Whether your child participates in group or individual achievement tests, there are a number of things the homeschooling parent can do to reduce text anxiety and improve test performance.  All of these strategies can be incorporated into the regular homeschool routine, and recorded in the log as legitimate instructional activities.  Best of all, the ideas listed below can all contribute to your learning goals for your child, no matter what educational philosophy guides your homeschooling.

  1. The Educated Child: Keep up with systematic instruction in all subject areas.   Be sensitive to your child’s interests and developmental level, but don’t let things slide week after week.  Discovery learning is great in the younger years, but we live in a complex culture which requires that students develop skills in many areas which may not be inherently appealing to them.  When faced with a tedious or distasteful homeschool assignment, all four of our children would hear me say, “You don’t have to love it, you don’t have to enjoy it, you don’t even have to pretend to be interested in it, but you DO have to learn it, and you will be tested on it.”  Hold your child accountable for his learning, even in those areas which are more difficult for him.
  • If your child scores are consistently below the 30th percentile in one or more areas, heed the warning signs, and get help fast!  You can schedule individual achievement testing even after you receive the group test scores, and use the diagnostic information from the individual testing to guide your educational plans for the following year.  Also, ask your homeschool evaluator for input about adjusting your teaching methods or curriculum to better meet the educational needs of your child. Don’t just keep doing the same old thing that hasn’t been working.
  • If your child still scores poorly, consider having a complete diagnostic assessment done to determine if there are learning disabilities, attention deficit issues or other learning problems which need to be addressed.   Be careful about getting “taken” by well-meaning but unqualified people who want to test your child.  Some of my families have called me in a panic because of the misdiagnosis of their child by a public school guidance counselor, or an optometrist, or even an elderly neighbor who taught special ed 30 years ago.  A professional person doing diagnostic assessment should be a licensed clinical or school psychologist.  If you cannot locate an individual in private practice like myself, check with local universities or children’s hospitals which often have clinics where this type of diagnostic testing is offered.
  1. Math: Around age 8 or so, begin weekly timed drills in basic math facts:  by the end of 3rd grade, your child should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide single-digit numbers FAST.  You can make this fun by using a stopwatch and keeping a chart of progress, or try the Math-It system (getting all the math fact cards on their correct answers while holding your breath!), timed math games on the computer, or have a friend over to do timed tests with your child.

Teach your child to use scratch paper when allowed – don’t let him always do complex problems in his head, especially multiple-step word problems, division and multiplication of large integers, fractions and decimals, or algebraic equations.  When I test children individually, I am always amazed at how many homeschoolers refuse to use paper and pencil to work out math problems, even when I encourage them to do so (and they almost always make a lot of mistakes by trying to do everything in their heads).  Mental computation is a great skill, but so is efficient use of pencil-and-paper.

  1. Reading: Read, read, read!  Read aloud to your child (even your older child), have your child read aloud to you and talk about the stories…talk about new vocabulary words, the plot, the characters, what might happen next, summarize what happened in the previous chapter, what motivated the characters, etc.  Read poetry, non-fiction, essays, even magazine and newspaper articles.  The more knowledgeable your child is about a wide variety of topics, the greater his understanding will be on test day. (Not to mention the fact that reading widely makes us all more competent and interesting people!)
  • Teach your child how to look back in the story to find the answer . . . learning how to skim over a selection to find specific information is a very helpful skill.
  • Also work on visual and auditory memory – have your child do silent or oral reading, then ask him to summarize what he has read out loud to you.  Have him practice remembering what he has just read – he shouldn’t have to look back in the passage for the main idea, characters, setting and basic plot.
  • Give him 5Ws book reports to write (who, what, when, where, why, how).  For 5th grade and up, focus on the Why? and How?
  • Practice choosing titles of main ideas for reading selections.  On the standardized tests, students should NOT be creative, but need to think like the boring adults who developed the test.
  • Work on gaining meaning from a reading selection even if your child cannot de-code all the words.  The first time through, have him say the word “something” for each difficult word; then re-read for meaning and see if he can figure out the words he didn’t know based on the context of the sentence, picture clues and phonetic features.  There is nothing wrong with making an educated guess about a word to see if it makes sense in the sentence.

         4.  Written Language: To develop skills with grammar and punctuation, have your child write, write, write, but take the time to have him correct his errors!  Letters to Grandma, book reports, thank you notes, field trip reports, poems, stories, captions for drawings or photos.  Make a poster of basic rules for capitalization and punctuation (color-code it, if you want), and encourage your child to refer to it as he writes so he doesn’t have so many errors to correct later.  Teach him to do a rough draft first, then help him correct mistakes and re-write neatly for his final draft.  Type up a copy of his rough draft with all his spelling or grammar mistakes in italics and punctuation errors marked with an arrow or parentheses.  Let him be the editor and correct it with a red pencil.

      5.  Reducing Test Anxiety: The group achievement test format is overwhelming if your child has never seen it before, so practice filling in the little dots, using a separate answer sheet and scratch paper; stopping when the page says STOP, erasing stray marks or changed answers completely, working within a time limit, working next to other kids but not looking on their papers or sharing answers (this is often a unique challenge to homeschoolers who have no concept of cheating on learning assignments).  Consider having your children take achievement tests every year, not just in grades 3, 5 and 8, as required by the PA law.  Research clearly shows the benefit of the “practice effect” in lowering tests anxiety and raising tests scores.

     6.  Develop Test-Taking Skills: Invest in the Scoring High or other practice tests, and work through them systematically for at least 2 months prior to the achievement test.  Know what your child will be expected to know and the format of each section of the test.  Talk your child through the principles of test-taking that the manual emphasizes:

  •   following oral directions given by the test proctor
  •   paying attention to the different directions in each section of the test
  •   consider every answer choice, don’t just mark the first one that seems right
  •   quickly rule out the two most unlikely answers
  •   make your best guess when unsure of the answer
  •   manage your time efficiently:  skip questions that you really don’t know, come back to these later; but don’t skip around on the page; don’t spend too much time on one questions.
  1. Individual Achievement Testing: If, in spite of all your efforts to prepare your child for group testing, she still cannot manage the group setting or the test format, arrange to have individual achievement testing done by a qualified educational psychologist like myself.


               As an Educational Psychologist, and homeschool evaluator, I am fascinated by the amazing array of approaches to teaching and learning in the homeschool setting.  From loosely organized “discovery” learning to regimented video classrooms, homeschool families in Pennsylvania have the freedom to develop the educational styles that fit them best.  However, the achievement test requirement for students in grades 3, 5 and 8 makes many homeschool parents tremble . . . Parents either become extremely anxious over what the test scores will reveal about the perceived success or failure of their homeschool program, or they shrug off the tests as irrelevant and ignore the warning signs of low test scores year after year.

Like it or not, we live in a test-loving society . . . college entrance exams, drivers’ permit tests, professional and trade license exams, and on and on.  The required achievement tests can be viewed as onerous burdens, or as early opportunities to master strategies for effective test-testing and overcoming test anxiety.  I always remind parents that achievement test scores are just one means of assessing the child’s educational progress, and that a well-documented portfolio with a wide variety of learning activities can certainly off-set lower-than-expected test scores.

Happily, in Pennsylvania, we have the option of either group achievement tests or individual achievement tests.  The individually administered tests are a huge blessing for many homeschooled students who have special needs, and cannot manage the large group setting, working within a strict time limit, or filling in the little bubbles on the answer sheet.  Individual testing is more costly due to the high level of professional expertise required to administer the tests, and also the expense of the testing materials themselves. When scheduling an individual achievement test, be sure to verify that the credentials and experience of the person giving the test are legitimate. The test publishers generally require that individual achievement test administrators be educational, clinical or school psychologists; or have advanced degrees in special education or psycho-metric evaluation.

I personally administer the Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised, which uses a flip-book system with a lot of visual picture cues, and requires mostly verbal or pointing responses, no time limits, and no little bubbles to fill in.  Best of all, this test gives me valuable diagnostic information which I can share with the parents to help them adjust their homeschool curriculum or teaching methods to better meet the educational needs of their child.  I usually print out two separate reports – a simple summary of the test scores for the school district, and a more detailed diagnostic report for the parents.

Most parents are amazed at how accurately the PIAT-R test results reflect their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses, in comparison to previous group achievement test scores which tended to be dismally low just because the child was not able to manage the test format or large group setting.  Parents are also pleasantly surprised that, although their child leaves the testing situation feeling pretty tired, there are no outbursts of crying, tantrums, throwing up or fingernail chewing previously associated with test anxiety during group tests.

As students get older, I often suggest that parents let them try to group achievement test in a non-required year, just to gain some experience, but come back for the individual PIAT-R when accurate scores are needed.  I do my PIAT-R testing in March which allows plenty of time to enhance the learning program or even do a re-test before the year-end evaluations. You can contact me to schedule the Peabody Individual Achievement Test at <>



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


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 <> 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 .

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