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EC-K1: Awareness of the basic developmental stages within domains of motor, cognitive, communication, and social-emotional development for infants and young children ages birth to 5.

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Basic ConceptDevelopment of Adaptive Behavior

A girl slides down a playground slide.Adaptive behavior is a broad domain of development that refers to a child’s ability to function independently in his or her environment. Adaptive skills are developmental, which means that a child gains skills with age and experience. Adaptive behaviors typically become more complex as children age, and more is expected of them. Interestingly, the assessment or measurement of adaptive skills is defined by the expectations or standards of other people. There are general developmental guidelines, but typically adaptive skills are culturally specific and determined by what other people think children should be capable of by a certain age. Another interesting aspect of adaptive skills is that many skills require physical maturity and sequences of learned behaviors. As a result, many children with disabilities are at a disadvantage in developing adaptive skills in comparison to their peers without disabilities.

Adaptive behaviors develop throughout early childhood and include social responsibility, self-help skills, community self-sufficiency, and social adjustment.

  • Social responsibility includes a child’s ability to interact with other children and adults. It also includes children’s self-directed abilities, or their ability to make choices, follow a schedule, indicate their wants, needs, or desires, seek assistance, solve problems and make sound decisions about safety and health. Lastly, socially-adjusted children take responsibility for their decisions. In early childhood, social behaviors develop over many years. An educator cannot expect a child to have adaptive skills that are not developmentally appropriate. Thus, if a child is at a developmental stage in which he or she is not aware of interactive play, social interaction with peers is a skill that has not yet been acquired. Similarly, if a child has never had the opportunity to perform a skill, he or she will not likely demonstrate it.
  • Self-help skills include eating, dressing, toileting, grooming, and hygiene to a degree that is developmentally appropriate. Most children develop basic self-help skills by ages 5 or 6. However, even the simplest activity, like brushing teeth, can be complex. Tooth brushing includes understanding that one needs the brush and the toothpaste; the fine motor skill to take the cap off of the toothpaste; the hand control to spread the toothpaste on the brush and move the brush in the mouth; and the knowledge and skill to turn water on and off — and not burn oneself. Self-help skills, in particular, require that children connect many discrete steps to perform one task. This can make the tasks harder for some children to learn, and it means that most children do not learn them in the first years of life.
  • Community self-sufficiency in early childhood means that children can function appropriately for their age and culture with adult supervision in community environments (e.g., restaurants, stores, parks). In time, children with adaptive community skills access public transportation, use public facilities (e.g., post office, library), attend movies, and shop. In early childhood, however, children are expected to understand how to behave in public settings. In most settings, this means making appropriate decisions about their behavior and communicating their choices to an adult. For example, in a restaurant a child would be expected to select a meal, wait patiently for the meal to arrive, use the silverware appropriately, keep food on the table, etc. Expectations and goals would vary depending on the age of the child. Society generally has high expectations for children in public to practice good manners. As a result, many children with and without disabilities struggle with community self-sufficiency in the early years.
  • Social adjustment refers to children’s ability to adapt to new situations and to develop and respond to behavioral patterns. It also refers to their general disposition, attention to detail, and perseverance with tasks. Children’s ability to cope with new, stressful, or frustrating situations would indicate their social adjustment. Similarly, children’s organization of activities and tasks, as well as their general temperament in reacting to events throughout the day, indicate social adjustment. As with other adaptive areas, social adjustment is highly dependent on a child’s functioning in other areas, such as motor development and cognitive development.

The development of adaptive skills is highly interdependent with the development of skills in other domains. For example, if a child is slow to develop social interaction skills because of a speech-language delay, his or her social responsibility and overall adaptive skills will be greatly affected. Furthermore, different adaptive skills are required in different environments-for people of all ages. For young children, this can be complicated and confusing. Routines vary greatly between home, school, and daycare, particularly with self-help skills. The greater the variation between environments, the longer it is likely to take for a child to demonstrate competence across the environments.

Adaptive skills influenced a child's level of independence. As children acquire more adaptive skills, they become more independent, and they rely less on caregiver support and guidance. The acquisition of adaptive skills is also related to children's self-concept, self-esteem, and overall competence.

Information in this lesson is used with permission from:

Cohen, L. G., & Spenciner, L. J. (2003). Assessment of children and youth with special needs (pp. 378-396). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Horn, E. M. (1996). Interventions to promote adaptive behavior skills (pp. 259-286). In S. L. Odom & M. E. McLean (Eds.) Early intervention/early childhood special education: Recommended practices. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Horn, E., & Childre, A. (2004). Assessing adaptive behavior (pp. 487-516). In M. McLean, M. Wolery, & D. Bailey Jr. (Eds.), Assessing infants and preschoolers with special needs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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