Top 5 reasons why teens make great entrepreneurs

Sarah Hernholm, lead contributor of this guest post, is the founder/president of WIT—Whatever It Takes, the only six-unit college-credit social entrepreneur and leadership course in the country for high school teens. Based in San Diego, WIT has locations in St. Louis, New York, and now Austin. WIT is currently accepting applications for 2016–2017; visit to learn how. To view Sarah’s TEDx talks and read more of her thoughts on why teens rock, check out You can follow her on Twitter @miss_wit.

Also contributing to this piece were teen entrepreneurs Safi Jafri, founder of WhiteHat; Daniela Montes, president of Student 2 Student Art (S2S); and Andrew Castro, president of Choose You.


These are just a few words to describe two groups of people: teens and entrepreneurs. 

Over the last six years, through my company WIT—Whatever It Takes, I’ve spent my days working with teens and helping them become entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities. The work isn’t always easy (because of those words mentioned above), but it certainly is rewarding to see teens become more confident, empathetic, self-aware, and successful. 

And since I think most experiences are better with teens, when I was asked to write this Top 5 list, I went to teens and asked them to chime in with their reasons as to why they make great entrepreneurs. Check out some of their thoughts below.

1. Teens want to do something. I know the common societal narrative is that teens are apathetic and self-absorbed (although I think I know more adults than teens who fit that description!), what I see on a regular basis are teens who are frustrated by what is happening in their world and interested in figuring out how to make “it” better. What usually holds them back is the lack of programs/platforms available to them and those countless hours of ridiculous homework (but that’s a topic for another blog). Yet at WIT we see teens finding ways to launch a social enterprise despite their heavy school workloads. Why? Because they are passionate about doing work that actually matters to them.

2. Teens like proving you (adults) wrong.  If I wanted to apply reverse psychology on teens, I would just say, “I don’t think you can build a company,” and I know that would only fuel them to do it. But I don’t take that approach. I don’t have to. Society is already doing it. As teen Safi Jafri puts it, “. . . that teenage mind that people say can't ever be professional enough or smart enough or mature enough? Well that mind will do whatever it takes to get what they want, no matter how little you believe in their potential . . .” Just because they don’t want to do their homework doesn’t mean they don’t want to change the world.  Proving doubters wrong is a common motivation for successful entrepreneurs. As teen Andrew Castro says, “We love to prove people wrong and push the envelope.”

3. Teens aren’t carrying a lot of baggage.  As teen Pia Deshpande shared with me, “ . . . most teenagers haven't defined themselves as people yet. They never sit back and say, ‘That's not me’ like so many adults do . . . they're still exploring . . .” In other words, teens aren’t as cynical and hardened as most adults; they haven’t labeled themselves or put themselves in boxes like a lot of adults do. Also, the majority of teens don’t have a mortgage, lots of bills, debt, or dependents, so they are able to take on more risks—and being able to take risks is a great trait of an entrepreneur.

4. Teens want more “real world” experience. Most of a teen’s day is spent sitting and listening to someone tell them what they think is important. All of this is done in the hope of better preparing said teens for the “real world.” But last time I checked, I don’t spend my days sitting for 10 hours while someone talks at me. It doesn’t surprise me that teens experience burnout and want to ditch school. I would too (and did). Teens just want adults to acknowledge that the world they are living in is actually their “real world” and that they would prefer not to just talk about things in theory but instead apply the knowledge to their real world! This is why entrepreneurship is a great outlet: teens can apply math, reading, writing, public speaking, debate, etc., all while running their own business!

5. Teens want reasons to believe in themselves. Teen Daniela Montes shared with me: “At an age where insecurity is common, building entrepreneurial skills allows us to believe in ourselves and say, “Hey, I'm capable of making a difference,’ thus creating confidence, professionalism, and maturity.” Those teen years can be tough. It can be seven years of questioning your place, value, and worth and wondering if you measure up. But when you launch a business as a 16-year-old and see your efforts improve the lives of others and get recognized for your impact, you see proof that you matter and are changing lives. That tangible proof helps build confidence and self-worth, which all teens could use a little more of.

So to all those teens out there: I see you—your rebellious energy, willful determination, and desire to make a difference—and I applaud you for it!

And I want to invest in your enterprises . . . so hit me up.

Sarah Hernholm, with assistance from Safi Jafri, Daniela Montes, and Andrew Castro

Caring and community: Bringing nature to the center in Austin preschools

Our environment is our teacher, play is our work, and our learning happens naturally.
—Wendy Calderón, The Dragonfly Forest

I want the children to feel powerful through kindness to others and connection to nature.
—Nicole Haladyna, Woodland Schoolhouse

So much of learning in schools is inside, sedentary, and screen-based. . . . I worry that preparedness has taken precedence over play. Our school and other great ones like it have reorganized these priorities.
—Britt Luttrell, Nature’s Way Preschool

Environmental education and nature-based preschools—sometimes called “forest schools”—are expanding across the globe. The movement is so strong in North America now that this summer hundreds of educators will gather at a conference to share their knowledge and present their research and experiences. I wanted to know more about the varieties of nature-based preschools in Austin, so I interviewed a few educators with different perspectives and many shared goals.

Wendy Calderón is the founder of The Dragonfly Forest in Cedar Park, which is just one year old and enrolls ages 3 to 5 in a program that includes Spanish and English language learning.





Nicole Haladyna started Woodland Schoolhouse in Travis Heights in 2014. The Schoolhouse enrolls children 3-1/2 to 5 years old in a program inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach.





Britt Luttrell teaches at the City of Austin’s Nature’s Way Preschool, which was founded way back in 1992 at the Austin Nature & Science Center. It’s part of the city’s initiative to educate young people and families about environmental stewardship, and it enrolls kids 3 to 5 years old.




Tell us a little about what inspired you to become a nature-based educator.

Wendy: My biggest inspiration is my daughter, who is two years old. I was teaching at the KIPP Comunidad school and loved it, but after my daughter was born, I decided I wanted to create an environment where she could grow and explore nature—and that idea transformed into Dragonfly Forest school, with a lot of support from family and friends. I started with summer camps, then a few months later I was fully enrolled. I never saw myself as a business owner, but isn’t it beautiful how our children impact us everyday?!

Nicole: I was teaching at a more traditional school, but I sometimes looked longingly into a forest area where the kids were not allowed to go. One day we did a special project searching for a particular tree, and it was the best day ever. Then I stumbled across a video about one of the forest schools in Sweden. It was so moving that it actually brought me to tears—and that told me that nature education was what I needed to be doing. After that, I worked at the Discovery School and learned a lot about a nature-based curriculum, and all the right procedures, and how to transport kids, and was able to transition to my own school from there.

Britt: I grew up in Austin and have seen it change, so I value green spaces in a bustling, urban environment. I want to show children of all interests and comfort levels that there’s something outside for them to enjoy. Our school is unique in its location because it isn’t in a forest or state park. There are highways, traffic, and towering city buildings.  I want kids and their families to know the benefits of nature play and that even the tiniest green space can accelerate physical, emotional, and social development.


Could you describe a typical day at your school?

Wendy: We start each day with morning circle, singing songs and reading. We do our math by counting chicken eggs and then the kids often play in the “mud kitchen.” They have tea parties and make cakes and they just love to jump in the puddles and make mud angels. They’re dirty and happy. We might then go into the garden and sing into watering cans to explore changes in our voices, then water plants, and turn the compost. Then we go to our meadow and forest to play pretend games and climb trees—and look for deer. After lunch, we have art, music, and a yoga game that’s like Simon Says, where I call out a pose and students imitate it.

Nicole: Each day is so different, but for example: We might start out inside with an hour of free play with play-dough or rocks and minerals or dress-up clothes. Recently some kids wanted to play ninjas, so we pulled materials out of the closet, and after about 30 minutes they had created costumes with gloves and shoes made of masking tape and ribbon. They got so involved in the creation of the costumes, they forgot about the game! We always go for a hike to a few usual spots by a creek to look at turtles and birds. The kids climb on rocks and jump in the water, balancing and learning to use their whole bodies. They make pretend salads with leaves and berries. Afterward, we’ll have a resting time when they can draw, write, or read—but a lot of them sleep after all that activity.

Britt: We start our day with an hour of social conflict time in our play yard. We purposefully design our environment with too few items: trucks, bamboo shafts, trees to climb. This facilitates cooperation and the right kind of social conflict—in a large school group representing multiple ages and experience levels. All the kids have a short, 15-minute community time inside with their teacher. We meet live animal visitors, including snakes, lizards, and rabbits that the kids get to touch and hold. This is also our sensory exploration time, with multiple bins set up with things like bird seed, sand, and bones. Every group hikes every single day, even in tricky weather. Our three-year-olds might just take a walk around the school at first, but by the end of the year they go as far as the limestone caves on our preserve.


What would you like each child to take away from your school and nature-based education when they leave?

Wendy: I would love for the children to leave the school with a knowledge, love, and understanding of nature and their environment. And I would like them to be able to impart that knowledge to their friends and families. But I also want them to leave with the tools they need to be successful in their next school: the ability to participate and know that their ideas are valued, to share and be good friends with others, and to always be interested in learning and growing outdoors.

Nicole: I really want the children to leave with keen observation skills. We’re constantly asking: “I wonder why . . .” I want them to continue to ask increasingly complex questions and remain curious throughout their lives. But I also want them to consider themselves helpers and agents of change—to realize that the outdoor spaces belong to everyone—and to know that even as young people they can make a positive change. That’s pretty powerful.

Britt: We are not trying to create the next park rangers, animal rehabbers, or nature educators at Nature’s Way. While these outcomes are wonderful, we know that many of our students will go on to incredible futures in science, math, politics, parenting, entrepreneurship, art, athletics, and more. I would like each child to leave our program with confidence in his or her own abilities, and with the feeling of community. I hope their minds are prepped for endless curiosity, not just the ability to hold information. 


Many thanks to all the educators for sharing their ideas. All three schools offer summer camp programs as well as school-year enrollment. And you can follow them on Facebook for updates and more information:

The Dragonfly Forest on Facebook

Woodland Schoolhouse on Facebook

Austin Nature & Science Center on Facebook


Shelley Sperry

Can your child learn more at a nontraditional school?

Michael Strong is co-founder of the Kọ School + Incubator, an Austin school serving students of middle and high school age. He is also author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, a frequent speaker on TEDx stages, founder or co-founder of several successful schools, and an advocate for nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit as a force for social good. In this follow-up to an earlier guest post, Michael addresses, in an interesting new way, a question I hear often in consultation sessions with parents considering alternative forms of schooling for their kids: Will they be prepared to do well on the SAT and other college entrance requirements?

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Alt Ed Austin titled “Preparing for the SAT by Means of Alternative Education.” In that article, I explained how I had gotten high SAT scores that helped to get me into several Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth) by means of extensive reading and chess playing. At the time, Khotso Khabele and I were just launching the Khabele Strong Incubator, which is now known as the Kọ School + Incubator (KSI).

It has long been my belief that if students engage in serious intellectual work that they love, it is possible for them to develop high SAT scores while also enjoying school. Because traditional schools often force academics on students in ways that are disempowering, many traditionally educated adults find it hard to imagine teens enjoying learning while also developing high SAT scores.

Because of my belief that our program develops SAT scores, we have administered the SAT several times per year at the high school. Although we don’t have data for all KSI students, for those for whom we do have comparable data, the results are remarkable.

  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students for 2015–2016: 140 points (80 points verbal, 60 points math)
  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students who have been with us for two full academic years, 2014–2016: 313 points (173 verbal, 140 math)

We only have two-year data for students who were with us for grades 9 and 10 and who were present at SAT administrations for both September 2014 and May 2016.

For comparison purposes, analysis of three large-scale evaluations of SAT coaching concludes that the average student enrolled in an SAT prep course gains 30 points (5–10 points verbal, 10–20 points math).

Students who have attended KSI for two years are averaging gains more than 10 times those of students enrolled in the average SAT prep course.

Yet KSI students do very little explicit SAT prep. Instead, we have a daily Socratic discussion in which students discuss complex texts while relating them to their personal lives along with weekly math problem-solving sessions that are often like brain teasers. How can such a program outperform SAT prep courses by such a large margin?

1. The College Board has always maintained that “SAT measures reasoning abilities that are developed gradually over the years of primary and secondary schooling that precede college.” That is, insofar as the SAT measures reasoning abilities that take years to develop, it is not surprising that two years of a cognitively demanding program would outperform short SAT prep courses.

2. Very little in conventional education is designed to develop reasoning abilities. KSI Socratic discussions and math problem-solving activities are far more cognitively demanding than is a conventional curriculum.

With respect to reading, the texts studied in Socratic are almost all college-level prose, whereas all conventional high school textbooks are necessarily written at grade level or below. Many students at conventional schools are never exposed to the sophisticated prose that is the essence of the SAT critical reading section. Moreover, the “new SAT” is even more focused on high-level reading than was the earlier version.

Our math problem-solving sessions, developed by Jeff Wood, our lead STEM guide, are a critical element that goes beyond the linear math curriculum that is standard at most schools. It is designed to train students to think mathematically rather than simply moving through the traditional sequence of topics in math. SAT math requires that students think mathematically.

3. There is a large literature on the activity of practice proving the age-old maxim “Practice makes perfect.” When human beings deliberately attempt to improve their skills by means of practice, they improve. Our students don’t merely practice the SAT test itself; they practice thinking verbally and mathematically.

4. There is a great deal of evidence that a lack of engagement is one of the most severe problems in secondary education. In essence, most students find the academic component of school boring and meaningless. Many students love the social life, and some may love extracurricular programs, but the substance of schooling is not interesting or relevant to them.

Gallup surveys show student engagement as high in elementary school, much lower in middle school, and even lower in high school. Not coincidentally, American students score fairly well on international exams in elementary school, worse in middle school, and most poorly in high school.

By contrast, most KSI students are intellectually engaged most of the time. Subjectively speaking, it does seem to me that on average those who are more consistently intellectually engaged showed larger gains than those who were less engaged. For me, our most successful classes are not those in which teachers are talking much. Our most successful classes are those in which the students are leading the conversations or problem-solving sessions, thinking, talking, questioning, joking, laughing, and being teens—all while actively engaging their minds.

Simply by focusing seriously on developing students’ abilities to think verbally and mathematically, day in, day out, while engaging them successfully, we can achieve extraordinary results—in most cases with very little homework.

From a scientific perspective, because of our small numbers, these results should be regarded as suggestive rather than conclusive evidence of the power of our program to improve cognitive performance and increase SAT scores.

That said, as we live in a world with so many teens disengaged from learning, with so many teens suffering emotionally and socially, with so many families frustrated with traditional homework loads, it is valuable to be reminded that when a school creates a healthy, engaging intellectual culture, high-level learning takes place spontaneously. The suffering and frustration of traditional schooling is entirely unnecessary to produce extraordinary results. For some students, breaking free from the structure of traditional schooling itself may be the most important step in achieving what they were meant to achieve.

Michael Strong

Media Monday: Writers explore the transformation of America’s public schools

We’re always so pleased when we can highlight a public school with an alt ed soul. Last week Dawn Johnson wrote about Cunningham Elementary as a visionary public school in South Austin on our blog, and it’s a terrific, inspiring read. Recognizing that public schools across the country are in a period of new challenges and changes, Slate magazine is featuring a five-part series, “Tomorrow’s Test,” right now that’s also a must-read. The series is produced in cooperation with the Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.

The focus of the series is one that’s not news to anyone interested in education in Texas, California, or other parts of the country that have seen many new immigrants in the past couple of decades. Changing demographics have a wide range of consequences for our public schools. As writer Sarah Carr explains in the series introduction:

Over the last 20 years, the number of Hispanic public schoolchildren has more than doubled, and the number of Asians has swelled by 56 percent. The number of black students and American Indians grew far more modestly—but the number of white students fell by about 15 percent.
The majority-minority milestone has arrived in our public schools early—a consequence of white children’s overrepresentation in private schools and the relative youth of America’s black and Hispanic populations. It is not a fluke. It is a preview of a transforming country. 

One of the things Carr points out that we may not think much about is the lack of diversity among our public school teachers and how that can sometimes affect their ability to connect with and mentor students of color and students from less affluent backgrounds. At a time when half our public school students are students of color, more than half are low-income, and almost a quarter are foreign-born or have a foreign-born parent, about 80 percent of our teachers are white.

This week, the Tomorrow’s Test series will visit 11 schools across the country, starting in Alaska and New Orleans. The articles will look at questions of diversity, immigration, segregation, and poverty, and will chronicle kids, families, and schools all looking for better education alternatives in this time of change.

Let us know if you’re reading the series and what you find inspiring, surprising, and relevant to our schools in Austin.

Shelley Sperry

A way outside of the box

Zach Hurdle is director of math education at Skybridge Academy in Dripping Springs and a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Texas State University. He joins us on the blog to share some of his own journey as a learner and educator, as well as his thoughts on how students really feel about math and learn it best. He also invites Austin-area teens and tweens to a unique summer camp he’s co-leading with Skybridge social studies director Tyler Merwin.

I grew up in a traditional public school system in north Dallas. I was thrown into a competitive blender full of students I sometimes knew, but mostly didn’t, and was one of hundreds in what would end up being a graduating class of 1,167. I didn’t have relationships with most of my teachers. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if they remembered my first name. But then, that’s just what school is for everyone, correct?

Clearly not.

I didn’t know there were places in education like Skybridge Academy. Sure, alternative education is alive and thriving in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got an opportunity to teach mathematics at this private school that I realized we could make a place for those kids who think outside of the box and want learning to be an experience rather than a chore. That’s part of how I have created my teaching strategy: it’s formed as a direct result of the job. I’ve learned as my students have learned.

We focus on relationships in the classroom. Relationships among students, relationships between myself and the students, relationships with mathematics. Strangely enough, math doesn’t have to be some terrible ordeal, created solely to make kids’ lives harder. Once the pressure to understand everything the teacher is telling them is lifted, students realize that they can achieve goals greater than themselves. At Skybridge, we don’t put the pressure of grades on kids. How can they value the process of learning cohesively if there is an underlying need to outscore each other on tests?

What really makes school hard for thinkers is not just that teachers say so much that doesn't make sense, but that they say it in exactly the way they say things that are sensible, so that the child comes to feel—as he is intended to—that when he doesn't understand it is his fault.
—John Holt

Part of what makes the math experience at Skybridge different from others is that students make their way through the curriculum at their own pace. Of course some ideas may be more difficult than others; this is only natural. That’s how life works, and it’s how mathematics works as well. Why should a student struggling with a problem set have to be pushed forward despite minimal understanding for the sake of moving the class forward? Why should students who are excelling at a topic have to pause their process for others to catch up before continuing? Students will learn, as teachers should highly expect, but they will learn from internalizing, self-actualization, confidence, and practice.

Allied to imagination is the notion of engagement. Exercising imagination is inherently engaging, so a classroom in which students use their imaginations to study content, play with ideas, and imagine new possibilities should be an engaging one.
—Alison James & Stephen Brookfield

With this kind of education comes freedom. I don’t experience this freedom alone in lesson planning; the students feel less pressure, too, and can leap to meet high expectations. While we cover material that students throughout the country are expected to learn, we do it in engaging ways: building polyhedrons, evaluating percentages on field trips to stores or restaurants, evaluating the importance of ratios in actual cooking scenarios, to name a few. But at the same time, students also recognize the value in repetition and exercise. They don’t typically hate math, they just hate the system that comes with math. Students hate not knowing how to do something and being expected to grasp it immediately. Wouldn’t you?

Math, Cooking, Reading, Playing: A Summer Camp

I have teamed up with Tyler Merwin, head of social studies at Skybridge, to offer a summer camp because we’ve found that our students miss school over the break! Further, we feel that students outside of the Skybridge community could benefit from taking a glimpse into the culture we share at this school, to test the waters of a different way of learning, so we have opened this camp up to the public as well. The idea started as a math camp, but gradually morphed. It will include group dialogues about social issues, mathematics exercises and activities, and time set aside for reading, cooking practice, outdoor play, video games, and general socialization.

If you (or a young person you know) would like to join in for academic and social rejuvenation over the summer, here are the details:

Dates: July 11–July 15, 2016 (8:30am–4pm)
Ages: 11–18 (middle and high school)
Location: Skybridge Academy, 26450 Ranch Rd 12, Dripping Springs, TX
Cost: $450 (includes lunches)
What to bring: A laptop, snacks, water bottle, reading book
How to sign up: Contact Tyler Merwin, 608-751-2947, or Zach Hurdle, 469-556-9617,

Zach Hurdle

The “write” way

Melissa “Missy” Menzes is an occupational therapist and founder of Extra Credit! LLC. She is passionate about and highly successful at serving children in our community who have “fallen through the cracks” at school. Today she returns as our guest to give parents some insight and practical advice on supporting children with handwriting difficulties.

Handwriting help is, by far, the most common reason for referral at Extra Credit! LLC. I thought it might be helpful to address some of the most frequent questions we get with some developmental background and quick tips. The summer is a great time to work on these issues. For more specific help, a free handwriting screening, or formal assessment, contact

Hand Use

Developmental Background: Bilaterality, or alternating hand use, occurs at 2–3 years. Lateral preference, or being able to use one side of the body more proficiently than the other, is usually achieved by age 3–4. Between 4 and 6 years, children develop more unilateral abilities. Developing a preference assists with directional concepts, brain hemisphere specialization, and refinement of manual skills. Hand dominance, or a strong consistency to use one hand during task-oriented activities, typically occurs between 6 and 7 years of age. By age 7–8 children should know left and right sides of their bodies well. Well-integrated dominance does not always occur until 8–9 years in many children. “Mixed Use/Dominance” is often due to lack of proximal stability or endurance, poor bilateral integration, and problems in manual dexterity. It is quite common with children who have learning disorders. True biological-based ambidexterity is quite rare and often has a genetic basis.

Quick Tips: Encourage awareness of both sides of the body and of directions by playing games like Hokey Pokey, Twister, Hop Scotch, and Simon Says. Have child pick the hand they want to use during a task and do not allow switching in the middle of the task. Place objects to either side of the body midline and spread out to encourage rotation of the trunk to help reaching across with the opposite hand. Sit on varying sides of a child and have them move around so that there is not unintended positional bias toward the child using one hand over the other. Put a watch or bracelet on the writing hand as a tactile cue, and use cognitive-recall strategies such as “I write with my right hand.” (Note: Left-handedness can bring a lot more challenges. I would recommend contacting us for support if you have a left-handed writer who is struggling and needs assistance.)

Pencil Grasp

Developmental Background: A fisted grasp is typical from 1–1.5 years. From age 2–3 a brush-style grasp is common; here, the arm is in the air and the pointer finger is extended toward the tip of the writing utensil. Next, typically a static (moving wrist, stationary fingers) pattern in opposition to the thumb is common and then a dynamic (moving fingers, stationary wrist) pattern with four fingers resting against the tool (quadropod). By 3.5 to 4 years, three fingers of stability are more common (tripod). A mature, efficient dynamic tripod grip is expected by 4.5 to 6 years of development. The dynamic tripod offers the best mechanical advantage for writing small and controlled letters for a long time. If a child has joint hypermobility or poor proximal stability, he or she will seek positions of best stability for comfort and endurance, but problems arise when this method causes pain, discomfort, fatigue, or joint deformity. Several specific developmental skills are needed before a mature grasp can be achieved. Research has proven that there are four grasp patterns that are considered functional for writing (static and dynamic tripod and quadropod grips). After around second grade or age 7, research says that a grasp pattern is locked in and cannot usually be successfully changed without external remedial supports (such as an adaptive pencil grip or tool).

Quick Tips: Using small pieces of crayons or chalk often encourages a three-finger grasp pattern. Drawing at vertical surfaces facilitates a wrist action called tenodesis that mimics the tripod grasp and improves wrist and shoulder proximal stability necessary for better distal fine motor control. Golf-sized pencils are better for kindergarten-sized hands. Squirt bottles, scissors, and climbing/hanging encourage opposition of the thumb and strengthen the hand arches. Fine motor activities with beads, bands, lacing, pinching, twisting, tool use, and manipulatives all improve strength and coordination useful in maturing grasp patterns. (Note: There are many commercial grips and a few tools that can help improve efficiency in an older child, but I would suggest working with an occupational therapist for best success with grip accommodation strategies. These options usually don’t work well unless done right, and sometimes a developmental hand program is needed before remedial options should be introduced.)


Developmental Background: It’s not unusual or uncommon for preschoolers and kindergarteners to reverse several letters and numbers. By age 6, children should write capital and lowercase letters and numbers 1–9 with 85 percent correct orientation. By age 7, symbol accuracy should be 90 percent, and by age 8–9, 100 percent correct orientation is a suggested target. In many cases, reversals are either due to problems with spatial orientation, laterality, start, or sequencing of symbols. Children age 5–6 should identify their own left/right limbs with 75 percent accuracy. Children 7 and above should begin to identify what side objects are in relationship to each other, and typically by age 9 kids can understand lateral concepts on other people. When shown a mixture of reversed and correctly oriented symbols, children age 5 will typically make numerous mistakes identifying what is correct, but by ages 9–10 such recognition errors should be highly accurate.

Quick Tips: To reduce symbol reversals, teach correct start and sequence with a multisensory program (hear, see, feel, do big) and provide a visual letter template so that kids can compare work for editing. Worksheets and free writing without close facilitation are never encouraged because this is where young kids develop so many bad habits that go “unseen.” Kids often draw symbols in incorrect sequences or with inconsistent patterns and never get an appropriate motor memory of the correct formation, which is a necessary foundation to advancements in writing. Handwriting Without Tears uses several methods that help reduce reversals. Play “Mystery Letter” by drawing on the back or in the air or on something textured with the finger. Kids will recognize mistakes more quickly in these ways than in small works or in words. (Note: Sometimes reversals may indicate the need for additional screening. They can be symptoms of a visual or neuro-based condition.)


Writing has a lot of important benefits, and no matter how much our society advances toward communicating with digital technology, the importance of legible and functional writing skills should never be overlooked. Kids should learn print and cursive and then focus on the one that suits his/her best before adding “flair.” I think it makes the most sense to begin with a solid foundation in print and then to add cursive. Some children do best with a vertical style, while a few others do better with a slanted one. Each child is different; there is no one way that is best for everyone.

When it comes to recommending a specific curriculum, I prefer Handwriting Without Tears because of its heavy emphasis on multisensory, kinesthetic, and developmentally appropriate instruction. I also like that the print, cursive, and keyboarding programs all reinforce each other. If done correctly, the kids should be working with fine motor manipulatives, grip, and learning formation through fun songs and games before even doing pencil-paper lessons. The double-lined paper is excellent for kids with visual-spatial-organization difficulties, and the workbooks reinforce early literacy and are not biased to the right-handed child.

I have been trained in several great programs and am certified in handwriting. As an occupational therapist, I naturally combine the best of all and give it my own spin. I always find success when something is fun, active, repetitive, meaningful, individualized, and the “just right” challenge.

Another major helper, as weird as it may sound, is music. More than anything else, I and my clients have truly been amazed by what sound therapy (even if purely home-based) can do for legibility. I’m not a sound engineer, but I have been trained in five different sound therapy approaches, and while they are each unique, the concepts and results are basically the same. Some programs are just a little more accessible or appropriate than others.

Lastly, when all else fails, I like to encourage exploration of assistive technology. With a few simple and modern supports, I have seen kids go from failing to passing homework assignments. Others have transitioned from hating writing to loving it. Who knows, maybe like one of my last kiddos, yours will be the next great author! The point is, sometimes a little support can go a long way, and it’s not about giving up; it’s about emphasizing strengths and leveling the playing field.

Melissa “Missy” Menzes, OTR