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Adaptive behavior refers to a person's social responsibility and independent performance of daily activities. The term is used in numerous arenas (education, behavior analysis, developmental psychology, child psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.). In the field of education, and applied behavior analysis, adaptive behaviors is a term that denotes a broad collection of skills (talking, self-help, using money, cooking, reading, etc.) that must be learned during the course of development in order to access new opportunities (joining a band) and new settings (a neighborhood restaurant). However, what is adaptive in one setting, may be a dead end in another setting. The US Department of Education allocated billions of dollars ($12.3 billion in 2008) for Special Education programs with a special focus on improving educational and early intervention outcomes for children with disabilities. So, adaptive behaviors or what we teach is a fundamental issue in education and in government budgets.


Adaptive behaviors are the content of any educational program. The outcome of learning a new behavior or skills is deemed adaptive if it (1) feats the needs of the community of stakeholders (parents, teachers, peers, and later employers) and (2) feats the needs of the learner, now and in the future. In 2001, the United States National Research Council published a comprehensive review of effective interventions for children and adults diagnosed with autism. NRC makes the case that interventions based on applied behavior analysis are well established in many areas of adaptive functions.

Adaptive behavior refers to a person's social responsibility and independent performance of daily activities. If the daily activities for a person involve going to school, then school skills or academic skills are considered to be adaptive behaviors for that setting. However, if the post-academic transition to job sites is not prepared carefully, most of the skills deemed adaptive in the school setting could be non-adaptive in job settings. The issue of identification and selection of adaptive skills is especially critical in the care of children and adolescents with special needs. For this population, an Individualized Education Program establishes a list of goals that, if well drafted, should only include adaptive behaviors that are useful on the day they are taught as well as in the future.

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.)

Some domains of application of behavior analytic interventions

  • Community access skills
  1. Bus riding (Neef et al. 1978)[2]
  2. Independent walking (Gruber et al. 1979)[3]
  3. Coin summation (Lowe and Cuvo, 1976; Miller et al. 1977)L[4]
  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)[5]
  7. Pedestrian safety (Page et al. 1976)
  • Peer access and retention
  1. Clothing selection skills (Nutter and Reid, 1978)[6]
  2. Appropriate mealtime behaviors (McGrath et al. 2004;[7]O'Brien et al. 1972; Wilson et al. 1984)[8][9]
  3. Toy play skills (Haring 1985) and playful activities (Lifter et al., 1993)[10][11]
  4. Oral hygiene and teeth brushing (Singh et al., 1982; Horner & Keilitz, 1975)[12][13]
  5. Soccer play (Luyben et al. 1986)
  • Barriers to access to peers and communities
  1. Diurnal bruxism (Blount et al. 1982)[14]
  2. Controlling rumination and vomiting (Kholenberg, 1970; Rast et al. 1981)[15][16]
  3. Pica (Mace and Knight, 1986)


  1. Professional practice of behavior analysis
  2. 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, 331-334
  3. 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, 285-297.
  4. owe, M.L., & Cuvo, A.J. (1976). Teaching coin summation to the mentally retarded. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 483-489.
  5. Van den Pol, R.A., Iwata, B.A., Ivancic M.T., Page, T.J., Neef N.A., and Whitley (1981). Teaching the handicapped to eat in public places: Acquisition, generalization, and maintenance of restaurant skills. JABA. 14, 61-69.
  6. Nutter D. & Reid D.H. (1978). Teaching retarded women a clothing selection skill using community norms. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 11, 475-487.
  7. 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.
  8. O'Brien, F., Bugle, C., and Azrin N.H. (1972). Training and maintaining a retarded child's proper eating. JABA, 5, 67-72.
  9. Wilson, P.G., Reid, D.H., Phillips, J. F., and 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.
  10. Haring, T.G. (1985). Teaching between class generalization of toy play behavior to handicapped children. JABA.18, 127-139.
  11. Lifter, K. Sulzer-Azaroff, B. Anderson, S. R. and Cowdery, G. E. (1993) Teaching Play Activities to Preschool Children with Disabilities: The Importance of Developmental Considerations. Journal of Early Intervention, 17, 139-159.
  12. Singh N.N., Manning P.J., and Angell M.J. (1982). Effects of an oral hyegene punishment procedure on chronic rumination and collateral behaviors in monozygous twins. JABA, 15, 309-314.
  13. Horner, R.D. and Keilitz, I. (1975). Training mentally retarded adolescents to brush their teeth. JABA, 8, 301-309.
  14. Blount, R.L., Drabman, R.S., Wilson, N., Stewart D. (1982). Reducing severe diurnal bruxism ib tw profoundly retarded females. JABA. 15, 565-571.
  15. Kholenberg (1970). Punishment of persitant vomiting: A case study. Journal of Applied Behavior Analyis, 3, 241-245.
  16. Rast, J., Johnston, J.M., Drum, C., and Corin, J. (1981). The relation of food quantity to rumination behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Anlaysis, 14, 121-130.

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