Adaptive Skills & Behavior Research Paper Starter

Adaptive Skills & Behavior

This article presents an overview of the development and teaching of adaptive skills or behavior to special education students in the U.S. An adaptive skill is a skill used by an individual on a daily basis in order to live, work, and participate in leisure activities in a community. Using mental retardation as a framework, the paper presents definitions, historical perspectives, measurements of adaptive skills, adaptive skills through the lifespan, and teaching methods. An outline of how mental retardation is defined is also provided.

Keywords Activities of Daily Living; Adaptive Behaviors; Adaptive Skills; Intelligence Tests; Mental Retardation; Special Education; Task Analysis


In the literature, the use of the term adaptive skills is synonymous with adaptive behaviors. For the purposes of this paper, the term adaptive skills will be used to refer to both terms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 1996 report on mental disabilities, mental retardation (MD) affects 1.5 million people aged 6-64 and the overall rate of MR was 7.6 cases per 1000 population in the U.S. alone. To facilitate the understanding of adaptive skills, this paper will use the disability of mental retardation for explanation of the concepts. However, this in no way implies that adaptive skills are only used in defining mental retardation. Individuals use adaptive skills with many other types of disabilities (i.e., autism, blind, hearing impaired, cerebral palsy) to live, work and pursue leisure activities on a daily basis.


An adaptive skill is a skill used by an individual on a daily basis in order to live, work, and participate in leisure activities in a community. The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) defines adaptive skills as conceptual, social, and practical daily living skills which allow the individual to reside in his/her community.

Conceptual skills include communication, money concepts, and reading and writing, social skills include interpersonal skills, responsibility, and self-esteem; and activities of daily living which include self-care, housekeeping, and transportation (AAIDD, 2007).

When using the definitions above, the age of the individual should be kept in mind as the skills are defined by what is acceptable in the community of the individual, and that performance of a skill should be typical (Sparrow, Balla, & Cicchettti, 1985). For instance, as an infant it is important to learn to eat, whereas later in life it is important to be able to prepare meals. Throughout the lifespan, an individual's performance is considered typical when the skills needed are executed appropriately.

Mental Retardation as a Framework

In the 1900's, the determination that an individual was mentally retarded was based solely on intelligence test scores. Adaptive skills were first included as part of the definition of mental retardation in the American Association of Mental Deficiency's (AAMD) first published manual (Sparrow, Balla, & Cicchettti, 1985). The AAMD is currently known as the AAIDD and provides the most used definition of mental retardation. Over the years, revisions of the definition have been necessary due to new research. The current definition of mental retardation provided by the AAIDD is:

"Mental retardation is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before the age of 18. A complete and accurate understanding of mental retardation involves realizing that mental retardation refers to a particular state of functioning that begins in childhood, has many dimensions, and is affected positively by individualized supports. As a model of functioning, it includes the contexts and environment within which the person functions and interacts and requires a multidimensional and ecological approach that reflects the interaction of the individual with the environment, and the outcomes of that interaction with regards to independence, relationships, societal contributions, participation in school and community, and personal well being" (AAIDD, 2007).

The AAIDD definition is commonly used as it compares standardized intelligence test scores to age-matched peers, provides levels of independence in relation to individual's age and culture, and states that mental retardation must be determined in the first 18 years of life. With each revision, a key component of the definition is the continued emphasis on adaptive skills in comparison to intelligence levels (Kirk & Gallagher, 1986; Sparrow, Balla, & Cicchettti, 1985; Williamson, McLeskey, Hoppey, & Rentz, 2006).

An individual is considered mentally retarded if his or her standardized test scores are two or more standard deviations below the average age group as well as having low adaptive skills. On a well-standardized test of intelligence two standard deviations below the mean is below the second percentile. In the normal population fewer than two percent (2%) of the population will score below the second standard deviation (Paul, 2007). The rationale for the use of both scores is that many individuals may have a low intelligence scores but have learned to adapt behaviors in relation to his or her cultural or societal expectations.

For instance, many individuals can perform well within the home, community, and within their social group. As such, these individuals may be considered normal within his or her community or cultural environment but may score low on an intelligence test (Heward & Orlansky, 1992; Kirk & Gallagher, 1986). However, the same individual may be seen as delayed in the academic setting. Thus, there is not a consistent disability so this child may not be mentally retarded. Whereas, the same child may be considered mentally retarded if within the community or cultural environment and the academic setting the child is not seen as normal. In other words, low intelligence scores combined with low social adaptations is considered to be a hallmark feature of mental retardation.

Individuals who are mentally retarded are classified as being either mild, moderate, or severe/profound. Mild retardation is defined as an individual who has an intelligence quotient of 50 to 70, has academic difficulties and low social skills. Yet, with special education services or supports this individual can learn in the educational environment and use adaptive skills in activities of daily living outside of school. In general, these individuals can hold jobs and live independently within the community.

An individual is moderately mentally retarded when his or her intelligence quotient is 35 to 55. These individuals require special education support with academics and need assistance to learn activities of daily living. Adaptive skills can be learned for employment in a supported work environment or sheltered workshop as well as living in supervised settings.

The individual with severe/profound mental retardation has intelligence quotients below 35 and requires training in basic survival skills (feeding, dressing, toileting). These individuals may be employed in a highly structured sheltered workshop or often live in a extremely supervised group home or institution. Typically, these individuals do not gain independence in providing for their own care.

Historical Perspective

Special education services in the United States have undergone radical changes in the last twenty years. In 1975 the Education for All Handicapped Act, commonly referred to as P.L. 94-142, was passed and provided all children with a free appropriate education. The passage of P.L. 94-142 further substantiated the importance of adaptive skills in determining a disability. Currently, P.L. 94-142 is referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004). This federal law continues to mandate special education and related services to individuals with disabilities age birth to 21 years. It is important to note that the IDEA definition of mental retardation is similar to the AAIDD definition. The main difference between the two definitions is that the IDEA extends the assessment of adaptive skills beyond the diagnosis of mental retardation to include all children with disabilities. To understand the need for the continued focus on adaptive skills one must examine how treating the disordered progressed from a historical standpoint.

The understanding of adaptive skills must acknowledge the evolution of the treatment of individuals with disabilities. Beck (2002) proposed that as early as the first humans began on earth we have been involved in the care and treatment of individuals with disabilities.

Kolstoe (1976) described the late 1700's and early 1800's work of French doctor Jean Marc Gaspard...

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