Do you dread the hectic holiday weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s?  Are your children so hyped up that there’s no “peace on earth” at your house, and your own “Good will” toward everybody is wearing thin?  How can you possible teach your child with special needs the deeper meanings of this wonderful season when our culture demands that you over-eat, over-spend and over-extend yourself for 4 weeks straight?  Let’s slow the pace and re-discover what’s truly important during the Christmas/Hanukah season, and share tips on simplifying the celebrations.  Our own family is going through uncharted waters this year in redefining what is essential to our celebration of the birth of Jesus, and what changes we can make so we truly enjoy each other’s company in a spirit of love and harmony.  Here are some things to consider:

1)  List the top ten things the holiday season means to you

2)  Put a star by the five items that you consider essential – the holiday would feel incomplete without these five things

  • draw a line through two things you could do without this year
  • how can you streamline what’s left?

3)  Try to re-evaluate your traditional holiday activities in order to reduce stress and enjoy more meaningful times with your family and friends.

  • what is the essential spiritual meaning of the holiday
  • make a decision to simplify
  • let go of sacred cows
  • make lists to keep your self organize and delegate tasks
    • decorations to put up outdoors (garlands, lights, wreaths, yard ornaments)
    • indoor decorations (nativity sets, candles, floral/evergreen arrangements)
    • Christmas tree (live or artificial or none this year?  where stored?  who will assemble and put up?  who will decorate it?)
    • annual family photos
    • annual family newsletter
    • Christmas/Hanukah cards to mail out
    • gift list (immediate family, extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers,     therapists); set a price limit for each or make homenade gifts or mutually agree on no gifts
    • church, school and social events – what can you eliminate?
    • housecleaning – what can you delegate?
    • year-end giving to charities (list all; get your donations out before Dec. 31st!)
    • gift wrapping (would gift bags work just as well?)
    • special baking (do you really need 5 kinds of cookies this year?)
    • travel plans, including motels, if necessary
    • hosting guests plans, including menus and where people will sleep (is this the year to rent a retreat center and share holiday festivities in a larger, more neutral setting?)

ASSIGNMENT: With your family, cross off 5 items that are not essential this year and redefine your goals of celebrating together – more meaningful time of spiritual growth?  making memories?  developing qualities of selflessness and helpfulness in your children?


Post-High School Technical Training

Here is some information from Katie Bischak, Director of High School Operations with Triangle Tech, which might be helpful to homeschoolers looking for post-high school options other than college.
“First, let me give you a little biography of Triangle Tech, in case you aren’t familiar.  We are a trade school that has been in business since 1944.  We offer a 16-month Associate in Specialized Technology degrees in Carpentry and Construction Technology; Maintenance Electricity and Construction Technology; Welding and Fabrication, Computer-Aided Drafting and Design; and Refrigeration, Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning. We have schools in Pittsburgh, Greensburg, DuBois, Erie, Sunbury and Bethlehem.  We also offer many services to students; including free tutoring, financial aid assitance and career advising assistance.
We have started to see an increase in Homeschool students as well as Cyber students enrolling in our school across the state.  We have a great career exploration presentation, we can present just on Triangle Tech information or even offer field trips of any of our schools with lunch included!! We could do the presentations in person or possibly over a computer.  We would want to accommodate whatever need or method you think would be best for your students.


Katie Bischak
Director, High School Operations
Triangle Tech
Cell: 412-417-2039
Office: 412-359-1000  x 7147
Fax: 412-359-1012




The homeschool portfolio should be a collection of samples of your student’s academic and creative endeavors during the school year, and should address both the diploma requirements and the richness of your unique homeschool program.  A 3-ring binder with thumb-tab dividers for each subject works well.  The portfolio can be put together on a weekly basis, and will be helpful to the student in the interview process for jobs, college, and scholarships. Under the 2014 PA Homeschool Law changes, only your evaluator (not the school district) reviews the log and portfolio so you should insist on a thorough subject-by-subject review and written evaluation report which you will turn into your school district

TITLE PAGE:  Student’s name, age, grade, school year, name of diploma program enrolled in.

COPY OF AFFIDAVIT which you submitted to your school district by August 1st of academic year.

CURRICULUM OBJECTIVES:  Short summary of learning goals in each subject, specify textbooks, key activities, lab experiences and supplementary resources. This is what you submitted to your school district at the beginning of the current school year.

EVALUATOR’S REPORT:  Subject-by-subject summary of evaluation of your student’s home-school program based on interview with student and review of portfolio and log; notes volunteer work, practical life skills, and how diploma requirements and academic credits were satisfied. Evaluator should date and sign.

TRANSCRIPT FOR GRADES 9 -12: A recognized diploma program issues an official transcript and you can pencil in grades, credits, course titles, etc. on copies of the transcript.  Your evaluator serves as your student’s academic advisor and works with student and parents to complete and sign the transcript yearly and to make sure the student is meeting graduation requirements.

READING LIST:  List of books read by student, authors, date completed, classics noted.

RESUME:  Student’s own summary of activities, honors, community service and leadership.

STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES:  Test reports for Grades 3,5 and 8 and PSATs, SATs or ACTs for Grades 9-12 recommended as part of the student portfolio, but not required.

SAMPLES OF WORK: Total of 15-20 samples in each subject per year, plus required compositions, research papers and speeches; each course subject divider should have a short title that describes the course topic (Academic English 10, Algebra I, General Science 9, etc.) plus a brief summary of major skills or concepts studied, projects, field trips, etc.

  • English: Literature, grammar and composition studies, including writing process; speech.
  • Math: computation, problem solving, geometry, algebra, trig/calculus, practical math.
  • Science: reports, study questions, drawings, lab write-ups, photos of field trips and labs.
  • Social Studies: reports of unit studies, maps, time lines, graphs, notes from textbook, vocabulary and study questions, brochures and photos from field trips.
  • Health/safety: summary paragraph, illustrations, photos and reports on unit studies  field trips; fire safety, drug and alcohol awareness, moral purity, driving safety.
  • Physical education: summary paragraph, certificates, photos of sports activities.
  • Electives (Art, Music, Foreign Language, Home Ec, Computer, Bible, academic electives): reports, study questions, tests, unit studies, field trips, readings, photos, performances.

LOG OF INSTRUCTIONAL ACTIVITIES:  Daily lesson plans for each student by subject, indicating text, topic, page and exercise numbers, or other learning activities related to your learning objectives.

HEALTH RECORDS:  Immunization records, and evidence of appropriate medical care in required years (date/name of physician/type of check-up). 

Reminder About Changes in PA Homeschool

In the Fall of 2014, PA House Bill 1013 simplified what is required of homeschoolers in Pennsylvania, but increased the burden of responsibility for evaluators. Please make sure your evaluator is aware of these changes, and be prepared to pay a bit more since your evaluator is now the only one ultimately responsible for declaring that an appropriate education has taken place for each student evaluated.

  • You no longer need to take your student’s portfolio to your public school superintendent or principal for the year-end review. Parents will still be required to keep documentation for health checkups, immunizations and achievement testing in Grades 3, 5 and 8, and have the student’s program evaluated by a qualified evaluator of the parent’s own choosing, but the superintendent must accept an evaluator’s written report that an appropriate education is occurring. You must get your evaluator’s written report to your school district by June 30.
  • The new law establishes an administrative procedure to resolve any claim by the superintendent that the parent has failed to comply with any aspect of the homeschool law. Under the old law, this procedure was only used to determine whether the student was receiving an appropriate education. This means that you must still keep thorough documentation, including the affidavit, copy of parent’s diploma, immunization records and learning objectives which you still submit to your school district when you start homeschooling each year.
  • High school diplomas issued by either the parent or an approved diploma-granting organization (like PHAA or ECHSA (Erie) must be given the same rights and privileges as other diplomas (e.g. public or private school diplomas) by the Commonwealth, including consideration for financial aid by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.  Before opting for a parent-issued diploma, please check with the requirements of potential colleges for admissions and scholarships.
  • The special requirements of the original law for Special Needs Students remain the same.


Natural Horsemanship

Trimming Bridle Path  Lily saddling Cassie Kayle with Cassie Rocking Bridge

4-H CLUB:  Love horses, but can’t have one of your own?  Or, maybe you have a horse, but need some help with ground manners and basic horsemanship skills?  The Laurel Highlands 4-H Horse Club in Westmoreland County may be just what you need in 2015!  We will learn about safety around horses, horse care, breeds, personalities, barn and pasture management, and basic handling skills using natural horsemanship techniques and an obstacle “playground.”   Activities will be held at our “Stillwaters Farm” in Donegal, using our five older, trained horses (Appaloosas and Quarter horses).  In addition to learning horsemanship skills, we will enjoy field trips, poster talks and community service.  This is NOT a learn-to-ride program.  Students need to sign up for private lessons to get going in the saddle (see below!)

PRIVATE LESSONS: Natural Horsemanship Lessons are offered in a 6- or 8-week series, and include ground work, tacking up, riding in the arena, through trail obstacles and on the trail.  With the 8-week series, the 9th lesson is FREE (either as a make-up lesson if you miss one, or as a bonus if you don’t miss any of the previous 8 sessions.)  Dates and times can be arranged to fit your schedule – daytime for homeschooled or cyber school students, early evening for students in traditional schools.

ABOUT OUR HORSES: We have five healthy and seasoned, senior-age horses, who like working with kids, including two Appaloosas (Captain and Gilligan) and three Quarter horses (Rebel, Lady and Cassie).

ABOUT OUR METHODS: Our students start out by learning to work with the horses on the ground, first leading, then directing them through obstacle courses.  Everyone starts riding bareback with a rope halter and reins in order to develop balance and a secure “seat.”  Students then graduate to a Western saddle and snaffle bit.  A 12-foot safety line is used by the instructor until the student is ready to ride independently, and helmets are required for groundwork, grooming and mounted work with the horses.

Contact Barb McMillan <whatzupmac@hotmail.com> for more information.


More Social Skills for Special Needs Children

Last month, I presented some thoughts on principles of social skill development and inclusion for special needs children in community, school and homeschooling settings. Now I’d like to zero in on some specific social skills that are useful in American culture and some creative ways to help kids learn these skills. If you are finding these articles helpful, please drop me a “thumbs up” e-mail at whatzupmac@hotmail.com .

What social skills and in what developmental order?

In order to teach social skills to the special needs child, he first needs to develop basic skills in:

– Staying calm, attentive and self-regulated
– Some degree of purposeful, interactive and imitative play
– Engaging appropriately with parent and sibs
– Responding to intentional interactions in ping-pong fashion (reciprocal, back and forth play, communication, games, humor, tasks, etc.)
– Awareness of the presence and personhood of other children and adults

Exactly what social skills to teach depends on the needs, strengths and developmental level of child as well as the specific setting the child is being prepared for. In general, the following are social skills needed to get along with peers and in groups before adolescence:

– How and when to greet another child or adult
– How to initiate or continue a conversation
– How to play interactively with a peer
– How to interpret facial expressions and body language
– How to adapt own behavior in response to social cues of others
– How to ask for help from adults or other children
– How to work or play in groups cooperatively
– How to anticipate potential outcomes of immediate social situations
– How to recognize and express personal feelings before getting overwhelmed
– How to recognize and respect feelings of others
– Looking at things from another person’s perspective
– Specific ways to handle difficult social situations

A few simple strategies for teaching social skills

Happily, there are many resources available for teaching social skills to children and teens with special needs. Just Google the topic along with your child’s disability and you will be amazed (and maybe overwhelmed) at what is out there. Since I do a lot of workshop presentations and counseling on this topic, I’ll share just a few of my favorite strategies which have proved successful over the years:

– Social Stories – use photo sequences from child’s own life, mag pics, pic books, short video clips, puppets, simple sentence starters about social situations the child has encountered or is going to encounter in the very near future. Stop several times in the narration to ask the child simple, direct questions: what is going to happen next? OR, how does that boy feel right now? OR what would be a good thing for that girl to do now?

– Direct Instruction – this is especially helpful soon after your child has responded inappropriately in a social situation. Once he regains inner calm and self-regulation, and is attentive to you, you can re-tell what just happened as a “social story”, stopping several times to get your child to give you input about what might happen next, how people were feeling, and what a different ending might be. It is extremely difficult for younger children with PDD-type disorders to see things from another person’s point of view. You may just need to tell your child how the other people in the situation felt and why they responded as they did. Then tell your child exactly what he needs to do in a similar situation. Next, SHOW him what to do. Model the behavior, the facial expression, the gestures, the body language, the words. Finally, have him practice a simple role-play with you. If this is a type of situation he will encounter frequently in life, decide on a clear cue you can give your child when he needs to demonstrate that particular social behavior (e.g., if the problem is that he refuses to share his toys when another child comes to play with him, your cue might be tapping him on the shoulder until her gives you eye contact, then putting your hand out flat in a giving gesture, and pointing to the guest child.) Practice, practice, practice the desired social behavior, facial expressions, gestures, body language and words, along with your special reminder cues. Make your practice times specific, emotionally warm and short (3 seconds to 3 minutes for a young child, 5-7 minutes for a teen). Don’t waste your time lecturing or sermonizing to your child. Just engage his attention, affirm him emotionally, and say, “Let’s practice our _____ skills now.” Do it, then affirm his success in the practice. For an older child, you can relate his success in developing that particular social skill to a social opportunity that you know is coming up in the near future.

– Cue Cards – make a red STOP sign on a 4×6 card as a cue to stop out of control or aggressive behaviors. Make a series of picture cue cards – emotions, desired behaviors, etc. You MUST teach your child the meaning of these cue cards and what exactly you expect him to do when you give him a signal and show him a cue card.

– Mirror Play – Use a mirror to help your child practice making and interpreting facial expression, gestures and body language.

– Social Coaching – Be your child’s coach in group activities such as homeschool co-op, library story hour, Scouts, 4-H or sports. Explain to him in advance what will be happening and what he is expected to do. Sit beside him in the group gathering (if appropriate) and cue him in on what’s going on and how he should respond. (You should talk with the adults in charge of the group privately ahead of time to explain what you need to do. Often, an experienced group leader will be happy to have you coach your child along for the first few meetings, but might ask you to try keeping your distance once your child seems to be getting the hang of things.) You can’t coach your child or teen forever, so plan to work yourself out of a job by letting him try his wings in various safe social settings, then re-teach and try again if difficulties arise.

– Teach the meaning of our many social idioms. Young people with developmental delays and learning disabilities often think in very concrete terms, and don’t pick up on the meaning of phrases like “You’re pulling my leg,” or ‘Until the cows go home.” During one of his year-end high school level evaluations, J. announced to me that he and his new girl friend had a good time sleeping together in their church. Now, you would think that after working with special needs kids for more than 30 years, I would be prepared for everything. But this one caught me off-guard. I gasped. His parents, sitting right there next to J., gasped. And then, miracle or miracles, J noticed that he had said something that didn’t quite sit right with the adults in the room. J turned anxiously to his dad and asked what he had said wrong. His dad suggested they take a little walk out to my waiting room and talk about it. That gave J’s Mom the chance to salvage the family’s reputation by explaining that J has gone to his first church lock-in – you know, the youth group all-nighters where nobody really sleeps at all but after the group activities, the guys are sequestered in a room at one end of the church and the girls in a separate room at the other end of the church. Aha! Whew! Got it! J came back after his emergency social coaching session with his dad, and next miracle, HE got it – he apologized appropriately for not saying it exactly right, corrected himself, and we went on with the rest of the evaluation with our friendship intact and J’s reputation restored. THIS is where we want our special needs kids to be when they hit those pesky teen years – increasingly aware of social cues, a solid relationship with parents as mentors and social coaches, a teachable spirit, and the ability to correct social glitches and move on.

Social Skill Development and Special Needs Kids

Social Skill Development and Special Needs Kids

For families with special needs students, difficulties with social situations seem to rank right up there with academic concerns when it comes to the Top Ten Ranking of panic-alert issues in homeschooling. Many of my own clients have decided to homeschool after their special needs child was the victim of repeated rejection, name-calling or bullying in a traditional school setting. And, unfortunately, the same scenario repeats itself across all settings in the child’s life – church, scouts, sports, summer camp and so on. From an outsider’s view, it often looks like the special child “asks for it” – you know this child – he’s always “in your face,” or bouncing off the walls, or appears to ignore the adult leaders, or is always two steps behind everyone else in the next activity, or worse yet, breaks down in tears or angry outbursts at the slightest provocation.

Whether your child has Attention Deficit Disorder, Aspergers Syndrome, Down Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a Learning Disability, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a physical handicap or even a chronic health issue, social skill development may not come easily in the course of your child’s development. However, within the homeschooling community, there are wonderful opportunities to teach other parents and kids a little something about your child’s special needs, and work with them to develop mutual strategies for including your child in group activities.

Set the standard for inclusion

These days, homeschoolers do an amazing variety of group activities together, including learning co-ops, organized classes, field trips, sports and music groups. The adult organizers of these groups may need specific information about your child’s strengths and limitations, and how to make accommodations to include him in the group’s activities. The other kids might benefit from some direct instruction, modeling and role-playing to learn some ways to interact with your child without being condescending or phony. And in all settings, the adults in charge need to make it absolutely clear that name-calling, bullying or excluding other kids is NOT acceptable.

In all the classes and groups that I have taught over the past 30 years, the first lesson on Day#1 is this: Nobody treats anybody like garbage in my class. I commit to treat you (the student) with respect and I expect that you will do the same with me and with each of the other students. Then we go on to a simple discussion that covers topics such as:

– Do we want to be just like everyone else?

– Do we want to be so different that we don’t fit into a group?

– How can we express our strong feelings without getting out of control?

– How can we express our differences of opinion politely?

– What do we tend to do when other kids are a bit different in what they wear, or the things they are interested in, or the way they interact with you

– What are some ways we can make everyone feel included in this group?

If there are students with special needs in the group, then I will talk privately with the parents (and the special needs students, if they are older and capable of contributing their own thoughts and feelings to the discussion) about ways to make social interactions work better for the student. Then, I talk briefly to the class about the strategies we will use to enhance peer relationships and group dynamics for all the students, and any accommodations we will make for students with unique needs. I remind each student: At some time in your life, YOU will be the new or different person in a group. How will you feel if other people make fun of you or leave you out? The way you treat others now is the way others will treat you someday. Then I lay it on the line – my clear expectation: In this group, disruptive behavior or meanness to other students will not be allowed. In this group, each student is special and has something valuable to contribute. No garbage. Period.

Brad was a strapping big 7th grader in one of my 4-H Clubs, confined to a wheelchair from progressive muscular dystrophy. He also had some learning disabilities with reading and written language, but strong expressive verbal skills. We made simple accommodations for Brad – doing our plant science activities in my garage since his wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the narrow doorways of my Victorian home, letting his mom write some of the answers that he dictated in his project books, choosing field trips that would be wheelchair accessible. Brad participated in everything – propagating plants from cuttings and seeds, participating in our annual planting of 1,000 flowers at our county courthouse, even doing one of the dreaded 4-H speech demonstrations. The other kids accepted him as he was, and endured the special accommodations without complaint.

Often, however, the special needs child needs extra help maintaining his self-control even when emotionally charged, following basic group rules, and respecting the rights of others. The child or young person who is developmentally delayed often has difficulty picking up on the subtle (or sometimes obvious) social cues of other people. He may not notice or be able to interpret facial expressions, gestures or body language which cue the rest of us to what is likely to happen next. This child cannot gauge the intensity of someone else’s emotions – he just can’t see that his own behavior is driving his playmate up the wall. Social dynamics are culturally-based, and often the autistic or emotionally fragile child develops his own private world, and needs intensive training in “cross-cultural” skills in order to learn how to interact meaningfully (and safely) with other people. When I was visiting the Masai people in Kenya, it was astonishing to learn that taking photos of young babies was taboo (the mothers believed that the cameras would pull the baby’s spirit out through the soft spot on his heads), but spitting on babies was a form of blessing. Our American social rules must seem as unfathomable to some special needs children as the Masai values seem to us.

Next Month: What social skills and how to teach them to your child