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A Guide to Every Grade

Jon Whittle
            • Sixth Grade

              In the old days  -- -say, when you were in grade school  -- -sixth grade was part of elementary school. Nowadays, that's less common. Sixth is often the first grade in middle school; there are even some schools that are entirely sixth grade. But wherever sixth grade happens, the children are the same age, going through that same preteen confusion-laced excitement. Sixth-graders have been trained to think for themselves and they're more than prepared to do that now, with much vigor. They like to complain a lot, too, so brace yourself. And if you haven't yet done this too well, take a crash course in learning how to let go: Sixth-graders demand a lot of independence, even as they are not always emotionally ready for it.

              What to Expect

              1. Transition-related challenges. For many, sixth grade is the first year of middle school, and with it comes a new type of school day: multiple teachers, changing classes, larger building, decreased parental input, and new grading procedures and testing logistics.

              2. Fifth grade, redux. When all is said and done, sixth grade is not all that much different from fifth when it comes to content, with perhaps an added focus on "thematic units" of study. Teachers use the year to identify weaknesses and shore up skills students will need as they proceed into the upper grades of middle school.

              3. Longer-term reading assignments. Time budgeting skills begun in fifth grade become important when pacing out week-long, or even month-long, assignments.

              4. "Grown-up" work. Sixth-graders like the trappings of adult-style work, including detailed research, constructing bibliographies, and complex mathematical reasoning. They will get all of this and more, in all their classes.

              5. Math struggles to stay relevant. Sixth-graders are very capable of dealing with elaborate computations, understanding patterns and probability, and solving logic problems  -- but they still have trouble (as many of us do!) fully understanding math as a stand-alone subject. Math works best integrated with science, social studies, and language arts. Not all schools manage to do this.

              6. Ancient worlds. They're still studying ancient civilizations in sixth grade, much as you might remember. But in addition to the usual suspects, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, schools today often head, multiculturally, toward India and China as well.

              7. Computerization. While not all elementary schools are equally wired, and the benefits of the computer continue to be debated at the grade-school level, there is no doubt that computers become a key part of the middle-school environment.

              Watch Out for:



              • Homework nightmares. Some schools are better than others at instituting a global sense of homework. Many students face an onslaught of unprecedented proportions thanks to having multiple teachers. Word has it that the homework situation smooths out by seventh grade.


              • Communication breakdown. Because of what sixth-graders are going through emotionally, they may become far less interested in discussing things with their parents. Don't stop trying, however. Children still want and need parental guidance. Use new approaches. Just when your child may begin to act as if he deserves less respect is exactly when you need to treat him with more.


              • Social flux and uncertainty. Peer pressure kicks in big time, along with cliques and other difficult new social realities, including dating.


              • Symptoms of stress. When sixth grade is the first year of middle school, some children are at risk for serious stress. Keep an eye on your child and make sure her needs (good nutrition, a decent night's sleep, physical exercise) are being met.