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Where Does Sixth Grade Belong?

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Should sixth grade be in the middle school? the elementary school? a school all its own?

The trend is clear: A growing number of communities are moving sixth graders out of K-6 elementary schools and into middle schools. Not every parent or every community, however, endorses the move!

In Cupertino, California, more that 200 parents signed a petitiion opposing a plan to convert junior high schools for seventh- and eighth-graders into middle schools that include sixth-graders. "I want my kids to stay young, to grow at their own pace," said Sherrie Karleskind, a parent in Cupertino, California, quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle story.

Opposition to putting all sixth-graders in middle school also raised alarm last winter in Austin, Texas. "Many sixth graders are ready for middle school, but many are not," Diane Singleton, a parent, told the Austin-American Statesman. Singleton and other parents voiced concern that some sixth-graders were not emotionally mature enough to attend school with older children.

Some parents also fear that their children will get the worst of it in fights with older children who are more physically mature.

Another parent, Debbie Hanna, holds a different point of view. She spoke of her fears when sixth grade was eliminated from her children's school. "It was very difficult for me," she said. But, she continued, "I have come to the conclusion that sixth-graders in middle school is a very age-appropriate grouping. Physically, socially, and emotionally, the average sixth-grade child is more closely aligned to an eighth-grader than to a first-grader." Most educators and researchers would agree that sixth-graders are physically and psychologically closer to seventh- and eighth-graders.


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Yet many parents still ask the question: Are our sixth-grade children ready to attend school with seventh- and eighth-graders? In the debate over where sixth grade belongs, it is parents who often prefer that their children remain within the protective walls of an elementary school.

Experts say many sixth-graders are ready for middle school and some are not. But, these experts continue, the question of how schools should be configured (K-6 and 7-8; K-5 and 6-8; or yet another configuration) cannot easily be answered.

A report, Grade Span Configuration: Who Goes Where?, from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, looked at eight different schools with seven different grade configurations. The report zeroes in on communities' reasons for particular configurations as well as the plusses and minuses of each approach. (See the end of this article for information on how to obtain a copy of the report.)

The report utilizes available research to conclude that the effectiveness of various groupings varies from community to community and school to school. Many factors, the report states, must be considered when determining which grade configuration suits the needs of a community, including:

  • number of students;
  • transportation spending;
  • socioeconomic background of the student population;
  • school system goals for student achievement;
  • effects on other schools;
  • number of transitions for affected students;
  • school building design; and
  • effects on parent involvement.

The essential viewpoint of the report is that what is effective for one community or in one school situation might not work well for another. Each community has to examine the above factors and other relevant factors to determine what grade configuration will work best.


How the transition from elementary school to middle school is handled will influence how well students make the transition, whether those students are fifth-graders going into sixth grade or sixth-graders entering seventh. But for fifth-graders entering sixth grade a smooth, helpful transition is especially critical.

What makes the transition to middle school difficult includes these changes:

  • academic demands tend to be tougher than in elementary school;
  • middle schools tend to be larger than elementary schools;
  • students are accountable to different teachers in each subject;
  • many students are experiencing the onset of puberty and awareness of the opposite sex;
  • often students leave behind one group of friends to mix with a new group;
  • students move from being the most oldest students in their environment to being the youngest; and
  • behavioral standards are different than among elementary students.

"Kids go through more changes between the ages of 10 and 14 than at any other time of their lives, other than the first 18 months," stated Sue Swaim, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based National Middle School Association, in a Christian Science Monitor news story. "What we're seeing is more schools developing a structured transition program for the students and parents after seeing the success of it in other schools."

To help students make the big switch with fewer problems, many middle schools launch the transition beginning in spring of the previous school year. In March, many middle school principals meet with sixth graders in the elementary schools that will send students to the middle schools. In August, a more nitty-gritty orientation occurs at the middle school, where students can use the day to find their lockers and meet with teachers and counselors.

Many middle schools also treat sixth-graders a bit differently from seventh- and eighth-graders, having them eat lunch separately and work with two or three different teachers instead of the five or six teachers teaching each seventh- and eighth-grader.


Sometimes, experts say, parents have more of a problem than their child with the child's transition to middle school. Yet parents can play a key role in their child's period of change. The following suggestions for parents come from the National Association of Secondary School Principals:

  • meet the school teachers, principal, counselors, and others who work with their children;
  • help their children navigate around the new school; a larger building may be intimidating at first;
  • make sure their children understand that they are held responsible for knowing school rules and following them;
  • help their children realize that inappropriate actions in school have consequences;
  • know their children's friends, and help them choose friends intelligently;
  • foster engagement in school activities;
  • make sure homework is being completed.

Yet there is more to middle-school adjustment than appropriate parental involvement. A top-notch middle school, experts say, offers incoming students more than just an orientation day in August or September. As Marian White-Hood, principal of Kettering Middle School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, told the [set ITAL] Christian Science Monitor: "Getting students properly adjusted requires constant monitoring throughout the year."


Making the Transition from Fifth to Sixth Grade
For ideas on making the transition from elementary to middle school, this essay offers a number of solid suggestions, from having fifth-graders spend a few hours at the middle school while eighth-graders are off on their field day to identifying students who may need extra help in sixth grade and having guidance counselors meet with them frequently throughout their first year in middle school.

Middle School Malaise
An analysis from the American Psychological Association examining "middle school malaise," or problems some students have in the transition from elementary to middle school. The paper discusses which students do the best and what parents can do to help.

Welcome to Sixth Grade
Middle school is a time of many changes for both students and their parents. The staff at Aplington-Parkersburg Middle School (Iowa) provide a structure to make the transition to middle school as smooth as possible.

Grade 5 in the Middle School
Most studies of school-transition target grade 6 for the sample population and do not address the appropriateness of grade 5's inclusion in elementary or middle schools. Aside from district considerations of building capacities, zoning, and enrollments, research centers on the match between the developmental status of fifth/sixth graders and the setting of the host school, the effects of transition on the students, and school programs to familiarize the student with the new school environment.

Supporting Students in Their Transition to Middle School
This position paper was jointly sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the National Middle School Association (NMSA).

The Transition to Middle School (ERIC Digest)
This Digest presents a brief overview of some of the issues involved in the transition from elementary to middle school and provides suggestions for transition programs and activities.

Transition to Middle School
Most schools provide some sort of transition program for students in their final year of elementary school consisting of a parent/student night, followed by a tour of the school for students sometime in the spring. These are excellent activities, but they do not address the questions and anxieties these students have.


Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World


Originally published 04/13/1998.  Last updated 11/19/2019