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

Ten Easy Steps to Homeschooling Your Child In Pennsylvania


1. Study the Pennsylvania Homeschool Law (Act 169 of 1988). You might find my manuals helpful:
– The Start-Up Book for Homeschooling Elementary Students
– The Start-Up Book for Homeschooling High School Students
– The WhatzUp Book: A Guide to the PA Homeschool Law for Special Needs Students (just revised in 2013!)
– Go to the Resources tab for information on ordering these manuals.

2. Consult with a qualified evaluator regarding mutual expectations about your homeschool program. Get guidance about writing your learning objectives, log and portfolio formats, curriculum options, local support groups, co-ops and diplomas.

3. Submit the notarized affidavit, child’s immunization records, learning objectives and copy of your high school or college diploma to your school District by August 1, or as soon as you start your first year of homeschooling. Get a receipt from the District.

4. Gather your curriculum resources, set a daily schedule for homeschooling, and begin the homeschooling adventure! Keep medical records throughout the year.

5. In the log, write the daily learning activities your child does with you, with others or on his own. Keep a list of books read by and to your child. Be diligent with your documentation. Date everything!

6. Keep samples of his homeschool work by academic subject, including field trips, photos, brochures, art, music, fitness and health, creative projects, etc. in his portfolio.

7. Arrange for achievement testing when your child is in grades 3, 5 or 8.

8. Schedule and complete the year-end evaluation with your evaluator in the Spring. Call in March to make your appointment – don’t wait till the last minute!

9. Arrange to take the log, portfolio and evaluator’s report to your District’s homeschool liaison before June 30. Ask for an appointment so you can go over the portfolio with the District liaison and get constructive feedback on your program.

10. Develop your learning objectives for the next year, and consult with your evaluator for approval of your homeschool program if you have a special needs child. Submit your notarized affidavit, learning objectives and letter of approval to your school District by August 1st. Gather your curriculum resources, set a daily schedule for homeschooling, and begin your next year of a great homeschooling adventure!

Real Tools, Real Work for Children

How do parents help their children develop a sense of purpose and significance in our entertainment-oriented world?  Learn how to teach your children to use real tools to do real work which enriches their own lives and the lives of others.  Yes, we are talking about hammers and nails, needles and thread, eggbeaters, brooms and garden rakes.  Work is a four-letter word with purpose!

So why bother struggling to teach your children to learn to use real tools (not those plastic rakes and hammers at the Dollar Store!) to do real work in the family setting?  Real work gives children (and adults for that matter) a sense of purpose, an affirmation of one’s value as an essential member of the family or community.  This is especially important for special needs kids who may feel that everyone else in the world exists to serve them or that they are a burden to the family as they get older.

Regular participation in meaningful work contributes to life-long character building – real work develops a sense of duty, perseverance, honesty, reliability, and work ethic.  And routine chores ease the burden of work within a family by distributing the duties among all family members, and builds competence in life skills which our children will need to survive in the real world.

And in our entertainment-oriented culture, expectations that children will be engaged in doing work around the home reduces the “Oh poor me!  I am so helpless!” syndrome by expecting that our children will be able to master new skills and become productive contributors to the family and community.  With real work, other people truly are counting on the child to do the task, and everybody is affected if the child gets lazy and doesn’t do the job right.

So how does a parent go about teaching children specific skills for tasks around the house and community?  Here are a few thoughts to get you started.  Teach the necessary tool skills in advance through fun games and activities.  Demonstrate a skill, using simple verbal instructions, then have your child use the tool himself for the same task, using similar words to “talk himself through.”  Break the project down into small, manageable chunks based on your child’s individual abilities, attention span and special needs.  Each segment should provide some sense of accomplishment, whether it takes 5 minutes or an hour to complete.  Praise each small step of progress.  “You did a fine job driving that nail into the board today!  Or, “Look how nice and even your cross-stitch rows are!”

You can adapt tools to make them easier for children to use by cutting long handles shorter (brooms, rakes, shovels); buy small versions of real tools (hammers, screw drivers, garden trowels, paint brushes, kids’ gloves); use child safe scissors with blunt ends, hand tools rather than electric ones (cook with wooden spoons and whisks rather than electric beaters).

Would love to hear what you have tried in teaching your children to do meaningful work, and how that has translated into community volunteer work and eventually paid jobs for your young people.

The Magic Moment

How to Set Up The MAGIC MOMENT in Your Home:

The Magic Moment provides the key to developing close, trusting relationships with each of your children on a one-to-one basis.  You might say, “I just don’t have 15 minutes per week to spend with each child,” but in reality, if you don’t spend this time with your children proactively, I guarantee you will spend double that time in damage-repair later in life.  So take a look at this simple idea for getting to know your children as real and valuable people, with no hidden agenda, just “I’m glad you’re my kid!” in your heart.

  1. Set aside 15 – 30 minutes per week when you will spend private one-to-one time with each child in your family. This is each child’s “Magic Moment” with you or your spouse.
  2. No other children in the family are to be a part of this special time.  Arrange for your spouse, a friend or a babysitter to care for the other children during this time.
  3. Say to your child, “This is our special time to be together.  It is our Magic Moment – just the two of us.  Let’s  . . . (read a book, build with Legos, work a puzzle, ride bikes, go out for an ice cream cone, etc.)”  Select an activity that your child will enjoy, but nothing too elaborate.
  4. Do not take over the activity.  Do not give commands or reprimands, unless absolutely necessary.  Do not answer the phone or doorbell.  This is a time to enjoy being with your child.
  5. Do make simple, sincere and positive comments to your child related to specific character qualities, desirable behaviors or helpful attitudes which he/she has shown in the previous few days.  (“I really appreciated your help cooking spaghetti last night.  Thank you.  Or, “I was impressed with      how you brought your grades up in reading and math on your report card      this term.  I am so proud of how hard you worked studying for tests.”)
  6. Do leave quiet moments and periods of silence so you can really listen to your child during your Magic Moment.
  7. Do end the Magic Moment on time, and on a happy note.  Say, “I really enjoyed spending time with you tonight.  Shall we plan another Magic Moment next week?”
  8. Do schedule the next Magic Moment with each child in advance.  Write it on the calendar and keep the appointment just as faithfully as you would a doctor’s appointment.

Start the New Year with a Time Jar Inventory

“Success requires the emotional balance of a committed heart.  When confronted with a challenge, the committed heart will search for a solution.  The undecided heart searches for an escape.”  (A. Andrews in “The Traveler’s Gift”)

From infancy, each child in the family needs to develop a sense of who he is in relationship to his parents without feeling like he has to constantly compete with his parents’ busy schedule of the demands of his siblings for mom and dad’s attention.  There is a simple way to build a wonderful relationship with each of your children in a fun, non-threatening way.  You will gain new insights into your child’s special gifts and concerns.  You will enjoy some relaxed, “down-time” doing activities that your child enjoys.  It only takes 15 to 30 minutes per week for each child.  BUT, if you can’t spare that small bit of time, then you are too busy, and you need to re-evaluate your time priorities before learning about the Magic Moment.

Try this fun object lesson with your family. Get two pint canning jars and a cup each of play sand, pea gravel and small river rocks. Divide your family members into two Teams.  Which Team can fill their jar with the sand, pebbles and rocks fastest and with the least amount of sand, gravel and rocks left over?

This object lessons illustrates Stephen Covey’s concept of putting in the “big rocks” first when you choose how to use your time. The winning team probably filled their jar first with the big rocks, then the little pebbles, then the grains of sand. Our time is like the jar – it can be filled with a myriad of large and small activities.  If we start filling our time jars with sand, our lives will be cluttered with thousands of tiny commitments which will sap our time and energy, and there won’t be room for the big, important things of life.

If we don’t take time to plan and selectively choose how we will use our personal and family time, our lives will be controlled by the “tyranny of the urgent” – unexpected interruptions or demands from others which don’t fit into our overall goals and priorities.

So take the time this week to talk through your personal and family goals with your spouse and children, and fill your time jar with the “big rocks” first. Hopefully, building meaningful relationships with each family member will be among the biggest rocks that fill your time jar.   NEXT: The Secret of the Magic Moment

Help Is On The Way!

Welcome to my new website!  So many of my families have urged me to publicize  the services that I provide to children and families that I decided to try a simple blog-format website.  You can read my profile, the services that I provide and testimonials from parents who have found my work with their children helpful.  Periodically I will post articles about success stories with children whom others had given up on, specific disabilities and interventions which really help, and inspirational thoughts. So check back from time-to-time and see what’s new to help you on your way with your special children!