When executives at the Australian software company Atlassian came up with the concept of a FedEx Day, during which employees would be given free rein to invent and deliver new products, they probably didn't envision the impact it would have on a sixth grade classroom in suburban Chicago.
But Josh Stumpenhorst did. In 2011, he launched a classroom version of FedEx Day as a way to foster student engagement. More than 250 sixth graders tackled self-selected projects that ranged from constructing a model of the Eiffel Tower and performing an original comedy act to researching and presenting information about Holocaust camps.
Instead of goofing around as 11-year-olds are wont to do, the students set rigorous goals for themselves and relied on their teacher as a resource only after attempting to solve their own problems.
In many ways, it's a concept parents can apply as they help their children succeed in sixth grade. When you advocate for your child's interests, empower him to envision solutions, and act as a sounding board, you're fostering positive habits that will reach far beyond middle school.
Don't be surprised if your once-enthralled-with-school student suddenly puts the brakes on his enthusiasm for the classroom. The jump to middle school is rife with new stressors: changing classrooms, remembering locker combinations, handling complex homework assignments and managing peer relationships.
Fortunately, it's also full of new discoveries. For example, if your sixth grader's American history assignments prompt a fondness for Civil War, you should jump on the bandwagon, too. Whether this means watching Confederates and Yankees battle it out on DVD rentals at home or taking an impromptu family trip to historic forts, validating your child's newfound interest or idea has a big pay-off. Not only will he get plugged-in to the learning process, but you'll boost his self-esteem, too.
Don't Put It on Cruise Control
You're well into the sixth grade school year, and things are going well. Your child's staying out of trouble, seems to be navigating his new class schedule and doesn't need you to closely monitor his homework progress. Although you may be tempted to pat yourself on the back and put your parenting on cruise control, don't give in just yet.
Sixth graders operate with one foot in adulthood and one firmly entrenched in toddlerland -- and this is developmentally right on track. So, if your child approaches school (and life in general) with an eerily mature mentality and then seems to regress into tears overnight, take heart: He's just as confused as you are.
Not only is he experiencing a rush of hormones and a spate of new experiences, but these changes are converging on a rapidly growing brain. Not since he was an infant-turned-toddler has your child's brain bloomed with such voracity [source: Ghezzi].
Offer Choices, Enforce Limits
There's no better time to cling to the adage "choose your battles wisely" than during the transition from childhood to adolescence. If your sixth grader wants to wear athletic shorts to school in the winter or cultivate an anti-Bieber hairstyle, let him.
Offering opportunities to become autonomous will help your sixth grader become independent. It will also allow him to experience the consequences of his choices, both negative and positive, while still benefitting from a parental safety net. It will be easier (for everyone) if he can learn from his mistakes while riding a bicycle instead of a driving a car.
You can help your sixth grader by enforcing limits, too. The yin to autonomy's yang, these guidelines build confidence and a sense of security that comes with clear expectations [source: Plugged in Parents].
It's no secret that team sports benefit sixth graders. Not only will your child master new skills, but he'll also become plugged into a positive peer group. Emerging research even contends that when children invest a lot of time in sports, they learn strategic thinking methods that spill over into other areas of life [source: Price-Mitchell].
Team sports aren't limited to the basketball court or football field, though. The key is to get your student get involved, whatever the pursuit. You can help by conducting some behind-the-scenes research and steering your student in the right direction. Does your sixth grader's school have a chess team, book club or science competition? If not, perhaps you could help start a school organization that reflects your child's interests, such as paleontology.
Be a Shock Absorber
You once navigated the transition from elementary to middle school, and now's the time to pass on your wisdom to your child. We're not suggesting your regale them with stories of "when I was your age ...." You could, however, deflect some of the stressors that await your student by helping him get organized.
For a sixth grader, organization is more than simply knowing where the books and pencils lie. It means helping him develop a system that will form the foundation for high school and college. Help your student get in the habit of tracking assignments on a weekly assignment sheet, whether in paper or electronic form. As your student checks this sheet daily, it will remind him which supplies he needs for class. It will also prompt him to plan ahead and complete assignments due later in the week [source: Peters].
By helping your student learn the ropes, you'll be acting as a shock absorber for all the changes that lie ahead -- and there's no better way to help your sixth grader succeed.
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Author's Note: 5 Ways You Can Help Your Child Succeed in Sixth Grade
As the parent of a son who recently finished sixth grade and two daughters who will eventually reach that milestone, I researched these tips like I was studying for a graduate exam. I was relieved to discover that I'd inadvertently set my son up for success by encouraging the exploration of his particular interests (we either have a software engineer or a wheat farmer on our hands). I was glad to find a number of additional steps I can take to help my girls prepare for sixth grade someday. You can bet they'll be mastering the art of organization. Is preschool too early to start?
- Ghezzi, Patti. "Sixth Grade Social Changes: What to Expect." School Family. (June 26, 2012) http://www.schoolfamily.com/school-family-articles/article/10625-sixth-grade-social-changes-what-to-expect/
- Peters, Ruth. "How to Get Kids Organized for Middle School." MSNBC. (June 26, 2012) http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20425248/ns/today-parenting_and_family/t/how-get-kids-organized-middle-school/
- Plugged in Parents. "Practicing Healthy Discipline." Oct. 4, 2010. (June 26, 2012) http://www.pluggedinparents.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=172&itemid=0
- Price-Mitchell, Marilyn. "The Psychology of Youth Sports." Psychology Today. Jan. 8, 2012. (June 26, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moment-youth/201201/the-psychology-youth-sports
- Stumpenhorst, Joe. "Innovation Day 2011." Personal Blog. March 4, 2011. (June 26, 2012) http://stumpteacher.blogspot.com/2011/03/innovation-day-2011.html