Back To School: What to Expect at Each Grade Level

By Judy Molland

Be prepared for the new school year by taking a peek at what's ahead at each grade level.

back to schoolFall approaches. You’re probably already working your way through that daunting list of back-to-school supplies. But just as important as the right lunch box and the cool folders is knowing what to expect as you and your child approach that first day. Each new year brings changes in the curriculum, classroom expectations, and in your child herself.

Here’s a primer on what to expect at each level, from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Who Is Your Kindergartner?

You probably still remember your own first day of school. For many parents, excitement about their child’s is tinged with regret that their baby is growing up and fear that they can no longer protect their little one from the outside world. You can deal with these concerns by preparing your child well!

Your 5-year-old is enthusiastic, helpful, energetic and sometimes fidgety. He tends to only attempt the things he knows how to do, and he really needs attention and praise for his efforts. Above all, your child is curious, eager to learn, and he is like a giant sponge, ready to absorb knowledge. Your child has enough independence to enjoy doing tasks alone, but can also play cooperatively with other children. He loves to explore and relishes new experiences away from home. During kindergarten, he will learn social skills like taking turns, waiting to speak until he’s called on, following rules and working in a group.

Who Is Your First Grader?

At 6, your child has tons of energy, but can be emotional and cry easily. Now that she’s made it through kindergarten, she knows what school is about.

Your child may become attached to her classroom teacher, but she will also have to interact with teachers of art, music, and physical education. She’ll eat at school and may even be able to walk or ride the bus to school on her own. Longer school days and homework assignments will fine-tune what she learned in kindergarten.

Who Is Your Second Grader?

Ready for SchoolBy the time he reaches 7, your child has settled down a bit. He is beginning to reason and to concentrate for longer periods of time. He may also be more self-critical and dislike being singled out, even for praise. Much of this year is dedicated to reinforcing the skills learned in first grade. Your child’s teachers will help him to grow socially: building relationships with others, working in groups, and developing a sense of responsibility.

Who Is Your Third Grader?

What a delightful age! At 8, your child is most likely excitable, dramatic, and curious. She may also have adopted a know-it-all attitude, but she is learning how to set goals and understand the consequences of her behavior. Many new and more sophisticated skills are introduced this year: using a dictionary; developing comprehension skills in reading; working out the pronunciation and meaning of unfamiliar words; and identifying the plot, setting, and main characters of a story. There will be longer nightly homework assignments, and your child’s teacher will expect her to take more responsibility in the classroom and learn to set goals for long-term projects.

Who Is Your Fourth Grader?

Your child is really growing up. At age 9, he is ready to learn so much, but may also seek to rebel against authority. He can think independently, but also cares very much what his friends and classmates think. Fourth graders have more rights than younger students, but along with those rights comes more responsibility. Schoolwork gets tougher: longer books to read, more complicated papers to write, a greater homework load. And as if the academic pressures weren’t enough, fourth graders are also going through a host of developmental and social changes. On the edge of puberty, they’re beginning to recognize who’s smart, who’s popular, and where they fit into the mix. As extracurricular activities abound, kids are also becoming more social outside of school.

Who Is Your Fifth Grader

Happy about SchoolIt’s hard not to get caught up in the positive energy and enthusiasm that fifth graders exude. At this age, your child is old enough to dig more deeply into ideas, but still retain an excitement about everything she discovers. Your 10-year-old is generally good natured, fun, and is increasingly independent. Forming good relationships with her teachers and counselors comes easily to her. She is also becoming more aware of peer and adult expectations. By this time, your child will need to take almost full responsibility for her homework. She should be using a calendar or planner to track assignments and learning good studying and note-taking habits.

Who Is Your Sixth Grader?

Most children develop and change significantly between fifth and sixth grade. At age 11, your child is heading toward adolescence: his body is starting to change, he may be moody and easily frustrated, and at the same time physically exuberant, restless and talkative. He is competitive, wants to excel, but wants to be in the in-group. He can also use off-color humor and general silliness, as well as indulge in teasing sometimes. For some, this is the start of middle school, with its increasing demands, such as moving between classrooms, using a locker, and getting used to different teachers for several different subjects every day. But your sixth grader is ready to embrace this greater freedom. Schoolwork becomes significantly more challenging during sixth grade.

A Note Of Caution!

No two children mature at exactly the same rate. This guide to your child’s K-6 growth is intended to be useful as a general outline, but many of the specifics on your child’s journey may vary. Enjoy the trip!

Judy Molland is the author of Straight Talk About Schools Today: Understand the System and Help Your Child Succeed and Get Out!: 150 Easy Ways for Kids & Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future Listen to her series of Straight Talk About Schools podcasts on