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Facing the Sixth-Grader Challenge

Stephanie Martin

"EVERYBODY is shrinking!"

That's what one sixth-grader told Jim Still-Pepper, a psychologist in Ohio. And in a very real sense, it's true. While the rest of the world seems to be standing still, sixth-graders are growing at a feverish pace-not just physically, but in all facets of their lives. They're facing a maze of confusing changes within themselves and without-as new schools, new rules, and new people loom ahead. Although these changes present challenges to children's workers, they're also a gold mine of opportunities. Foundations are being laid at ages 11 and 12 that'll affect kids throughout adulthood, Still-Pepper says. Here's a look at sixth-grader characteristics and needs, as well as ways you can address and meet them in your ministry.

TRANSITION TIME

The trait that most accurately zeros in on sixth-graders' identity is that they're "inbetweeners." Even at church, sixth-graders often feel as if they don't belong. Many think they're too old for Sunday school but are intimidated by junior high kids. And sixth-graders can differ vastly from one another. Girls who mature faster are often more willing to move on than late bloomers are.

This transition stage offers several challenges for people who work with sixth-graders: Lack of focus -- Because these kids are being stretched and pulled beyond their limits, staying focused can often be difficult for them. Still-Pepper compares this to traumatic experiences adults face. "When we're stretched, we're distracted more easily and can't concentrate very well," he says. High energy -- Another challenge is sixth-graders' unpredictable bursts of energy. Linda Allen, a children's ministry coordinator in Oklahoma, attempts to "channel their enthusiasm" before it gets expressed through rowdy, silly, or childish behavior.

Programming placement -- A third dilemma of working with kids in transition is deciding where they physically belong in your program. When CHILDREN'S MINISTRY Magazine asked readers if they involve sixth-graders in youth group activities, half said flat-out "never." Reasons range from "They'd never want to go back to children's ministry" to "We want to give them something to look forward to." Sharon Baldwin, a children's pastor in New York, says, "They'll have six years in the youth department. They seem to get lost when we move them up-even in seventh grade." People who do involve sixth-graders in youth activities often do so because local schools have already moved sixth-graders to junior high or middle school.


THE NEED TO LEAD

All our survey respondents recognize another important sixth-grade trait: the need to take on responsibilities and be challenged. Still-Pepper says this phenomenon can be traced back to sixth-graders' transition time. "Developmentally," he says, "sixth-graders are going through a stage where they think they're different from everyone else. They need to feel special, and they're hoping that the 'difference' they feel is because they are special."

Children's ministers can harness this need for reassurance -- and attention -- by giving sixth-graders leadership roles. Almost all the children's ministers surveyed do this in children's church. Sixth-graders serve as sound and light technicians, ushers, greeters, song leaders, and offering collectors. They also help with setup, drama, puppet ministries, messages, and service planning. Other custom-made opportunities for sixth-grade leadership and service include vacation Bible school, musicals, church libraries, and nurseries. Because of their social skills and interests, sixth-graders are also adept at greeting newcomers to church, guiding children to correct classrooms, and introducing new kids to the ministry. Donni Pitzl, a children's pastor in Oregon, adds that many sixth-graders are gifted in intercessory prayer with their peers and younger kids.

Because sixth-graders frequently feel as if they don't fit in, Still-Pepper says, good children's ministry programs offer kids a chance to have an identity, to have specific responsibilities, and to "become someone." In school, by contrast, there's usually only a class president and vice president. But children's workers can help children explore their giftedness and can give everyone an important role.


DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS

In addition to being in transition and needing to feel special, sixth-graders have the following characteristics:

They're willing and receptive. Candi Cain-Borgman, a director of Christian education in Pennsylvania, frequently recruits sixth-graders for special projects because they're "willing to decorate, visit, make favors, cook-almost anything I can think of." Pitzl agrees, saying sixth-graders are "so receptive it's amazing."

They make good role models. Cain-Borgman adds that sixth-graders love planning and feel quite mature being placed in charge of younger children. Still-Pepper says sixth-graders can also shine as role models for older children because they're usually better at accepting rules and discipline.

They need social interaction. When children's ministers program for sixth-graders, they should factor in lots of time and opportunities for relationship-building. Diana Allen, a children's director in Oklahoma, says kids this age "really appreciate interaction in their teaching times."

To provide opportunities for interaction, most of the children's workers we surveyed plan special activities just for their sixth-graders. These include end-of-the-year parties and "moving up" celebrations, as well as monthly outings such as pizza nights, bowling, swim parties, and other "out-of-church" experiences. Some children's ministers also offer trips or retreats exclusively for sixth-graders.

They need customized curriculum. Because sixth-graders consider Sunday school lessons childish but have a tough time identifying with junior highers, some children's ministers adapt older curriculum for these kids. Several people told us they remove references to dating and drinking from junior high curriculum. Instead, kids discuss relationships and pressure in general.

They need solid leaders. Pitzl says sixth-graders will respond to and bond with leaders who have lots of energy and are "fun-loving, kid-loving, and, most importantly, Jesus-loving." "Having the right Sunday school teachers at this age level helps draw these kids into a nice small group of ministry," says Baldwin.

It's critical to be a friend to sixth-graders, listen to them, and have fun with them. Diana Allen says sixth-graders need to feel valued and loved and need "someone to try to understand where they are and [what] they're feeling and going through."


HANDLE WITH CARE

Perhaps the most important way children's ministers can help sixth-graders maneuver the maze of growing up is by being aware of what they're facing. Stephen Gill, a children's pastor in Michigan, encourages his colleagues to "Be sensitive to and assist [sixth-graders] in a healthy transition from children's ministry to youth ministry."

An awareness that sixth-graders are "tweens" -- not adults, not teens, and definitely not children -- can be intimidating, but it should also be cherished. Linda Allen reminds children's ministers to love sixth-graders and "enjoy being allowed to watch and participate in their blossoming into young men and women."

Stephanie Martin is a free-lance writer and editor in Colorado.


SIXTH-GRADE RETREAT

For the past seven years, Wayne Purcell, a children's pastor in California, has held an annual sixth-grade retreat to help kids prepare for adolescence. This April weekend has become a rite of passage signifying kids' entrance into the junior high program.

Although the retreat has a seminar-feel with teaching sessions, there's plenty of time for games and relationship-building. Friday's topics include adolescent changes, self-esteem, and peer pressure. In a panel discussion, high school and college students share their experiences. Boys and girls then separately watch a video from Concordia's Learning About Sex series.

In same-sex sessions on Saturday, kids learn about growth and development, sex education and morality, and pregnancy and child development. In addition, girls learn about menstruation, hormones, and emotions, while boys discuss masturbation.

Parents are encouraged to attend these sessions along with a preretreat meeting when they can preview the material. The retreat is optional, but there's always a good -- including visitors. Purcell shares the salvation message, and as a result, some kids have made faith decisions.

From this customized retreat, sixth-graders gain information and expectations about what lies ahead. They also discover that their feelings and frustrations aren't unique and that God has a great plan for each of them. As one reassured retreat-goer shares, "I'm not the only one who's weird!"


A GROUP OF THEIR OWN

At her church in Oregon, children's pastor Donni Pitzl has created a youth group-and area-exclusively for fifth- and sixth-graders. The YYG (Young Youth Group) meets in the HUB (Headquarters for the Ultimate Believer). This room sports a pingpong table, video games, and a Cool Cash Store.

On Wednesday evenings, YYG members worship together, learn a life-application lesson, meet in small groups for prayer and discussion, and then play games and socialize. On Sunday mornings, Pitzl teaches from different books of the Bible. After filling out ministry applications and receiving training, YYG kids serve as nursery assistants and greeters at Sunday evening services.

Every six to eight weeks, YYG has an overnighter or outing, such as ice skating or bowling -- an effective, nonthreatening way for kids to invite non-Christian friends. Pitzl notes that God seems "very interested" in fifth- and sixth-graders. "God is very serious about getting them to 'hook' into himself before they hit seventh grade," she says.


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