading your child to rely on you instead of being willing to step up and order with the waiter, ask the cashier a question, ask directions from the police officer when they get lost, etc. 
  • Language or developmental delays: your child may have delays that make it hard to advocate for themselves because navigating the community can be very language-based. On the other hand, an individual with only basic language can learn to navigate transportation, be on time for appointments, and meet their needs. It just takes practice.
  • Poor organization or executive functioning skills: your child may struggle with organization causing your child to be late or lost as navigating the community involves planning and being organized. 

Some DO’s and DONT’S For Teaching Community Living Skills

  • DO consider a gradual release approach: First, ‘I do,’ then ‘we do,’ then ‘you do.’ 
  • DON’T do it for them: It is important not to expect your child to do it independently and then panic and do it for them. Instead, expect them to struggle initially. Then, help your child only as much as needed and not more.
  • DO help a LOT at first: Provide maximum support, and gradually withdraw your help as your child learns independence.
  • DON’T suddenly increase your expectations for your child dramatically: Sometimes, parents wake up one day and say, “My child should do this on his own! He’s 16!” You may be right. But keep in mind that if they were independent on this skill, they would already be doing it. So instead, try the approaches listed above. 
  • DO teach your child ways to be more independent at school: Many opportunities occur at school for your child to learn independence. For example, teaching your child how to use a planner, keeping their locker and backpack clean, and turning in assignments on time. 
  • Do teach your child how to use a planner: first, get help from your child’s teacher; next, check your child’s planner each night and help your child plan for the night and week ahead. Last, gradually taper support as your child masters the task. 
  • DON’T panic too much as they reach the teen years: Many families become very stressed about their child reaching adulthood and not being ready for a job, college, or adult relationships. If you plan and have the information you need, you will get there. However, we do need to prepare our children for these next steps.
  • DO get the transition team involved at school if your child has a developmental disability: You want the school team to help you plan for the transition to adulthood and help you access community services and training programs that can benefit your child. Teens with autism, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, and other challenges may need this support.

When to Seek Help for Community Problems in Children

If your child or teenager is struggling in multiple activities of daily living, including community living, self-care, chores, and participation in school, a developmental concern may be present.

The time to be concerned is when your child seems far behind peers in navigating the world outside your home or is clearly and consistently resisting opportunities to gain independence.

Children who fall behind significantly in daily living tasks may have a disability and may require therapy. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists and Occupational Therapists (OTs) can help children who struggle with activities of daily living. If you suspect your child may have a disability, consider an evaluation by a psychologist.

Further Resources on Community Issues in Children

  • ABA therapist: to help improve behavior, increase adaptive skills and improve communication. In-home treatment plans make addressing self-care and domestic skills easier.
  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to examine symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts.
  • Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms and anxiety as needed; to work on social skills via a social skills group or CBT interventions
  • OT or speech pathologist: to treat motor or language deficits. In combination with ABA, this approach may be most effective for children with Intellectual Disability or Autism.
  • Transition team at school and transition services in the community: If your child has an IEP, transition services should be built into each meeting as the team helps you prepare for services you may need post-high school. Each community has different programs for employment readiness or transition to post-secondary education. Most teens do not need this support, but it can be invaluable for those who do. 

Similar Conditions to Community Living Issues 

  • Social skills challenges: trouble socially interacting with others impacts adaptive skills because social interaction underlies development. Children learn from engaging with one another. Children who are not paying attention to other children may have fewer community experiences and fewer opportunities to practice community living skills on their own
  • Communication skills issues: trouble with communication impacts a child’s ability to express their wants and needs, develop conversation skills, and engage reciprocally with peers or others within the community
  • Cognitive challenges: trouble with thinking and reasoning can cause overall delays that would encompass areas like communication, daily living skills, socialization, and motor development
  • Motor challenges: trouble with motor skills can impact adaptive skills, particularly in younger children. Children need to crawl and move about the environment to engage and learn in their surroundings. Being able to get around independently has an enormous impact on community living
  • Attention issues: trouble paying attention can impact learning; may not attend to specific cues like the clock or calendar, and perhaps the parents micromanage every aspect of life such that the child does not feel the need to pay attention to these community living routines

References for Community Living in Children

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Bell, Nanci (2005). Talkies visualizing and verbalizing for language comprehension and expression. 

Bernstein, Deena K. &   Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third-Sixth Editions.

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Preparing for Life 

Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation. 

Newman, Barbara M. & Newman, Phillip R. (2014). Development through life: A psychosocial approach. 

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