Adaptive Behavior for Special Needs Students

Learn how these helpful behaviors are defined and assessed

Girl (3-5) brushing hair, close-up
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Students with learning disabilities and other challenges benefit by practicing adaptive behavior skills. Adaptive behavior refers to the age-appropriate behaviors that people with and without learning disabilities need to live independently and to function well in daily life. Adaptive behaviors include real-life skills such as grooming, getting dressed, avoiding danger, safe food handling, following school rules, managing money, cleaning, and making friends. Adaptive behavior also includes the ability to work, practice social skills, and take personal responsibility.

Such behavior is also known as social competence, independent living, adaptive behavioral functioning,  independence, or life skills. All children need to adopt these behaviors to be productive members of society as adults.

Adaptive Behavior and Learning Disabilities

Adaptive behavior assessments are often used in evaluations of students with learning disabilities. These assessments can help determine which behavioral strengths and weaknesses need to be addressed in these students to improve their chances of success in both school and life.

Adaptive behavior is usually assessed using questionnaires completed by parents, teachers, social workers, students (when possible and appropriate), or adult learners. Adaptive behavior can also be assessed based on observations of the child's actual performance of a specific skill.

It is not uncommon for students with learning disabilities to require specially designed instruction to learn adaptive behaviors. This instruction will focus on helping these students develop planning, organizational skills, and study skills, which are all important adaptive behaviors.

When Your Child Isn't Adapting

As children age, they should be able to engage in progressively more complex adaptive behaviors. While a kindergartener may be practicing the art of tying her gym shoes, a fourth grader may learn the adaptive skill of bringing her lunch money to school.

A seventh grader may be able to complete household chores, such as laundry or mopping the kitchen floor. A high school student may be able to prepare meals, drive a car, or use public transportation.

If your child appears to be lagging behind his peers when it comes to adaptive behaviors, it's important that you investigate to find out the source of the problem. Does your child appear to have a learning disability, or has your child lacked the opportunity to master adaptive behaviors? In other words, are you and other adults in the child's life doing too much for the child?

One parent confessed, for example, that her son in an upper grade of elementary school didn't know how to tie his shoes because she never taught him. Instead, she bought him velcro shoes so he wouldn't be embarrassed in front of his peers for never having learned. Realizing that she'd made a mistake and that her child relied on her far too heavily to complete basic tasks, the mother gave her child more responsibilities. She stopped reminding him to bring his lunch to school and not to forget his homework, and he excelled. He was capable of completing these tasks all along.

A Word From Verywell

Most children today have fewer responsibilities than kids did 100 years ago, when children worked in factories, tended to farms, and had other difficult duties. While society is more protective of children today, the solution isn't to deprive young people of all responsibilities. By giving children age-appropriate duties, parents and caregivers can increase the odds that kids will be able to engage in adaptive behaviors whether or not they have a learning disability.