A question that is often asked of Lifeway conference leaders is, "Do sixth graders belong in the Youth Ministry?"

Fact: Teenagers do not develop on the same timeline. In relation to peers, some reach puberty earlier than others.

Fact: Girls mature, on average, two years before boys.

If you add up these two facts and do a little deduction, you come to the conclusion that you could possibly have a class of sixth graders with a wide developmental gap. If you have in your class a late maturing boy and an early maturing girl, they can be four years apart developmentally, even if they share the same birthday!

This dilemma is multiplied many times over if you group sixth graders with seventh and eighth graders in a middle school grouping. The gap is magnified even farther if you include sixth graders with the entire youth group. Some Sunday schools have placed sixth graders in the youth division because of a small enrollment or because of a middle school arrangement (grades 6-8 in one school) in the public or private schools.

Here are a few general principles to help you make this decision:

No matter where sixth graders are located in the school system, they will still learn content on a sixth grade level.

Because sixth graders think mostly in concrete terms, they need materials and methods that do not require them to think in abstract terms - at least, not all of the time.

Although some sixth graders have matured physically, emotional maturity often lags behind. A sixth-grade girl in a tenth-grade body may be attractive to eleventh-grade boys.

While sixth graders may be only two years behind eighth graders chronologically, some late maturers are as much as five years behind developmentally. Loss of self-worth may be the price paid when a child cannot succeed at the skill levels of older kids.

Most sixth graders are not ready to interact socially with seventh through twelfth graders. When they are grouped with the junior high and high schoolers, the older youth may drop out, rather than cope with the immaturity of sixth graders.

"Too much too soon" for a sixth grader often results in boredom. Involvement in all youth activities at an early age may lead to burnout and dropout by the time they reach eleventh and twelfth grade.

The important thing, of course, is to help your sixth graders have the best possible church experience. If you already have sixth graders in your youth ministry, or if space or numbers require it, ensure that they have the opportunity to learn and mature at their own level.