Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Meet Generation Alpha: Who Are They, and How Do We Educate Them?

Meet Generation Alpha: Who Are They, and How Do We Educate Them?

By Michael Spurlin

Most people are familiar with the labels baby boomers and millennials. These terms, as well as Generation X and Generation Z, describe people born in the same time frame who have shared similar experiences. What you might not be familiar with is the newest and youngest generation—Generation Alpha. Members of this generation make up the entirety of the elementary students in this country and, depending on how you define them, the majority of middle school students. While the members of Gen Alpha will soon go on to have a major impact on society, they are currently having a major impact on education.

Who Are They?

Despite how often people use terms such as baby boomer or millennial, defining who is or is not a member of a particular generation is not always easy. Sometimes those definitions can vary depending on the source. According to Jared Boucher, a market researcher who studies the different generations, this is especially true 
for those working to define Generation Alpha.

“The reason for this is because generation age ranges are often dictated by social events and social change and the cultural fallout that ensues,” Boucher says. “For example, soldiers coming back from World War II and settling down to have children [who] would become known as baby boomers. It is still a little early to say how exactly Generation Alpha will be distinguished from Generation Z. However, this emerging generation is getting close to becoming clearly defined, and many researchers point to them being born between 2010 and 2024.”

Using those years as markers, there are currently 60 million members of Generation Alpha, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. This would make Generation Alpha bigger than its immediate predecessor, Generation Z, but still smaller than the millennial generation.

Although there is not yet consensus on what specific events and characteristics will define Generation Alpha, those who research generations have begun putting forward theories.

“Many say that the COVID-19 pandemic will be seen as the defining event of Gen Alpha, while others think AI technology will uniquely define them,” Boucher says.

In addition to the pandemic and technological changes, other researchers have theorized that economic volatility and the globalization of culture will come to define Generation Alpha. Some of these external factors, especially the COVID-19 pandemic and ubiquity of technology, have already affected how members of Generation Alpha behave and learn in ways that have made educators take notice. 

The iPad Generation

The iPad was introduced in 2010, right around the time the members of Gen Alpha were born. As a result, many people refer to this generation, sometimes derisively, as the “iPad Generation.” Being the first generation born in the 21st century has exposed Gen Alpha to a wide array of technology beyond iPads. These children have grown up in an era where technology is ubiquitous and an integral part of their lives in ways that set them apart from previous generations. Educators have seen firsthand this familiarity with technology in their classrooms.

“One of the things that’s definitely different with these kids is that they are a lot more technologically savvy than those in the past,” explains Jason Forbis, a first grade teacher in Midway (12) ISD. “I have first graders who have cell phones. They all have tablets and access to YouTube and things like that.

“All of our students have used iPads for about seven or eight years. In the past, we would always teach them basic things, such as how to put in their passwords, how to save something, and things like that. Now they come into class knowing how to do all that. They actually teach me things. I have been teaching when sometimes I don’t know how to do something or if something goes wrong, they will say ‘Just click that button,’ and it fixes it. I am like, ‘Ok, you’re 6 years old. How do you know that?’ It’s crazy.”

Perhaps the most noticeable effect of this generation’s constant exposure to technology use are much shorter attention spans. Kristin Shelton is a pre-k teacher in Round Rock ISD and has even noticed this in her very young students.

“I definitely see a difference in their attention spans,” Shelton says. “They are much shorter. I worry about their
stamina when they get to older grades. They don’t stick with one thing very
long. When you ask them to do something for even a little while or pay attention and stay on task, it’s a challenge.”

Shelton says that while the students in her classroom have access to technology, such as Chromebooks and iPads, she is wary of too much student use because of their attention spans. Forbis too has altered his approach due to the ever-shrinking attention span of his students.

“I definitely do think that I am teaching differently,” Forbis says. “I have had to make lessons shorter and shorter each year. If you don’t quickly move on to something that is active or hands-on, you will lose them. That’s when the behavior problems start.”

Educators working with the older members of Generation Alpha have also noticed this characteristic. Amber Shipman teaches sixth grade math in Brownwood ISD and has also tried different techniques to adapt to shorter attention spans, including working less with technology.

“We try to do a lot of hands-on math activities,” Shipman explains. “We do some pencil and paper as well. I definitely see that they don’t want to be on a screen all the time. I see less behavior issues when we actually get to hands-on activities, and they are not having to work independently.”

The prevalence of technology in all aspects of their lives has affected not only the mental aspects of Generation Alpha but also their physical development. According to Forbis, he has seen some students struggle with skills children do not practice as much in this technological age.

“They don’t write or color as easily,” Forbis says. “They don’t do that anymore. They don’t want to color anymore. They have screens. I feel like their fine motor skills are not as developed when they come to school because of that. We have kids who struggle with holding a pencil when they come to school.

“When they get to first grade, they should be able to write a sentence or at least write letters. We see a lot of letters that are backwards, or they don’t hold the pencil correctly. Those are things that go back to early schooling and what they do at home. That’s the main reason why I push for kids to do activities, such as coloring. They need to develop those fine motor skills.”

The Pandemic Effects

The COVID-19 pandemic is already one of the more significant events of the 21st century, affecting many different parts of our society, and educators have seen students of all ages struggle academically in its wake. Forbis points out the impact that it had on students socially as well.

“The first group of kids that I had after the pandemic—who were doing virtual school—really didn’t know how to get along with each other,” Forbis says. “We had to go back and teach social skills. When they were doing virtual school, a lot of them had no interaction with other kids outside of seeing them on a screen. So I think that really hurt them. However, I think their social skills get better each year as we move further away from that time of virtual school.”

However, Forbis says he has seen signs that the pandemic may have altered students in other ways beyond academics and social development. He is starting to see more students suffering from anxiety.

“The kids who were small when the pandemic started, they have had to deal with some of the changes that have happened since then. Unfortunately, when they come to school, they have such anxiety and worry. It just makes my heart sad that they have to deal with that. We just have to help them and let them know they are safe here at school.”

Only time will tell what the future holds and if the COVID-19 pandemic is the most or only one of the most formative experiences in the lives 
of Generation Alpha. Unforeseen events could leave an even greater impact. However, it seems likely the pandemic will be at least a major part of the story.

Shipman says one of the most noticeable differences between Generation Alpha and Generation Z is students’ attitude toward academics. Just a few years ago, she had students who were very concerned about their grades, often asking what extra credit they could do. Her current students are very different.

“They just don’t care about academics,” Shipman explains. “They don’t care if they are failing. They want more immediate feedback that I see a lot of times when they’re on their phones playing games or watching a video. They want to be constantly entertained, and I have some students that struggle to work independently.”

Working with students with such strikingly different attitudes has forced
Shipman to alter her approach, and she
has found new ways to harness their motivations and better reach them.

“If you can praise them, or sometimes I may reward them, it can motivate them,” Shipman says. “I may reward a whole group. They love Mexican candy. I also use Croc charms, water bottle stickers, and things like that. They are still very much motivated by those extrinsic rewards at this point.”

Defining a Generation

Members of Generation Alpha have lived their short lives in a time radically different from the generations that came before them. Their experiences have shaped their behaviors and beliefs in ways that are noticeably different from their older peers. While these differences may present educators with unique challenges for working with Generation Alpha, Forbis believes that many teaching techniques will still work with this generation.

“You can still use some of the same practices we’ve used over the years,” Forbis says. “It’s just you may have to tweak it a little bit to meet that need. Ultimately, I just think it is so important that you have relationships with your kids and that you really know them. There’s that saying that if they know you care about them, they’re more willing to work harder for you. I really believe that.”

While Generation Alpha students are certainly different from previous generations, Shelton points out that educators have successfully adapted to teaching previous generations that may have posed their own unique challenges.

“I think back to when I first started teaching, and it makes me laugh because I was always just barely keeping my head above water,” Shelton recalls. “I remember talking to my mentor next door and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do you do this?’ So when I hear people say something like, ‘Kids these days are so much harder to teach than they were before,’ I just think I am not sure if that’s true. We might be looking at the past through rose-colored glasses and forgetting those times were hard too.”

One thing that is certain, however, is that members of Generation Alpha are just beginning to affect both education and the world at large. According to Boucher and other generational researchers, we are only in the earliest stages of learning how exactly they will do that.

“This is an emerging generation, and we have many years left to determine how they will be defined, described, and distinguished from other generations,” Boucher says. “We only know a little about this group so far because our world is changing so rapidly. However, because of this, Generation Alpha is primed to be one of the most unique generations to ever exist.”