GEORGETOWN, Texas, Feb. 4 (AScribe Newswire) — Some of them weigh 200 pounds, stand six-feet high and wear size 11 shoes. Others are barely tall enough to reach over the lunch counter at school. Most are still losing their last baby teeth. A few shave regularly.

More are becoming sexually active, yet some still trot home after school to play with dolls or toy trucks. Some begin to experiment with alcohol and tobacco while others are perfectly happy with juice boxes and snack packs.

Educators agree: About the only generalization that can be made about sixth graders is that they are remarkably diverse. Teetering on the age of adolescence, sixth graders stand smack dab at a major crossroads in their development.

This age, between 10 and 12, when girls begin to use makeup and wear bras and boys begin to notice girls, is what education theorist Jean Piaget called the “formal operational” stage of development, when their capacity for abstract and critical thought reaches new heights.

“They are at that age when they’re beginning to experience a lot of adult-type feelings, but they’re still trying to comprehend through the mind of a child,” explains former middle school teacher Jim Hunt, now provost and dean of the faculty and professor of education at Southwestern University in Georgetown.

“In most cases the physical changes precede the emotional changes. Then, suddenly, they want to be mature without understanding the responsibilities that go with maturity.” Even so, the level of maturity has shifted downward as children are exposed to more adult experiences at a younger age. “Questions arise in their mind much sooner than what used to be,” he says. “If you go into a middle school today, you’d swear you were in high school.”

Hunt says education experts are increasingly aware that one of the main problems sixth graders share is that they don’t have a sense of belonging at school. “Everybody has a need to belong–it’s part of our human condition,” Hunt says. “But what happens at that age is that it becomes more and more difficult to belong. Kids can be pretty hard on one another. In sixth grade, the most important group to belong to is their peer group, not their family. This is when they begin to move out of the family circle and bond with friends.”

He believes schools have recognized the need to adapt to the unique needs of sixth-grade students. Middle schools are less like impersonal high schools and have taken on more elementary school characteristics.

University of Florida Professor of Education Paul S. George, who was named “the foremost expert on middle schools in the country” by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), says that middle school requires a balance between academic pressure and social support. “You can’t just talk about academic achievement scores. You can’t just talk about caring about the kids. You have to organize and operate the school and each classroom with this delicate balance. It also means organizing the school so it feels small and personal.”

“Sixth grade may be the most critical transitional year in the educational life of a student,” says Randy Adair, principal of Benold Middle School in Georgetown. While the physical plant and scheduling of his school are set up to keep sixth-grade students somewhat isolated from seventh and eighth graders, he says, “There is a need for connections and continuity between grade levels as they move from the broad-based instruction of elementary school to the specialized instruction of middle and secondary schools.”

Academic achievement also takes on a new importance for middle schoolers. The pressure is on for teachers and students to be prepared for the more rigorous Recommended High School Plan, newly-required by the state of Texas. Middle schoolers also now face the tougher Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests.

Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione–whose urban school district enrolls about 5,000 sixth graders–knows the public spotlight is on middle schools.

“We aren’t standing around watching our middle-school students enter adolescence and simply hoping for the best. We are building a strong middle-school curriculum based on Texas state standards–the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The curriculum is designed to propel these students into successful high school careers, and beyond.” Forgione says that Austin’s goal to have every eighth-grade student take Algebra I means that math instruction in sixth and seventh grade needs to focus on higher level skills.

“Sixth graders are encountering an academic load that is more difficult than anything they’ve had before,” he said. “Add that to the developmental and social pressures that adolescents face, and you have youngsters with the potential to be highly stressed.”

Vice-like peer pressure is one of the most visible challenges sixth graders face in their headlong rush into adolescence. In The Hurried Child, education expert David Elkind pinpointed this age between 10 and 12 as the stage when young adolescents develop a sense of “imaginary audience.”

“Because of the dramatic changes taking place in their bodies, in their feelings and emotions, young people concentrate upon themselves,” Elkind writes. “Consequently, they assume that others are as concerned with their appearance, their feelings and their thoughts as they are.”

That burgeoning need for acceptance translates into wanting to be like everyone else and, particularly in large groups, there is enormous peer pressure to conform. Changing body types only intensifies the problem. This kind of peer pressure, say counselors, often causes kids at this age to be terrifically cruel to one another.

Sixth graders also exhibit a wide range of maturity levels between males and females. Girls tend to go through puberty sooner than boys, which sets up an awkwardness between the sexes. “Boys tend to be less able to handle this at that age,” says Hunt. “They have been bombarded with sex in the media, and suddenly they are around girls who are developing–there’s a big set-up there. Sex is such a pervasive part of our society that it’s easy for adolescents to become detached from what intimacy is all about. Even though they are exposed to a lot of sexuality in our society, there is a certain developmental aspect of it that they are not capable of handling yet.”

“For example,” Hunt continues, “the average life of a boy-girl relationship in sixth grade seems to be about four days. And the girls tend to run around in groups of six or seven, with one of them on the ‘outs’ with the group, and that person changes from week to week.” Hunt stresses that communication is the key to surviving the sixth-grade year as parents. “Parents have to cultivate an interest in the things that interest their in order to be able to keep the lines of communication open about more important issues, like sexuality.”

“Most kids’ interests are different than their parents, and parents shouldn’t expect their children to cultivate much of an interest in their parents’ activities. As their interests in the sixth grade have less and less to do with the family, parents have to make far more of an effort to find out what their child’s interests are and get on that level,” he explains.

George believes that young adolescents and their parents have more distance in their lives than when they are children or young adults. He says, “They sort of have a mutual agreement that they are temporarily estranged from one another. Consequently, teachers don’t have the support of parents like elementary people do.”

Carlos Cantu, principal of Tippit Middle School in Georgetown, emphasizes the importance of parental involvement in the schools. “Students at that age with involved parents are more likely to be successful. Join PTA. Mentor. Volunteer at the library or wherever the school needs help. If you aren’t getting progress reports from teachers, call them. Be an active participant in your child’s education.” Adair agrees. He says, “Stay connected personally. Foster a belief that we are all learning.”

One last piece of advice. “When you talk to your sixth grader, be careful not to be judgmental,” Hunt says. “Listen and be supportive. As a parent of a student this age, a lot of times you think something is cute and funny and you want to tease them about their latest relationship or whatever, but it’s not right to do that. You are kidding a sixth grader who is basically going through very tumultuous times.”

“If you can find ways of helping them belong in productive ways, if you can be honest about your concerns without turning your back on the reality of what is going on in their lives, then you can help them make the connection between all of the different things that they are feeling.”

ABOUT SOUTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

Southwestern University is a selective, undergraduate, national liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,265 students. The first institution of higher learning in Texas, Southwestern was chartered in 1840 and consists of The Brown College of Arts and Sciences and The Sarofim School of Fine Arts. Southwestern is a member of the Associated Colleges of the South, the Council of Independent Colleges and the Annapolis Group, a consortium of the nation’s leading liberal arts institutions.