A misconception exists that all gifted children are socially inept nerds. This myth has been brought to the fore as a stereotype appropriated by the media and popular culture. In contemporary times there has been a significant increase in the portrayal of ‘nerds’ in television, film and comic books. Kendall (1999) remarks that in popular culture “[a]spects of the nerd seen as asocial and incompletely adult (sartorial disregard, bad hygiene and lack of social skills) create a category of human partitioned off from the rest of humanity” (1999, p. 263). These characters have appeared in comic books such as DC Comics’ Superman, television programs such as CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and FOX’s The Simpsons, and films such as Jeff Kanew’s Revenge of the Nerds. Kendall (1999) stipulates that “[t]he nerd stereotype includes aspects of both hypermasculinity (intellect, rejection of sartorial display, lack of ‘feminine’ social and relational skills) and feminization (lack of sports ability, small body size[)]”(p. 264). The myth has permeated in to society’s view of cultural norms, and it is clear that through the appropriation of the nerd stereotype, the view that all gifted individuals are ‘socially inept nerds’ could easily be misconstrued as the truth. This viewpoint would be further maintained through lack of education towards, and exposure to real life learners identified as gifted.
There are several ways this misconception disadvantages a gifted learner. Labeling a child with terminology that holds negative connotations towards their cognitive, physical, social or emotional development can be extremely damaging to the irwellbeing, and have significant implications for their self-concept, self-esteem and sense of identity. Kenny and McEachern (2009) note that “[p]ersistent low self-concept has been linked to depression, eating disorders, suicide, adjustment problems, and later alcohol use” (p. 207). By classifying gifted students as socially inept nerds there is potential to cause sustained damage to all three domains of self-concept: physical, academic and social self-concept (Kenny & McEachern, 2009, p. 207). Students may respond in a variety of ways, for example a gifted student may deliberately underachieve to meet the social expectations of peers. Reis and McCoach (2000) suggest “negative peer attitudes can often account for underachievement” (p. 160). Conversely, students may isolate themselves, modify their behaviors, interests and mannerisms, or put unnecessary pressure on themselves to achieve in an attempt to conform to the stereotype being projected on to them. Finally, the myth disadvantages students in the sense that is does not provide a complete picture of giftedness, particularly with the connotations of the nerd stereotype failing to represent all gifted students, as a result these children will not receive appropriate support and challenge.
The truth is, gifted students have the capacity to be socially skilled individuals, the definition of the term ‘nerd’ does not encompass all forms of giftedness, and it is possible that gifted learners may experience social exclusion or isolation rather than ineptness. That is to say, gifted students are far from socially inept nerds. These key points form the basis of evidence in refuting the myth.
Students may be highly competent in their social skills; Lovecky (1995) notes “highly gifted children who are most successful with peers are those who are able to go along with group goals, be flexible and be able to assume multiple social roles… Many gifted [children] do these things very well” (para. 10). It is possible for gifted children to demonstrate an advanced social conscience and the ability to communicate with others in sensitive, eloquent and thoughtful ways. Lovecky (1995) remarks that gifted students often require “contact with older gifted peers at similar levels of social development” (para. 12), and Piirto (1992) adds that they “are often eager for acceptance by adults” (p. 265). It is critical to analyse gifted learners and their interactions with not only age peers, but also older students and adults who share similar interests and intellect. Many gifted students are emotionally advanced and are able to show empathy, as well as an ability to take on important social roles including speaker, active listener and showing flexibility in connecting with others.
It is possible that social exclusion and isolation is being inaccurately referred to as ineptness. Neihart, Reid, Robinson and Moon (2002) point out that gifted students “may have difficulty finding friends who share their understandings, and far too often they endure not only the burden of loneliness, but also enormous peer pressure to “be like everyone else”’ (p. 268). Gifted students may have a unique set of interests and abilities that are highly different to those of their peers; as such students are unable to bond with others on a social level. Lovecky (1995) notes that students may “exhibit inappropriate behaviors that elicit ridicule and rejection from peers” (para. 7). Fundamentally, gifted students operate at a level of high-order thinking, and may have intensely focused interests; resultantly, students are not socially inept as the ‘myth’ would have us believe, but rather, students are excluded or isolated from peer groups due to discrepancies in their social and emotional development.
The ‘nerd’ persona is not inclusive of all domains of giftedness; The Oxford Dictionary Online defines ‘nerd’ as “A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”. This definition paints an image that fails to include all areas of giftedness, defined by Piirto (1992) as including the following domains: high IQ, mathematicians, business/entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors, actors, visual artists, musicians, writers, and dancers (p. 262). There is a clear sense of misalignment between the image of the stereotypical nerd and a student who is gifted in a domain of talent that may not be considered ‘studious’.
In the primary school classroom, there are a number of implications of this myth. It is vital to support gifted students in developing a strong sense of self-concept. When considering Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1971), teachers need to model positive behaviours of self-conceptualisation, and provide opportunities for students to foster and observe positive relationships on which social behaviours can be modeled. Ongoing opportunities to socialise with individuals outside of age peer groups will allow for gifted students to bond with others who share intellectual and interest-based similarities. This may appear as buddy classes, lunchtime clubs and peer learning support. Educators can also explicitly teach strategies for developing positive self-esteem and self-concept.
Other implications for teachers include dispelling all varieties of stereotypes through day-to-day classroom interactions and activities, for example telling stories featuring characters that challenge stereotypes and discussing what makes these characters unique. It is important to celebrate differences in students, and in older age groups analysing and deconstructing stereotypes seen in the media. Teachers need to consistently update professional learning, becoming educated in all areas of giftedness and knowing the students in their classrooms, their strengths and weaknesses and to differentiate learning experiences. Teachers need to be aware that they are not appropriating and sustaining the myth through practice and attitudes. To reiterate, the myth that all gifted students are socially inept nerds is far from reality and has a number of implications for the affective development of students, their wellbeing and their success. Teachers play a pivotal role in dispelling this myth through classroom practice, curriculum, pedagogical approaches and positive attitudes.
Kendall, L. (1999). Nerd nation: images of nerds in US popular culture, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2 (2), 260-283.
Kenny, M. C., & McEachern, A. (2009) Children’s self-concept: a multicultural comparison. Professional School Counseling, 12 (3), 207-212.
Lovecky, D. V. (1995). Highly gifted children and peer relationships, Counselling and guidance newsletter, National Association for Gifted Children, 5 (3), pp. 2, 6 and 7.
Neihart, K., Reis, S., Robinson, N. & Moon, S. (Eds.). (2002). The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press.
Nerd. (2014). In Oxford Dictionary Online. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/nerd
Piirto, J. (1992). Understanding those who create. Ohio: Ohio Psychology Press.
Reis, S. M., & McCoach, D. B. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: what do we know and where do we go?. Gifted Child Quarterly, 44 (3), 152-170.