Social Skills: For Both High and Low Achievers, Quirkiness Matters

Social Skills: For Both High and Low Achievers, Quirkiness Matters

The impact of social idiosyncrasies on a student’s potential is complicated. While no one has a crystal ball to predict how “quirkiness” will ultimately affect life success, here are some thoughts on the subject:

Some “A” students are as socially awkward as they are gifted. Unfortunately, high grades alone tend to matter a lot less in the long run than might be hoped. To the contrary, social smarts are a far better predictor of life outcomes than book smarts, but people tend to overlook their importance, as such skills aren’t exactly reflected on a standard report card. As a result, the notion of the “quirky,” but academically high-achieving schoolboy or girl, getting the last laugh at the popular kids’ expense by outdoing them later in life is often just wishful thinking. Just as most college dropouts don’t become Bill Gates, most quirky kids don’t evolve to the likes of Albert Einstein. Also, being obsessed with a particular subject, like technology or science, can be misconstrued as a “gift” as opposed to a “symptom.”

Although not all socially atypical students have a clinical diagnosis, many do. This includes those who excel academically, but nonetheless have a “quirky” learning style that may eventually backfire, e.g. they see no purpose in studying or focus on finding study “shortcuts.” Relevant diagnostic categories include ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome or another Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disorder, and OCD, as well as emotional issues like anxiety, or depression.

There are some students who have the double whammy of social quirkiness and academic difficulties, placing them at significant dual disadvantages in their lives. Further, while the natural maturing process can sometimes help, social awkwardness can often be a reflection of underlying problems in cognitive processing- including deficits in executive functioning- which may worsen as the social world continues to increase in pressures and complexities. Delays or failures in getting the proper diagnosis are all too common, especially for those students whose high grades, at least temporarily, can mask the significance of their discrepant social skills.

Here are some suggestions:
If a student is getting great grades, but has poor or idiosyncratic social functioning, try not to rationalize this as a positive and believe “you can always get a social life, but you can’t always get into the best college.” In actuality, catching up academically will prove to be a lot simpler than catching up socially. Even if a child does get into a top school, is it worth having given up childhood and teenage fun? Incidentally, interacting on the computer, often with similarly quirky persons, isn’t really the same as having actual “hang out” friends.

Speaking of rationalizations, “The Big Bang,” “Glee,” and the “Geek Squad” have made quirkiness cool- even the mantle of “nerd” is worn proudly by some. This has its positive aspects: the world certainly benefits from increasing tolerance for different kinds of brains and outlooks. Additionally, there are some “quirks that work.” No doubt some unusual social behaviors and attitudes are found among scholars of note- perhaps even among some psychologists- as well as in the ranks of celebrated, creative types. Clearly, some of the most important advances in human history were by socially awkward people. Once again though, it’s important to remember that very, very few people are really cut out to be scientists and there are not many jobs for movie or rock stars, or tenured academics for that matter. I’m also guessing that most of the so-called “geeks” in the squad aren’t very well compensated, or enjoying many dating opportunities.

If your child’s social awkwardness is significant, you can both accept who they are but also get them help. Maybe it seems unfair to suggest that it’s your child that needs to change or adapt to society, versus society needing to change or adapt to your child. I agree; it is unfair. You know the rest. What if it’s your student who could have succeeded if only they had the right diagnosis and treatment or received the guidance they needed to socially evolve as well as develop scholastic abilities that matter in the long run?

Some students who are socially awkward can, against expectations, excel in physical activities, and even like them. Mostly, however, quirky individuals tend to shy away from or fail to perceive the advantages of participating in group-oriented exercise or sports, especially if they aren’t that good. Understandably, many just don’t want to risk being embarrassed or teased. This doesn’t mean the adults in their lives can’t encourage (or nicely insist) that they try anyway. It’s worth noting that increases in social flexibility often accompany increases in body flexibility.
In today’s world, both high and low academic achievers often receive extra help with their studies outside of school. Tutoring presents a great opportunity to teach social and cognitive/executive functioning skills along with academic content. That’s because, if you think about it, the same learning strategies apply to both social and academic dimensions. Understanding the value of making good eye contact and understanding another person’s point of view, whether with a teacher or with a potential friend are just a couple of good examples.

This all should not be construed as a lack of appreciation for what “quirky” students have to offer. However, as a psychologist who often sees its downsides, I am merely advocating for exploring ways to help them make their differences work for them, not against them. Then “quirky” will matter in a positive way in their lives. That’s what would be really cool.


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