What is Adaptive Behavior?

Adaptive behavior is the ability to adjust to new situations and experiences, developing skills for successful living, as well as interpersonal interactions. This contrasts with maladaptive behavior, where a person develops a response to given situations or behaviors, but it causes problems, rather than generating constructive and useful techniques for dealing with life. It is possible to assess people at various ages to see how well they are acquiring life skills, and to determine if they need assistance or interventions.

This behavior is age appropriate, with people acquiring increasingly more complex skills as they get older. For very young children, adaptive behavior can include things like honing grasping abilities to reach objects, speaking to request assistance from adults, and identifying and avoiding dangers like power outlets. As people grow older, they pick up interpersonal communication techniques and start to develop living and learning skills like organizing homework, working, and so forth.

When people do not develop adaptive behavior in a timely fashion, it can be a sign of a learning disability or a cognitive disability making it difficult for the person to acquire and apply knowledge. Many people with learning disabilities have trouble with developing behaviors to help them learn, such as the ability to focus, complete homework, or interact with other students in a classroom environment. Intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome can interfere with the development of adaptive behavior by making it hard for people to learn skills and grasp increasingly complex concepts.


Parents may notice that children do not develop life skills on a regular timeline and teachers can also observe problems with adaptive behavior development. A developmental psychologist can assess a child, using a rubric and drawing upon observations from people around the child to determine whether the child is meeting developmental targets. Some children are naturally a little slower and may just need more time, while others may need interventions like an aide to help them learn skills, or medications to address chemical imbalances that make it hard for them to learn.

Adults can develop maladaptive behavior patterns as a result of abuse and trauma. They can work with a psychologist or therapist to explore the origins of their behaviors and see if it is possible to modify them. Someone who tends to avoid conflict, for example, might work with a therapist on being assertive with people like supervisors and family members. Therapists can help people identify adaptive behaviors they want to learn and will work with their clients to undo previously learned behaviors and develop more appropriate skills. This can include physical, as well as psychological, therapy; a person who walks with a limp because of a stroke, for example, might work on learning to walk again.


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Post 6

I think I agree with those who feel that very adaptive behavior may also be problematic at times. This reminds me of a condition called Stockholm Syndrome. This is a psychological condition when a hostage develops sympathy for his or her captive. Even after the hostage is freed, he or she doesn't speak ill about the captive.

I think this might be an extreme form of adaptive behavior that's actually not good. I agree that adaptation is good, but it shouldn't mean that one will go along with anything and everything that occurs.

Post 5

@KoiwiGal-- Avoiding interaction with others at all times doesn't seem like adaptive behavior to me. I think adaptive behavior is doing what's most logical and beneficial in that specific time frame and situation. If the situation is such that you ought to speak to others and interact with them, not doing so would definitely not be adaptive behavior.

Post 4

Adaptation skills are very important. This is a skill that most employers are looking for when they are hiring new employees. Adaptive individuals who can adjust to new and different environments and situations make the best team leaders. These are the people that everyone looks up to when there is a challenge.

So anyone who wants a successful career and a successful life in general should work on their adaptation skills. Although some people are naturally better at it than others, I believe that it can be developed with effort.

Post 3

@Fa5t3r - The term "maladaptive" and even adaptive, aren't really a diagnosis. Avoiding conflict is a great example of something that could be both depending on the circumstance. I think people just need to identify the behaviors in themselves that they think are not helpful, or are destructive, and decide what they want to do about them.

I'm an introvert and I tend to avoid situations where I have to interact with people, which I always thought of as a maladaptive behavior that I should try to change. But I've come to see it as adaptive, because talking to people for no reason stresses me and I'd rather save my energy for times when I have to do it for work or at an event.

Post 2

@umbra21 - I'm curious as to where the line between adaptive behavior and maladaptive behavior gets drawn though. In the case of your sister, it might not have been good in the long run, but in the short run her behavior was getting her what she wanted. Maybe there wasn't any other way for her to achieve that, in which case I'm not sure what else she could have done.

From one point of view almost any behavior could be labeled maladaptive, but it's always done for a reason.

Post 1

I think an example of maladaptive behavior might also be those children who will do things like throw a tantrum in order to get noticed. My sister was the youngest and she happened to be still growing up when my parents got divorced and she fell into this pattern of behavior even as a teenager.

She discovered that my mother felt so guilty about what had happened that she could act out and be rewarded with more attention and more material items.

Unfortunately, it took a long time before they both recognized what was happening, and started therapy to break the cycle and my sister managed to alienate a lot of people before that.

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