Adaptive behaviors are the life skills that each person develops as they grow. The specific life skills developed depends on the chronological age of the individual.
We can split adaptive behaviors into three types: conceptual, practical, and social. Each of these behaviors help people to navigate their world as adults.
Adaptive behaviors examples include learning to tie a shoelace, using manners in a classroom, working with money, and the skill of time management.
Definition of Adaptive Behaviors
The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) defines adaptive behavior as:
“the collection of conceptual, social, and practical skills that all people learn in order to function in their daily lives.”
To break these skills down, they are:
- Conceptual skills: These are skills that enable the individual to handle important life functions and adapt to their surroundings. This includes: learning to read, to count, and understanding the concept of time and money.
- Social skills: These are interpersonal skills that allow the individual to communicate with others and function socially. This includes: the ability to follow social norms and rules, engage in social problem-solving, and avoid situations that could lead to exploitation.
- Practical skills: These are skills that involve personal care and the ability to independently perform activities necessary in daily life. This includes: the ability to use money, being able to travel to and from places, use the telephone, and possess occupational skills.
When assessing people with disabilities’ capability to live autonomous lives, psychiatrists often measure people’s adaptive functioning using a range of diagnostic tests.
Adaptive behavior is different than intelligence. It is learned and reflects the ability to meet the demands of daily life as those demands change over time. As Gottfredson argues:
“Intelligence is a very general mental capability that…involves the ability to reason…. it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on,’ ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.”(Gottfredson, 1997, p. 13)
According to functionalist psychology, our behaviors have adapted in a process similar to biological evolution: those who can adapt survive and thrive, while those who cannot, do not.
Adaptive Behavior Examples
- Tying shoes (Practical skill): A new student in a K2 classroom is able to put on their shoes and coat all by themselves.
- Counting (Conceptual skill): Most children in first grade are able to count to at least 20 and understand what “greater than” and “lesser than” means.
- Organization (Conceptual skill): A high school student keeps their locker and backpack tidy, making it easy to find the necessary books and materials for each class.
- Conflict resolution (Social skill): A team member in a workplace setting is able to effectively communicate with coworkers to resolve conflicts and come to a mutually beneficial solution.
- Asking for help (Social skill): When a child is having difficulty reaching a book on a high shelf, they ask their teacher for help.
- Street smarts (Practical skill): As students develop independence, they understand when it is safe to cross the street.
- Critical thinking (Conceptual skill): An adult is able to evaluate different options and make informed decisions based on logical reasoning and evidence.
- Shopping (Practical skill): Middle school students know how to purchase small items in a local mart and make sure the change is correct.
- Asking for permission (Social skill): One student asks another if they can borrow their eraser instead of grabbing it from their hand.
- Problem-solving (Conceptual skill): A college student is able to identify the root cause of a complex issue and find a practical solution to resolve it.
- Driving (Practical skill): A young adult has learned how to safely operate a motor vehicle and navigate different road conditions.
- Reading (Conceptual skill): By the end of third grade, most students will be able to read approximately 100 words per minute.
- Taking Turns (Social skill): Most students in first grade have learned to take turns going down a playground slide.
- Managing finances (Practical skill): A middle school student has started a lawn mowing business and can keep track of how much money they are making each month.
- First aid (Practical skill): A scout has learned how to administer basic first aid, such as cleaning and dressing a wound, until medical professionals arrive.
- Research (Conceptual skill): A graduate student is able to gather information from various sources and synthesize it to create a comprehensive report or thesis.
- Time management (Conceptual skill): Knowing what it means to be “on time” or “late” is important for maintaining employment.
- Teamwork (Social skill): A member of a sports team is able to effectively communicate and collaborate with their teammates to achieve a shared goal.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Tassé (2017) – Assessment of Adaptive Behavior
How is adaptive behavior assessed? Typically, a school or clinical psychologist may be asked to conduct an assessment of a child referred to by a teacher or parent. In addition to a standardized IQ test, the practitioner will also administer one of the several adaptive behavior scales available.
The test assessor interviews an individual that has extensive experience with the child/adult across various situations.
The assessor adheres to a clear distinction “in measuring not what does the person know or do they know how to do, but rather do they do it” (Tassé, 2017, p. 28).
For example, one item might be “Folds clean clothes.” This does not refer to “can” they fold clean clothes or do they “know how” to do it.
As Tassé explains,
“…If a person has learned a behavior and possesses a skill but chooses not to perform that behavior when needed or expected, he or she does not get full credit for that adaptive behavior” (p. 28).
2. Eldevik et al (2010) – Adaptive Behavioral Intervention in Norway
Empirical evidence for early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for children with autism spectrum disorder has been accumulating (Eldevik et al, 2010).
“Recent narrative and meta-analytic reviews suggest that EIBI may meet criteria as a “well-established” intervention…effect sizes for Intelligence quotient (IQ) and adaptive behavior outcomes are in the medium to large range” (Eldevik et al., 2010. p. 17).
Eldevik and colleagues examined the effectiveness of two intervention models on children with intellectual disabilities.
Twenty-five children (ages 3-5 years old) were divided into two groups: behavioral intervention and eclectic intervention.
Both groups received treatment approximately 10-12 hours per week for 12-14 months, and then tested with standard IQ tests and adaptive behavior scales.
The first two authors conducted most of the assessments, but were not blind to each child’s group status.
The main findings:
“…on average, the behavioral intervention group gained 16.6 IQ points and 2.9 adaptive behavior composite points. The eclectic comparison group gained 3.9 IQ points and lost 2.8 adaptive behavior composite points” (p. 26).
These promising results support further exploration of intervention models for children with intellectual disabilities.
3. The Adaptive Behavior Diagnostic Scale (ABDS)
The ABDS is an interview-based rating scale to assess the adaptive behavior of children and young adults (ages 2-21 years old).
The scale was specifically designed for individuals with an intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, mental or behavioral conditions.
The scale consists of 50 items that cover three domains of adaptive behavior (conceptual, social, practical). By combining the scores of each domain, an overall Adaptive Behavior Index is derived.
The publisher reports that the scale was normed on a sample of over 1,000 children and adolescents in the United States. The individual subscales have high internal consistency coefficients and overall index scores over .90, which is quite high.
How to Teach Adaptive Behaviors
1. Teaching via Making a Snack
Teaching children with learning disabilities can be very rewarding. The children want to be independent, but they just need a little extra help learning the specific actions.
One simple practical skill is making a snack. When a child struggling with difficulties masters the ability to make their own snack, it gives them a great boost of confidence.
This video describes how to make ants on a log (peanut butter on celery with raisins).
The instructor explains the key steps to make this a successful learning experience. First, prepare the materials ahead of time:
Celery stalks: at least 4, already washed and cut (no sharp knives sitting out). You will demonstrate with one stalk and the child will follow along with theirs. Then repeat.
Raisins in a small plastic bowl (regular bowls break too easily).
Put the peanut butter on two plastic knives ahead of time.
Narrate your movements:
pick up the stalk…
spread the peanut butter on…
put the knife down…
put one raison on top…
put another raison on top…
It’s important to use verbs, move slowly, and ask if they want help when appropriate.
2. 20 Adaptive Skills Activities
Although teaching adaptive skills is often geared towards helping children with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders, all kids need to learn basic life skills. Most kindergarten teachers and parents can benefit from integrating simple activities into the daily routine of their children.
This site describes 20 activities that are simple, yet effective at teaching the kinds of skills that each child needs to be able to perform. Here are just a few:
- Laundry sort: Simply make a pile of clean and dirty clothes and let the child sort them out. Simple to do and a good skill to learn.
- Community helper: Kids place pictures of various community helpers (firefighter, police officer, restaurant worker) next to the picture of the building where they work.
- Time of day: Kids place pictures of different daily routines in the correct sequence: morning, noon, to night.
These and lots of other activities will help children of all learner profiles build adaptive behaviors.
Adaptive behavior refers to a person’s ability to function in everyday life. It includes understanding the concepts of time and money, being able to communicate effectively and cooperate with others, and performing practical routines such as getting dressed and feeding oneself.
Adaptive behavior is usually assessed by a trained practitioner conducting a structured interview with a person that has extensive experience with the individual under assessment.
The interview will ask approximately 50-70 questions (depending on the specific scale) regarding the child/adult’s behavior.
Research on interventions with children with autism or intellectual disabilities has demonstrated that 10 hours of training per week for approximately one year can produce meaningful benefits.
In addition to children at risk, it is also important that children with other intellectual and behavioral profiles also receive training in adaptive behavior.
Learning how to make a snack or sort clothes are important skills for all children to develop. As they grow, daily tasks will become more complex, but equally valuable to master.
Binet, A. & Simon, T. (1905). Méthodes nouvelles pour le diagnostic du niveau intellectuel des anormaux. L’Année Psychologique, 11. 191–244.
Cohen, H., Amerine-Dickens, M., & Smith, T. (2006). Early intensive behavioral treatment: Replication of the UCLA model in a community setting. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 27(2), S145-S155.
Eldevik, S., Jahr, E., Eikeseth, S., Hastings, R. P., & Hughes, C. J. (2010). Cognitive and adaptive behavior outcomes of behavioral intervention for young children with intellectual disability. Behavior Modification, 34(1), 16-34.
Gottfredson, L. (1997). Mainstream science on intelligence: An editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence, 24, 13-23.
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.
Pearson, N. A., Patton, J. R., & Mruzek, D. W. (2016). Adaptive Behavior Diagnostic Scale: Examiner’s Manual. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Tassé, M. (2017). Adaptive Behavior. In K. A. Shogren, M. L. Wehmeyer, & N. N. Singh (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology in intellectual and developmental disabilities: Translating research into practice. New York: Springer.