Crowded Theater

5 Ways to Develop Situation Awareness

(in your whole family)

Author Bio

On September 26 each year, the U. S. celebrates National Situational Awareness Day – a day to focus on being mindful of surroundings.

Situation awareness (situational awareness or S.A.), affects your life journey, especially related to home and family.

Before we discuss 5 ways to develop situation awareness, however, we need to understand what it is. I like to define it this way.


Situation awareness relates to acts of carefulness, knowledge, mindfulness, and understanding we practice while in a particular set of circumstances.

Scroll back to the photo at the top. Find the woman in the bright red dress. Suppose you’re that woman or her husband in the blue suit beside her. As the lights dim, you focus on the stage, the music begins, and you let the performance mesmerize you into unawareness.

Suddenly, a scream pierces the air. The orchestra continues playing, but you turn quickly, looking, not knowing what to think. Heads lift toward the third balcony, but you can’t see anything specific up there.

Gradually, you and your spouse turn back toward the concert, but you’ve barely settled back when a louder voice bellows, “Fire! Fire!”


“Shouting fire in a crowded theater” is a popular way to describe words or actions used mainly to create panic – but maybe he’s “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” (the actual words written by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes)?

Maybe – but that loud bellow might be issuing a real warning.

“Come on!” you exclaim, jumping to your feet. You stumble toward the aisle. “Where’d we come in? Oh! I dropped my handbag! I have to get it!” The house lights go off. You spin to go back, but others force you into the stampede.

You need to develop situation awareness for times of danger. You and your family need to be ready. You need to be prepared for quick and automatic action.

5 Ways to Develop Situation Awareness

The following aren’t the only ways to improve your situational awareness, but they will get you started.

The first of our 5 ways to develop situation awareness requires that you and your family open your eyes and look well at what’s around you.

Crowded Portland Mall

Identify Entrances and Exits

1. Identifying all entrances and exits as you move through indoor activities can save time and perhaps life. Whether you enter a shopping mall, office building, or church, form the habit of keeping your eyes open for all possible routes into and out of indoor spaces.

Suppose you’re reading this as you and your family sit in an airport waiting for your flight. If I ask for the nearest exit, will everyone in your family answer promptly, or have to look around for a bright red “exit” sign?

Work hard to develop this first aspect of basic situation awareness. Learn to gather information continuously about entrances and exits. Do it, and do it again until it becomes a strong, reliable habit.

Try the following test on each other to see how strong your habit is today.


Don’t look around. Close your eyes and mentally list the location of all entrances and exits in your present surroundings. When you think you’re done, open your eyes and look around you. Did you miss any?

Try this exercise in a variety of locations to train yourselves to be situationally aware of entrances and exits in daily life. You’ll be surprised at how rapidly you all develop this basic situational awareness technique.

Let’s move to the second of 5 ways to develop situation awareness. This time we’ll look at living beings instead of inanimate objects.

Multiethnicity Commuters

Notice Nearby People

2. Noticing all nearby people may save you from unexpected, unwanted interactions that could result in an uncomfortable conversation, infraction, misdemeanor, or even felony crime.

Pretend that you’re one of the people in this photo, waiting for the train, and fixated on your smartphone. You haven’t given a thought to who’s near you.

That’s a dangerous habit! Training yourselves to be aware of the people near you in every situation helps you avoid danger.

Keep your eyes open for anyone who seems suspicious. You’ll be ready to take action to leave the scene if something happens – and to notify others.

Your eyes don’t have a monopoly on “noticing”. Other senses can do it, too.

When I first taught school in Chicago’s western suburbs, I commuted to work by train. In winter, my commute brought me home after sunset.

Railway Station

From the station, I walked through a dark tunnel under the tracks and along dark, empty streets. I learned always to carry pepper spray, but I also learned to notice everyone I could see in that dim light.

One evening, my eyes saw no one, but my ears took over, noticing a man’s heavy footstep behind me. Whether I quickened or slowed my step, his pace matched mine. Panicked, I slipped the cap from my pepper spray as a tall, muscular man stepped alongside me. He nodded respectfully, said in a quiet voice, “You have a good evening, ma’am,” and moved on, his footsteps fading into the darkness.

Train yourself and your family to engage every sense in noticing nearby people.


Close your eyes and force your imagination to produce pictures of every person in your present situation. When you think you’re done, open your eyes and look around you. Did you miss anybody?

Repeat this exercise in every new setting for one week as you train yourself and your family to become situationally aware of people around you.

Many of the 5 ways to develop situation awareness involve our phones. That wonderful bit of technology can kill situational awareness! I can’t say phones make us fail to exercise awareness in this next way, but they may aid and abet.

Woman with Cell Phone

Keep Your Eyes Up

3. Keeping your eyes up and aware of everything in the situation can avoid unwanted results. Any of us can become a target when we lower our eyes as the woman in the photo has done.

My previous post, You Might Be a Smartphone Oblivion if… discusses several ways our smartphones can make us oblivious to our surroundings.

I won’t repeat those here, but think about where your eyes are right now. If you’re reading this at a bus stop, you’re not keeping your eyes up and connected to the area – but eyes may go down for other reasons. The eyes of the woman above may be down because she’s engaged in texting – or checking the bus schedule – or studying her GPS.

It’s possible to use a smartphone while raising your eyes frequently, but that smartphone, a candy bar, cough drop, tissue, or anything can make us and our children forget to keep our eyes up.

Wrapped up in what we’re doing, we become unaware of everything else within our field of vision. We develop tunnel vision.

We tend to rely on peripheral vision for situation awareness, but peripheral vision is weak in humans. We need something more.

The next of our 5 ways to develop situation awareness typifies teachers / mothers.

Eyes in Back of Head


4. Eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head awareness gives teachers and mothers an uncanny ability to sense what’s happening not only within, but also outside their field of vision – behind them.

During my career as an educator, students and parents alike said I had eyes in the back of my head. Maybe someone in your family likes to say that. The charge about me was in jest, but expressed surprise at my extended situation awareness.

You’ve heard the folklore that teachers and mothers, especially, have eyes in the backs of their heads. They’re aware of things they can’t see with physical eyes, but “recent research suggests those stories may not be far from the truth.” We don’t see behind us, but it seems the brain can imitate sight for us. We actually can develop eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head awareness!

Try these three tricks with your family.

  • Borrow eyes ~ Ask family members to stand in front of you and watch people behind you. As they watch, you’ll see in their eyes the action behind you. You’ll often become aware and react before your family member can react. Take turns practicing this technique together and you’ll all develop situation awareness eyes in the backs of your heads.
  • Sense others ~ In a supermarket, listen to people in the aisle behind you. Try to feel them. Two people may converse freely as they scan shelves, and then suddenly stop. Something changed. The approach of a stranger or something more serious may cause them to go quiet and quicken their pace. Your awareness of the change buys you time as though you had seen it all through eyes in the back of your head.
  • Create mirrors ~ Carrying a pocket mirror can provide awareness of some things behind you, but it’s limited. We need to get creative with glass and polished metal surfaces around us, using them as mirrors. More than once, I’ve used the reflection in one student’s glasses to see how a student behind me is behaving.

The last of our 5 ways to develop situation awareness is useful in every situation.

Man in Grocery Store

Defensive Prediction

5. Defensive prediction builds awareness of potential changes in the situation well before they occur. Become aware of a chance of trouble before it arrives and you become prepared to avoid many problems.

You might say, “We’re not in a war, and we’re not on the run! We live a quiet life.”

I’m glad, but none of us leads a guaranteed-safe life. Even the aisle of a grocery store can require defensive prediction.

Remember the COVID-19 pandemic? The man above practices defensive prediction. He stays aware of the risk of contracting the (invisible) virus. He takes action to avoid the virus. He wipes the cart handle with disinfectant, wears a mask, steers far to one side to pass others quickly, and consciously maintains six feet of space between himself and others. He focuses on the task for which he came into the store (not his phone), and hurries to complete his list and leave the store.

Driving’s another situation where you and your teens can use defensive prediction to stay aware of trouble. You can’t do much to change how drivers around you drive, but you all can predict the risks of trouble and prepare to handle any situation that comes your way.

Type defensive driving into your search engine, study, and put it into practice.

Think about what might happen if that blue car in front of you swerves to miss a kitten. If you stay alert, you might see the kitten before that driver sees it, and avoid hitting his car. Use all mirrors to know who’s around you and how they’re driving. Keep your voices and noises low enough to hear warning sounds such as horns, sirens, or screeching brakes. Predict that a car might suddenly pull out of a side street without warning.


Our 5 ways to develop situation awareness only scratch the surface. Your family can improve its life journey with these 5 ways to develop situation awareness, but I hope you’ll dig deeper and master situation awareness as part of an ongoing program for your home. Turn that switch in your minds from just reacting to what happens around you to making a habit of seeking information about your situation.