The Role of Service Animals: Life Skills for Homeschoolers


As I write this article, my family is grieving over the fact we had to say goodbye to a long-time family member. She served my son well for about 15 years. I know my son would not have been who is he today without, in part, her service to our family.

As I comforted my son, I realized that many families who have children with challenges may not even think of the benefits of having a service animal. I want to share a bit of our experience and give some of the wonderful benefits of these special creatures.

We adopted Dina when she was to be put down because of having an abusive owner. To me, that sounds a bit off, but she was to be removed from the home and destroyed because she was being abused. She was the sweetest dog. Over the many years we had her in our home, the only time she became aggressive was if she perceived a threat to my son.

There are many reasons for a service animal. Some service animals act as the well-known guide dogs used by the blind. Some are hearing dogs. Some are seizure alert dogs. Some dogs even alert diabetics to low blood sugar. Then there are the emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals tend to get a bad rap today because many will use the label to have a pet when pets are not allowed. This is not a true emotional support animal. A service dog (SD) of this type will instinctively provide support when the owner is feeling depressed, anxious, confused, or even frustrated. They will lean on the child, offering unconditional support. Sometimes they will lick and snuggle. The main characteristic here is the emotional bond felt between dog and owner. The dog will help the child calm down and become settled emotionally.

SDs offer unconditional love, a listening ear, and even a coat to absorb tears as they fall. There is never any criticism or judgment. Our children with challenges need that at times. Oftentimes, they cannot express what they are feeling. With the dog, just hugging him/her will provide an emotional outlet. The SD will never tell the secrets whispered in their ear by a distraught child.

Another benefit of service animals is that they provide a good lesson in responsibility. Learning to care for an animal depending on you is a great life lesson. You cannot shirk the duties of feeding, watering, walking, and even cleaning up dog poop. When frustrated about something, my son would walk miles with his faithful companion.

As the dog aged, there were other lessons to learn. There was patience as the dog was unable to put in the miles she did as a youthful pup. There was sacrifice learned as the owner had to deal with sickness, loss of hearing and balance, and even the increasing number of accidents in the home. Then there is the final lesson of all when you have to say goodbye to a faithful companion, and learning to grieve. As my son cried over his companion’s death, he was reciting Ecclesiastes about “a time to be born and a time to die.”

Outside of the many benefits of having a service animal, there is other important information that a parent may need to know before taking on the responsibility of an SD. Service animals are not pets. They are actually considered assistive medical devices. Because of this, any expense in their care is tax deductible over a certain percentage of income. They are allowed in rentals that do not allow pets if the owner has at least four rentals, or if it is managed by a rental agency. It is illegal not to rent to someone due to a service animal, or even to charge a pet deposit. If someone has been denied due to an SD, they should contact their state’s Department of Justice. The landlord can require a letter from a professional regarding the need of the animal. There does not need to be any mention of the particular disability/challenge that requires the use of the animal. Your local Disability Action Center can give you more information regarding your state laws.

Although many emotional support animals are used only at home, they are allowed to go out in the public with their owner. This can be of great benefit to some children who may have issues with meltdowns when in certain situations. Although a vest is not legally required, it often makes things easier for the business establishment and the other customers. Again, service cannot be denied due to a service animal, even in restaurants. And again, the reason for the animal doesn’t need to be disclosed. Service animals are not usually allowed to be petted by other people when out in public. This can distract them from their job. Some do allow petting. It is always important to ask each owner before making overtures to the animal. The only time a business owner can have the owner take the animal out is when the animal is misbehaving. Please be sure your animal is public ready before venturing out with him.

Service animals can travel on public transportation without cost. The agency does need to know about the animal beforehand. They cannot deny you service. They may try to require documentation, but this is not legal. Again, the animal must be on their best behavior. If there is any barking or biting, there can be trouble.

Another important point that many are confused about is that SDs do not need to be professionally trained. Some types, like guide dogs for the blind, do need special training. However, other types do not. In fact, SDs for seizures or diabetes demonstrate a more instinctive act. A dog cannot be trained to recognize seizures or diabetes, or even to emotionally support a person. A parent will need to use their best judgment in regard to whether the animal could become the support the child needs. The temperament needs to be calm also, so that if taken into the public arena, there is no chance of barking and biting. Basic obedience lessons are needed also. There is a website called Mr. Paws ( that gives a lot of information. They also offer excellent training books if you need to train a dog to provide more of a type of service rather than only emotional support. This site also has templates for IDs which make taking an SD out in public easier. They also sell vests.

Even though my heart hurts at this time as we grieve Dina’s death, it is also filled with thanksgiving over the blessing this dog brought to our life. She lived a long, happy life. She helped my son cope with many challenges of his youth. She will be missed. We rescued her, but she ended up rescuing us. I hope, if needed, your family can find the special blessing your child needs.

Nature Studies With Young Children

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The Early lilacs became part of the child,

And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,

And the song of the phoebe-bird,

And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter,

And the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf…

 -Walt Whitman


Young children are naturally curious about their world around them. They love to get their hands dirty and experiment with objects, and they thrive developmentally in a natural environment. Children need to be outdoors in order to be healthy, make meaningful connections, and to heal. This is perfectly stated in one of my favorite books by Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods:

…whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood. It serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture’s fantasies. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion.” 

There are so many fun and creative ideas to do with children outside. It can be a simple as playing in the grass or digging in the dirt in your own back yard, taking a walk in the woods, and observing birds in the trees or insects on the ground.  Make time to immerse your children in nature! I know with my own toddler, whenever we get outside she sleeps better and has a better attitude…and so does mommy!


Below I have gathered a few resources to help you in your nature studies with your little ones.


  • MicroCosmos– It follows the insect world through up-close and time lapse photography throughout a day and night. Some of the caterpillar shots are so cool! There are also some great ladybug segments plus lots of other insects and a few frogs. There are a couple of shots that might disturb sensitive younger ones such as a spider wrapping a cricket in her web.
  • The Magic School Bus Bugs, Bugs, Bugs


  • Usborne Big Bug Search (goes along with almost all the titles; look for whatever insect you are studying)
  • Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method, by Sally Kneidel
  • Animals, Animals, by Eric Carle (a book of poetry) (This is mentioned in many of the units with corresponding page numbers. Maybe at the end of the unit, after your student has been exposed to lots of poetry about insects, he would like to write some of his own.)


Activity Ideas:

IMG_2105Oatmeal Box Bug House ~

Creating Your Own Nature Journal

 A nature journal is a creative, fun way for children to connect to nature in a way that is meaningful and insightful. Children who use nature journals also learn to pay attention to details, be patient, and study changes in the world around them.

Creating a nature journal is very simple to do. Kids can use a basic notebook or sketchbook to record their notes and images in. Some prefer books that have lined pages, or books that allow additional pages to be added and removed as needed. The best way to decide what type of book to use is to decide what the nature journal will be used for.

Getting children started in using a nature diary is a great way to get them outside and into nature. The more time spent outdoors, the happier and healthier they may be. Find a book that matches the child’s needs and purposes, then customize it to give it a unique look. Having a nature journal that they have added their creative touches to gives them pride in what they are learning.

What to include in a nature journal:

  • Leaf and tree rubbings
  • Sketches
  • Water color paintings — We also love to use water color crayons.
  • Poetry
  • Quotes
  • Statistics
  • Pressed flowers
  • Nature stamp art — Collect rocks, acorns, and other hard objects, dip in paint and use as stamps.
  • Lists of birds, flowers and insects you have observed
  • Recording the seasons of a tree — Photograph or draw a tree once each season to observe how it changes.
  • Photographs
  • Recording animal tracks seen in your yard or on a nature walk — Try to identify them.
  • Seeds to plant — When planting your yard, tape a seed to the page and draw or glue a picture of the plant next to it once it has grown.

More websites with ideas for nature journaling:

You Are What You Eat

As an unschooler, there are times where I feel completely at a loss as to what I can contribute to other homeschooling moms who have a set schedule, a chosen curriculum, and all the things that I don’t.

And so, I’ve decided to write on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. While it may not seem to have a direct correlation to homeschooling, bear with me! Listen to my story, and hopefully someone will hear something of their lives in my narrative.

I’m a homeschooler. I’m supposed to like my kids. It’s why I chose to give up a high-paying job to stay at home with my children. I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t like them.

Perhaps I should clarify. I love my children! But, there were days where I didn’t like my children much. And, I wouldn’t admit it to anyone.

Except my husband.

sad momThen I would call, crying, begging him to come home and just let me leave. Let me get away from the two little demon-children who had inhabited the bodies of my boys. Yes. I did. True story.

And, as Lowell, my youngest son, got older, I became convinced that he had hearing loss. Our interactions would go something like this:

Me: “Lowell, come get your toys out of the living room.”

Lowell: “What?”

Me: “Your toys. They’re all over the floor. Come get them.”

Lowell: “What??

Me: “Come get your toys!”

Lowell: “WHAT??”


Instead of me teaching my son to use his indoor voice, he taught me to yell! Constantly! I actually took him to his pediatrician for a hearing test. It came back fine; his hearing was perfect.

And so I lived my life feeling like a complete failure: a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom who couldn’t stand being around her children most days, and who screamed at them more days than not.

…Until that day in 2006 when our lives changed.

“You’re not going to give that to the children, are you?” my husband indicated the red Sunny D sitting on the kitchen counter. Mind you, this is the husband who would give the boys ice cream for breakfast rather than deny them something they wanted enough to fuss about. And fuss they would, knowing Dad would cave.

Whitney’s objection to this particular drink was based on his experience with his sister who is developmentally handicapped, and, although she was 41 years old at the time of these events, she operated on the level of a nine- or 10-year-old.

As a child, when she would get into anything with red food coloring, she would go ballistic. Her already-limited vocabulary would go out the window, and she would be incapable of sitting.

“I’ve already told them they could have it. If you want to be the bad guy and say no now, go for it,” I challenged him, knowing that the kids would have a “special treat” with dinner (one of my favorite things as a kid was Hawaiian Punch with all its yummy nothing-specific flavors).

I was raising my kids similarly to how I’d been raised. We didn’t eat much processed food or sugary breakfast cereals. We didn’t get juice or soda or any other sugary drink very often. We ate a lot of home-cooked meals.

So, this Sunny D was a big deal! As in Big Deal! Perhaps even BIG DEAL!

Ethan drank a cup and some; Lowell took two or three drinks and passed it up…didn’t like it much.

Some 15 minutes later, Whitney found himself sitting cross-legged on our family room floor with his arms locked around Lowell’s back as Lowell knelt on his daddy’s chest, violently swinging his upper torso and head back and forth.

What! WHAT?!?!

Whitney kept throwing glances my way with an accusatory edge.

That evening, after we’d medicated our son with purple Benedryl, feeling decidedly battle weary, I opened my laptop and began googling things like “hyperactivity red food colors” and “behavior reaction Sunny D.”

Turns out my sister-in-law’s experience and reactions to food coloring are not unique! Who knew?!?

I’m going to interrupt my story here and say that there’s been a lot in the news recently about artificial food colorants and other additives being associated with hyperactivity in children. But, this was well before any of this was anywhere on the collective radar!

And so we happened up on The Feingold Diet — named after an endocrinologist who stumbled upon the discovery, quite by accident, that artificial additives had a causal relationship with hyperactivity and other behavioral issues in children.

The Feingold Diet is constantly evolving to include new additives; initially he eliminated artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives from the diets of his patients. Later he added artificial sweeteners.

High fructose corn syrup is not officially eliminated, but many families following Feingold, including ours, find that it also negatively impacts the behavior of their kids. Artificial fragrances were added to the list.

Blog clipartIt’s only been in the last few years that studies have begun popping up here and there showing the negative effects of artificial colors. Interestingly, not much has been said about artificial flavors and preservatives (specifically BHA, BHT and TBHQ), but they all have the same basic building blocks: petroleum.

As stated in “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”:

And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.

Take that in for a second. Your children – and you – are ingesting or absorbing petroleum in almost every single product that you put in your mouth or on your skin.

It’s in your milk (if it’s got “Vitamin A Palmitate”…it’s in there), in the “healthy” cereal you buy (because you don’t buy sugary, nasty cereal for your kids!), in your toothpaste, shampoo, cream rinse, body wash. It’s in almost every single oil you’ll use for cooking.

It’s in the air you breathe via your dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent, Bounce sheets (oh my word). In the air fresheners, candles, and perfumes. Sidewalk chalk, crayons, and markers.

How in the world does this apply to homeschooling? Grab a drink of water, get comfortable, and I’ll finish my story.

Lowell has ever been my canary in the mineshaft. He’s my son who is dyslexic and who has Aspergers. He was given complete freedom to learn to read when he was ready. He wasn’t ready at eight years old; he wasn’t ready at nine.

What happened in his ninth year was that his daddy and I separated, pending an inevitable divorce. I received communication through lawyers that the kids were to be put in public schools effective immediately. The fact that it was early summer gave me several months before having to comply.

The minute I read those words, I panicked. Assuming that I would homeschool well into middle school, if not high school, it hadn’t been a big deal that Lowell wasn’t reading. I had the luxury of giving him all the time he needed.

At nine years of age, he could slowly and painfully…but painfully (!)…read books with only a few lines on each page — “baby” books, as he called them.

…Unless he’d gotten into some kind of “artificials” (our family moniker) — at which point, he was utterly incapable of reading. At all. But really. Not at all. He lost all ability to sound out even the simplest of words, losing focus at the merest implication of a distraction. I was ready to pull my hair out!

The impact that these food additives had on Lowell, and all my children, was awful to witness, but it breaks my heart every time I hear of a child who’s struggling in school (at home or elsewhere) to focus. It makes my physically ill to think of children being “rewarded” with brightly colored (and artificially flavored) M&Ms, cakes, or candies.

Those things that are supposed to help and support are thwarting every effort made. And, no one has any idea.

I read about children who struggle with impulse control. Those who have issues of rage.

Well before the episode with the Sunny D, our oldest son, Ethan, had these incidents of extreme rage! Hitting, kicking, and spitting! He never tried it with me; I always said that he knew better! But, he shocked a babysitter once, as well as a relative watching him for a period of time while I was still working.

I was not the type of parent who would tolerate this! Where was it coming from??

The crying jags where nothing I said or did would help the apparent despondency of my child for the most minor of upsets!

The skin irritations, the weird little habits, like chewing on the collars of t-shirts. They all cleared up once we removed artificial, petroleum-based food and non-food items from our home.

I won’t say it was easy. Oh, no! I grieved when I realized that while there was MUCH that I could replace with natural or organic items, Special K cereal wasn’t one of them. There’s no cereal to make Cottage Cheese Loaf (a.k.a. Special K Loaf).

My children haven’t had Big Franks or Stripples in 10 years for the boys, and never for the girls (one who wasn’t even born when we started this lifestyle). I love Big Franks. I don’t eat them anymore.

So, no. It’s not easy. But is it worth it? Yeah. It is.

Computer Wisdom

Mom and girl on compuuterSafety and closeness in today’s world — it’s not always easy. A recent news story of a 13-year-old girl murdered by someone she met on social media made me cringe, but then gave way to discussions with other moms.

Our family has always had a conservative approach to social media and all internet use. I regularly check history on the computers and am even more diligent when I finally decide they might be ready for social media. It’s not that I don’t trust our kids; rather, it’s that I don’t trust the world. Yes, kids will often test limits or feel that “it can’t happen to them,” but even when they are not looking, trouble has a way of seeking our kids and even us. So I watch. I listen. I check computers. And, I limit computer time. The old saying that “Nothing good happens after 11 p.m.” might be restated as “Too much time on computer invites trouble.”

But, as I was chatting with another mom, I had another realization. While I’ve been watching for potential problems, I have actually found another way to enjoy my kids. By noting what sites they are visiting, I find new interests they are developing. This can develop into a conversation about the interest, and gives us another connection. For instance, if I find a few searches about Ireland, I might bring that country up in conversation and discover that he is now fascinated by the country, its history, and culture. If I see that he has searched for information on ways to increase protein, I might expand on the conversation of a previous day when we were talking about nutrition.

Like most homeschoolers, we talk with our kids a lot. I know them well and know what they are studying and where their interests lie. I talk with them, listen to them, and have long discussions individually and all together. But, sometimes I’m not as aware what is more important, or a subject that they have just stumbled upon. I like that their computers can reveal even more to me.

Social media is another connecting format. I follow their postings and, yes, spot check messages too. They know I have an open-door policy to their networks and are fine with it, knowing I am not spying but rather listening in for their own safety.

But again, social media can reveal little nuances that I might have otherwise overlooked. Those quickly posted memes show their sense of humor, interests, and special thoughts. The posted comments are another way to get a sense of what my child is feeling or concentrating on at the moment.

Some might consider my style more invasive than necessary. Even my 17-year-olds can expect me to visit their sites and keep informed. And, it gives them a sense of comfort knowing that I am checking, while knowing that I am not attempting to run their lives. I think they have also realized how it shows such an interest in them as people. I am interested in them, in their interests, their thoughts, and their friends. I care about each of my children.

While I do encourage parents to keep close watch on computer usage for potential problems, I suggest that they also use this as a time to listen to your child. It might be the perfect opportunity to start a new conversation!

Water Lily Purity

“I AM the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the Valley,”  Song of Solomon 2:1.

The Rose of Sharon mentioned here is believed, by some archaeologists, to be a water lily.


The water lily is generally considered one of the world’s most beautiful flowers. Both the water lily and lotus are in the same family (as pinto and black beans are in the same family) and are given the same qualities. Worldwide there are about 70 species of water lilies. In the tropics they bloom both day and night. In every ancient culture where it grows, the water lily has been a symbol of purity. The natural colors for it are white, pink, blue, and yellow with the stamen in the center being gold. The white water lily is Bangladesh’s national flower. In Egypt it is a symbol of resurrection, and some Asian cultures it is seen as a symbol of the divine.

It grows, with its roots in the ground, in a fresh water lake or pond. The rhizome is in the ground under the water with roots up to 6 feet long. The stem can be up to 15 feet. Some cultures have eaten them and/or used them medicinally.

The amazing thing with these beautiful flowers is they’re growing in waters that can be filthy dirty, by pollution or stagnation, and yet grow pure and lovely.

This is a symbol of how we should be and train our children to be.  We read in the gospels how Jesus grew up pure and lovely in a town known for its wickedness (John1:46).  We also, in a wicked world, are to grow pure through the power of the Holy spirit. As the stamen, where it bears pollen, is gold, our faith is tried to produce in our characters those qualities that will help us share the gospel (1 Pet.1:7 & Rev. 3:18).

“…The secret of a holy life, from the water lily, that, on the bosom of some slimy pool, surrounded by weeds and rubbish, strikes down its channeled stem to the pure sands beneath, and, drawing thence its life, lifts up its fragrant blossoms to the light in spotless purity…grow pure through our deep roots in Jesus through His word,” Ed.119.