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Adaptive behavior is a type of behavior that is used to adjust to another type of behavior or situation. This is often characterized by a kind of behavior that allows an individual to change an unconstructive or disruptive behavior to something more constructive. These behaviors are most often social or personal behaviors. For example a constant repetitive action could be re-focused on something that creates or builds something. In other words the behavior can be adapted to something else.

Maladaptive behavior is a type of behavior that is often used to reduce one's anxiety, but the result is dysfunctional and non-productive. For example, avoiding situations because you have unrealistic fears may initially reduce your anxiety, but it is non-productive in alleviating the actual problem in the long term. Maladaptivity is frequently used as an indicator of abnormality or mental dysfunction, since its assessment is relatively free from subjectivity. However, many behaviors considered moral can be apparently maladaptive, such as dissent or abstinence.

Scope (general definition)[]

Adaptive behavior includes the age-appropriate behaviors necessary for people to live independently and to function safely and appropriately in daily life and manage the activities of daily living. This would include demonstrated self care skills, adequate social skills and self-control of problem behavior. The term is usually applied in the fields of rehabilitation and special education with disabled or disordered populations

Advanced definition: concept[]

Adaptive behaviors:

  • the natural occasion for the response
  • the independent performance of the daily activity
  • and the natural consequences for the response
  • within the context of the home/host culture

Adaptive skills encompass a range of daily situations and they usually start with a task analysis. The task analysis will reveal all the steps necessary to perform the task in the natural environment. The use of behavior analytic procedures has been documented, with children, adolescents and adults, under the guidance of behavior analysts[1] and supervised behavioral technicians. The list of applications has a broad scope and it is in continuous expansion as more research is carried out in applied behavior analysis (see Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior).

Importance and relevance[]

Every human being must learn a set of skills that is beneficial for the environments and communities they live in. Adaptive skills are stepping stones toward accessing and benefiting from local or remote communities. This means that, in urban environments, to go to the movies, a child will have to learn to navigate through the town or take the bus, read the movie schedule, and pay for the movie. Adaptive skills allow for safer exploration because they provide the learner with an increased awareness of his/her surroundings and of changes in context, that require new adaptive responses to meet the demands and dangers of that new context. Adaptive skills may generate more opportunities to engage in meaningful social interactions and acceptance. Adaptive skills are socially acceptable and desirable at any age and regardless of gender (with the exception of gender specific biological differences such as menstrual care skills, etc.)


Behavior scales[]

To determine a student's adaptive behavior capacities, professionals focus on the student's conceptual skills, social skills, and practical skills. To measure adaptive skills, professionals use adaptive behavior scales that have been normed on individuals with and without disabilities. Most adaptive behavior scales are completed by interviewing a parent, a teacher, or another individual who is familiar with the student's daily activities. Students may have a combination of strengths and needs in any or all of the areas regarding conceptual, social and practical skills.


The adaptive skills exhibited by a person with mental disability are critical factors in determining the support he/she requires for success in school, work, community, and home environments. Children with intellectual disability (ID) tend to have substantial deficits in adaptive behavior. These limitations can take many forms and tend to occur across domains of functioning. Limitations in self-care skills and social relationships, as well as behavioral excesses are common characteristics of individuals with mental disabilities. Individuals with mental disabilities who require extensive supports are often taught basic self care skills such as dressing, eating, and hygiene.[2] Direct instruction and environmental supports, such as added prompts and simplified routines are necessary to ensure that deficits in these adaptive areas do not come to seriously limit one's quality of life.[2]


Most children with milder forms of intellectual disability (ID) learn how to take care of their basic needs, but they often require training in self-management skills to achieve the levels of performance necessary for eventual independent living. Making and sustaining friendships and personal relationships present significant challenges for many persons with ID. Limited cognitive processing skills, poor language development, and unusual or inappropriate behaviors can seriously impede interacting with others. Teaching students with ID appropriate social and interpersonal skills is one of the most important functions of special education. Students with ID more often exhibit behavior problems than children without disabilities.[2] Some of the behaviors observed by students with ID are difficulties accepting criticism, limited self control, and atypical behaviors. The greater the severity of the ID, generally the higher the incidence of behavioral problems.[2]

Adaptive behavior includes socially responsible and independent performance of daily activities. However, the specific activities and skills needed may differ from setting to setting. When a student is going to school, school and academic skills are adaptive. However, some of those same skills might be useless or maladaptive in a job settings, so the transition between school and job needs careful attention.


Training in adaptive behavior is a key component of any educational program, but is critically important for children with special needs. The US Department of Education has allocated billions of dollars ($12.3 billion in 2008) for Special Education programs aimed at improving educational and early intervention outcomes for children with disabilities. In 2001, the United States National Research Council published a comprehensive review of interventions for children and adults diagnosed with autism. The review indicates that interventions based on applied behavior analysis have been effective with these groups.

Some domains of application of behavior analytic interventions[]

  • Community access skills
  1. Bus riding (Neef et al. 1978)[3]
  2. Independent walking (Gruber et al. 1979)[4]
  3. Coin summation (Lowe and Cuvo, 1976; Miller et al. 1977)[5]
  4. Ordering food in a restaurant (Haring 1987)
  5. Vending machine use (Sprague and Horner, 1984)
  6. Eating in public places (van den Pol at al. 1981)[6]
  7. Pedestrian safety (Page et al. 1976)
  • Peer access and retention
  1. Clothing selection skills (Nutter and Reid, 1978)[7]
  2. Appropriate mealtime behaviors (McGrath et al. 2004; O'Brien et al. 1972; Wilson et al. 1984)[8][9][10]
  3. Toy play skills (Haring 1985) and playful activities (Lifter et al., 1993)[11][12]
  4. Oral hygiene and teeth brushing (Singh et al., 1982; Horner & Keilitz, 1975)[13][14]
  5. Soccer play (Luyben et al. 1986)

Adaptive behaviors are considered to change due to the persons culture and surroundings. Professors have to delve into the students technical and comprehension skills to measure how adaptive their behavior is.[15]

  • Barriers to access to peers and communities
  1. Diurnal bruxism (Blount et al. 1982)[16]
  2. Controlling rumination and vomiting (Kholenberg, 1970; Rast et al. 1981)[17][18]
  3. Pica (Mace and Knight, 1986)


See also[]


  1. Professional practice of behavior analysis
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 William Heward: Exceptional Children 2005
  3. Neef, A.N.; Iwata, B.A.; Page T.J. et al. (1978). Public Transportation Skills. In vivo versus classroom instruction. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 11, 331–4.
  4. Gruber, B.; Reeser R.; Reid, D.H. (1979). Providing a less restrictive environment to retarded persons by teaching independent walking skills. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 12, 285–97.
  5. Lowe, M.L. & Cuvo, A.J. (1976). Teaching coin summation to the mentally retarded. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 483–9.
  6. Van den Pol, R.A.; Iwata, B.A.; Ivancic M.T.; Page, T.J.; Neef N.A. & Whitley (1981). Teaching the handicapped to eat in public places: Acquisition, generalization, and maintenance of restaurant skills. JABA. 14, 61–9.
  7. Nutter D. & Reid D.H. (1978). Teaching retarded women a clothing selection skill using community norms. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 11, 475–87.
  8. McGrath, A.; Bosch, S.; Sullivan, C.; Fuqua, R.W. (2003). Teaching reciprocal social interactions between preschoolers and a child diagnosed with autism. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 5, 47–54.
  9. O'Brien, F.; Bugle, C. & Azrin N.H. (1972). Training and maintaining a retarded child's proper eating. JABA, 5, 67–72.
  10. Wilson, P.G.; Reid, D.H.; Phillips, J.F. & Burgio, L.D. (1984). Normalization of institutional mealtimes for profoundly retarded persons. Effects and non-effects of teaching family-style dining. JABA, 17, 189–201.
  11. Haring, T.G. (1985). Teaching between class generalization of toy play behavior to handicapped children. JABA, 18, 127–39.
  12. Lifter, K.; Sulzer-Azaroff, B.; Anderson, S.R. & Cowdery, G.E. (1993) Teaching Play Activities to Preschool Children with Disabilities: The Importance of Developmental Considerations. Journal of Early Intervention, 17, 139–59.
  13. Singh, N.N.; Manning, P.J. & Angell M.J. (1982). Effects of an oral hyegene punishment procedure on chronic rumination and collateral behaviors in monozygous twins. JABA, 15, 309–14.
  14. Horner, R.D. & Keilitz, I. (1975). Training mentally retarded adolescents to brush their teeth. JABA, 8, 301–9.
  15. Psychology: Adaptive Behavior. URL accessed on 2 October 2011.
  16. Blount, R.L.; Drabman, R.S.; Wilson, N.; Stewart D. (1982). Reducing severe diurnal bruxism ib tw profoundly retarded females. JABA, 15, 565–71.
  17. Kholenberg (1970). Punishment of persitant vomiting: A case study. Journal of Applied Behavior Analyis, 3, 241–5.
  18. Rast, J.; Johnston, J.M.; Drum, C. & Corin, J. (1981). The relation of food quantity to rumination behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Anlaysis, 14, 121–30.

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