Want to support your sixth-grader's physical health? Here are some tips that experts suggest.
Activity at school
Find out how much physical activity your child is getting each day at school and what sorts of activities they are doing in gym class or at recess. This will give you a better understanding of their overall level of physical activity.
Model good behavior
School districts vary widely in the amount of physical education they offer, so it’s especially important for parents to encourage physical activity and model good behavior. Organize family activities that incorporate physical activity, such as walks and bike rides. Outdoor chores such as raking leaves or shoveling are a good way to squeeze exercise into a busy weekend.
Encourage physical activity by giving your sixth-grader toys that require movement, such as a kite, scooter, or jump rope.
Explore lessons and organized sports for your sixth-grader. These might include gymnastics or ballet classes or soccer or little league. As your child grows and their physical abilities progress, they may express an interest in sports that even a year ago were too difficult for her. Expose them to as many options for physical activities and sports as possible. Community organizations like the local YMCA often offer affordable and kid-friendly yoga or Tae Kwon Do classes, for example.
Making activity enjoyable
If you are concerned that your sixth-grader is not active enough, try to find ways to make physical activity more enjoyable for them. For example, inviting friends over to play outside might motivate her. Or suggesting that you exercise or do yoga together might spark their interest.
Walking to school
One reason that children are less physically active than in previous generations is that fewer and fewer children walk or bike to school. If doing so is a safe alternative for your child, encourage the practice.
Natural athletic ability
It is around this age that some children start to demonstrate natural athletic ability and inclination, while others resist physical activity and start to think of themselves as “not sporty.” Even if your child doesn’t seem to take to sports naturally, encourage them to try out different activities and to find one that suits her. Some children resist team sports but can excel at individual sports like tennis or track. Make sure you let them sample a variety of sports to find their interest, and think of non-traditional sports, like fencing or archery, that might appeal to her. Reward and encourage persistence, so that even if your child is not a “natural athlete” they learn to enjoy participating and pushing themselves to improve.
Selecting a sport
With some children starting puberty and beginning to grow more quickly and become stronger than their peers, physical differences among children at different stages of development become more pronounced at around this age. Take this into account when selecting a sport or activity for your child and encourage them to be patient if they feel as if they aren't as strong or as fast as others. Assure them that their growth spurt is coming soon!
Exercise and regular activity help children feel comfortable with their bodies, which becomes especially important with the advent of puberty and its accompanying changes. Make sure your sixth-grader knows about the changes that will take place in their body when they go through puberty—things like sweating more, developing stronger body odor, growing pubic hair, and having acne.
The link between physical activity and improved academic performance is becoming increasingly clear. According to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine, children perform cognitive tasks better after participating in a session of physical activity. The report also notes that “frequent bouts of physical activity throughout the day yield short-term benefits for mental and cognitive health.” Encourage your child to take play actively or exercise before doing their homework or studying and to take short active breaks from sedentary activities. For example, if they are getting bogged down on some especially homework difficult problems, suggest that your child clear their head by walking the dog or kicking a ball outside.
Limiting screen time
Limit the amount of time your child spends in front of the television or computer monitor. Children who spend a majority of their time engaged in sedentary activities have been found to have poor motor coordination skills. Limit the amount of time they remain inactive to no more than an hour at a time.
By the time they reach sixth grade many children are ready to take full responsibility for their personal hygiene. However, parents should remain involved and supervise bathing or showering to the extent that they feel is necessary. Especially if the body changes that accompany the onset of puberty have begun, it’s normal for your child to become more modest at around this age and to resist intrusion into their bathroom routine. It’s important to so strike a balance between respecting their privacy and making sure that their body is being cleaned effectively.
The precise age at which children are ready to bathe or shower on their own varies from child to child. Often, children will indicate that they are ready for more privacy and would prefer to start washing themselves, but the transition is usually gradual and parents will still need to weigh in with advice or to check that everything has been properly cleansed. Some children, especially girls with long hair, might still require help with shampooing or rinsing out conditioner even after they have mastered washing the rest of their body.
Most children do not need to wash their hair every day. How often your child’s hair needs to be washed will depend on a number of factors, including hair length, whether your child is taking part in sports, and whether the hair is curly or straight.
Although many children do not need to use deodorant before puberty, some may have a strong enough body odor that they should start applying deodorant sooner. Especially if your child is taking part in sports and sweats a lot they may need to start wearing deodorant regularly. Let your nose be your guide.
Many girls start puberty by 10 or even earlier. Talk to your child about what to expect when she begins menstruating and teach her the importance of good menstrual hygiene.
Your child should see a dentist for regular checkups, just as your child sees a pediatrician regularly. Discuss their oral hygiene with their dentist and ask about measures such as fluoride supplements and dental sealants, which protect your sixth-grader's teeth against cavities and decay.
By the end of sixth grade your child will have lost all or most of their baby teeth and maintaining good oral hygiene habits is more important than ever. Tooth decay and cavities are entirely preventable yet remain widespread and affect children in the United States more than any other chronic infectious disease. Untreated dental problems can become infected, causing pain and problems with eating, speaking, and learning.
Your sixth-grader should be brushing their teeth at least twice a day, and after eating, if possible.
Children should be flossing independently every day by around the age of 10, when their manual dexterity is sufficiently developed.
If a child’s permanent tooth becomes dislodged due to an injury, place the tooth in a container of milk and seek dental advice as soon as possible. Permanent teeth can sometimes be re-implanted successfully.
If your child plays a contact sport, they should wear a mouth guard to protect against dental injury and concussion.
See a dentist immediately if your child injures a tooth. Dental injuries are common among children through age 14, and if left untreated can result in severe complications.
Children are the most rested when they have a consistent sleep schedule. Experts caution that a change to their normal sleep schedule on the weekends can actually make it harder for him to get out of bed when Monday rolls back around. To minimize this grogginess, allow your child to go to bed no more than an hour later than their normal weekday bedtime and sleep in no more than two hours past their usual wake time.
Establish an electronic curfew at least 30 minutes prior to your child’s bedtime. Have him store all electronic devices, like video games and tablets, in places outside of their room and avoid putting a television or computer in their bedroom. This will ensure that your child can prepare for sleep without electronic temptations. Model the behavior that you want to see in your child by also turning off your own cell phone and other technological devices.
Experts recommend sitting down with your child to create a sleep budget for the week. Map out their priorities and activities, including time set aside for homework, meals, and extracurricular commitments. If you notice that their schedule starts to upend their bedtime and cuts into their restful evening of sleep, your sixth-grader is most likely over-scheduled. Encourage them to cut back on their number of activities and establish realistic expectations for the amount of sleep they should be getting each night.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can prevent your child from falling asleep. Try not to serve soda, iced tea, or other caffeinated beverages any time after they get home from school.
Your sixth-grader may ask to invite friends over for a sleepover throughout the school year. Despite their name, sleepovers seldom include a lot of restful sleep. To help counteract the drowsiness that they may feel after a sleepover, experts recommend hosting these events on Friday evenings. This allows for two days of recovery and enables them to go to school refreshed on Monday. If that is not feasible, allow them to sleep in past their normal wake time the next day and encourage them to go to bed earlier the next evening.
It is important to send consistent messages about the importance of sleep. Try praising your child after a good night of sleep and avoid using an early bedtime as a punishment or a late bedtime as a reward.
To learn more, check out our sixth grade physical health guide page.
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates and Dr. Jayne Greenberg, District Director, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.