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What's happening to my 6th grader?

What’s Happening to my Sixth Grader?

If you’re feeling bewildered in the new land of middle school, you’re not alone. As your child starts sixth grade, they’re entering a world with new subjects, a much larger group of peers and a host of changes in their minds and bodies.

Here are a few four pain points you might relate to, along with tips on how to best support your child as they grow.


Welcome to the season of testing boundaries! Adolescent children are constantly experimenting, testing how they relate to authority, to their friends and to themselves.

According to neuroscientists, your child’s brain is growing primarily in the prefontal cortex of their frontal lobes, the center of decision-making and judgment, so as your child takes risks, they are forming a framework for what’s possible in the world.

You can create a more secure environment for risk-taking by monitoring your child—knowing where they are and who they’re with—and by making the space for conversations about risk-taking behaviors. The ultimate goal is help them make better judgments.   

Ways to start a conversation about risks

  • When I was your age, I had a lot of questions about ______________.
  • Have you noticed other kids in school talking about ______________?

Feeling All the Emotions

Sixth grade comes with a ton of emotions. Middle schoolers actually spend more time with their peers than either elementary or high school students, so the pressure to fit in can be strong. To top it off, puberty brings on higher doses of hormones.

Tracey Neubrand, veteran sixth grade science teacher at DSST: Stapleton, observes, “Over the course of the sixth grade year, students actually become less stable emotionally.” Whether students have strong feelings about their friends, their academic success, their romantic crushes, “finding out all of the different variables makes the difference,” he explains:

“Keep your ears open and make sure you understand what the kid’s going through because oftentimes they don’t talk about it. The more ears they have, the better off they will be.”

Ways to practice listening

  • Suspend judgments. Stay curious and give your child your full attention.
  • Offer verbal tosses like “Tell me more.” “How did you feel about that?”
  • Paraphrase what your child is sharing. “I heard you say ______. Is that accurate?”

Acting Impulsively

As you might guess from above, middle schoolers tend to act first, think later. A generation ago, teachers might called impulsiveness a personality trait, but now scientists have pinpointed it as a signal in our brains, one that we can learn to control.  

Tracey says the biggest lever for kids is slowing down after an impulsive event: “We try to give kids spaces opportunities to process their actions and evaluate their decisions. This teaches them how to handle things better in the future.”

Parents and teachers, whether they realize it or not, are constantly modeling for their students. Helping them develop greater awareness will reduce impulsive actions. “It’s a learned skill,” Tracey acknowledges, ”and it’s something that takes awhile to teach.”

Ways to inspire reflection

  • Did you understand what happened when ________?
  • What words did you choose in that moment?
  • What did you feel when you said or did that?
  • What do you think the other kid was thinking at the time?

Craving Independence

Like it or not, middle school students are on a journey toward greater independence. Sometimes they may be consciously disobedient and other times they may be absorbed in their own world or activities and not realize their impact on others. The tension here is between independence and responsibility.  

One parent told us, “My child has always been a really good kid. But once he got to middle school, I would ask him to do something as easy as feeding our dog, and his response was ‘just one second.’ Sometimes that ‘one’ second turns into hours.”  

Setting clear boundaries is important here. Remember that as their frontal lobe develops, your child will gradually understand cause and effect, but they may need your help in explaining consequences.

Ways to honor your child’s independence while setting clear boundaries.

  • Explain why it matters. “The reason I’m asking you to do this is . . .”
  • Use “when” not “if.” “When you complete your math homework, you can visit your friend.”
  • If your child already knows what they are responsible for doing, ask for a “by when” agreement: “When can you commit to completing ______?”

The Big Takeaway

Staying patient with your child as they grow will go far. Your elementary student may have gone away, but there is plenty to love about your middle school student right now, and they need you right beside them more than ever.  

Like this story? Read our 6th grade teachers' guide to inspiring life long reading.

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