Adaptive behavior

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Adaptive behavior is a type of behavior that is used to adapt to another type of behavior or situation. This is often characterized by a kind of behavior that allows an individual to substitute 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.

A maladaptive behavior is a behavior or trait that is not adaptive — it is counterproductive to the individual. 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)

The William Heward book Exceptional Children defines adaptive behavior, as the effectiveness or degree with which the individual meets the standards of personal independence and social responsibility expected of his age and social group (Heward). Adaptive behavior also refers to the typical performance of individuals without disabilities in meeting environmental expectations. Adaptive behavior changes according to a person’s age, cultural expectations, and environmental demands!


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 are 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.

Specialized behavior


The adaptive skills exhibited by a person with mental retardation are critical factors in determining the supports he/she requires for success in school, work, community, and home environments. Children with mental retardation 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 retardation. Individuals with mental retardation who require extensive supports are often taught basic self care skills such as dressing, eating, and hygiene (Heward). 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 (Heward).


Most children with milder forms of mental retardation 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 mental retardation. Limited cognitive processing skills, poor language development, and unusual or inappropriate behaviors can seriously impede interacting with others. Teaching students with mental retardation appropriate social and interpersonal skills is one of the most important functions of special education. Students with mental retardation more often exhibit behavior problems than children without disabilities (Heward). Some of the behaviors observed by students with mental retardation are difficulties accepting criticism, limited self control, and bizarre and inappropriate behaviors. Depending on the severity of the mental retardation generally there is a higher the incidence of behavior problems (Heward).

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