Adaptive Behavior Testing

Adaptive behavior is the extent to which an individual demonstrates the culturally established standards for effective personal independence and social responsibility needed for daily living. This includes how well an individual manages the demands of day-to-day functioning (e.g., hygiene, domestic chores), motor functioning (e.g., ambulation), and communication (e.g., receptive and expressive language). It also includes cognition (e.g., problem solving, managing finances) and social functioning (e.g., use of leisure time, maintaining friendships). The American Association on Mental Retardation explains that adaptive behavior involves three broad areas: Conceptual (e.g., language and academic skills); Social (e.g., interpersonal skills, obeying laws); and Practical (e.g., self-help skills and occupational skills). Adaptive behavior can be contrasted with intellectual functioning, which involves problem solving, reasoning, conceptual thinking, and learning efficiency. Although they represent different constructs, intelligence and adaptive functioning are moderately correlated (around .3 to .4), and the correlation between these constructs increases with the severity of intellectual and adaptive impairment. This suggests that intelligence and adaptive functioning are not totally independent constructs.


Formal adaptive behavior assessment typically involves using a norm-referenced instrument to obtain information about how well the individual functions independently at home, school, and in the community. Typically this information is obtained from an informant (e.g., parent, teacher, or guardian) using an interview format. The instrument is normally administered, scored, and interpreted by a school psychologist, school counselor, or special education teacher if the individual is in school or by a clinical psychologist or social worker if the individual is out of school or is an adult. In all cases the examiner must have specialized training to interpret the data.

There are six or eight adaptive behavior scales, and most take approximately 1 hour to administer and score. Unfortunately, different adaptive tests and different informants can yield different scores. Therefore, the first goal of any examiner is to select a psychometrically sound instrument and interview an informant who is very familiar with the individual being evaluated. Regional differences regarding which adaptive scale to use are common and are often due to personal preferences, the influence of training programs, and access to updated norms (i.e., revised editions). Frequently used adaptive scales include the Scales of Independent Behavior-Revised (SIB-R), the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Second Edition (Vineland-II), and the Adaptive Behavior Assessment System-Second Edition (ABAS-2). Most adaptive behavior instruments have a number of subscales or subtests that measure four to six broad areas of independence. For example, the SIB-R has four factors (Motor Skills, Social Interaction and Communication Skills, Personal Living Skills, and Community Living Skills) that are combined to yield a Broad Independence score. The Vineland-II has four adaptive scales (Communication Skills, Daily Living Skills, Social Skills, and Motor Skills) that are combined to produce an overall Adaptive Behavior Composite. Several of the instruments have maladaptive scales to allow the clinician to better understand the individual’s disruptive, uncooperative, or inappropriate behaviors needing targeted intervention. Results from the adaptive behavior instruments are reported in the form of standard scores that have a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. Typically, scores in the range of 85 to 115 are considered age appropriate or “average.”


Adaptive behavior assessment has been used in conjunction with intellectual assessment in the diagnosis of mental retardation for decades. The American Association on Mental Deficiency (now the American Association on Mental Retardation) included deficits in adaptive functioning in its first definition of mental retardation in 1959. Similarly, in public schools, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children are diagnosed with mental retardation and provided specialized programming when both their intellectual functioning and their adaptive behavior functioning fall at least two standard deviation units below the mean. For most IQ and adaptive behavior tests, this involves standard scores 70 and below. In nonschool settings, such as mental health, Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) facilities, and community living settings, the clinicians are obligated to use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) criteria for mental retardation before assigning the diagnosis. This definition requires both intellectual and adaptive behavior functioning two standard deviations below the mean. In both settings, the adaptive behavior test results are used diagnostically (i.e., to determine whether there is a diagnosis of mental retardation), descriptively (i.e., to determine the person’s strengths and limitations), and prescriptively (i.e., to determine the appropriate goals for intervention programming).

While adaptive behavior assessment historically has been employed with persons suspected of having mental retardation, it is used to obtain valuable information for many students and adults referred for cognitive, academic, and/or behavioral assessment. For example, adaptive behavior testing provides valuable insight into the manifestations of developmental delay, pervasive developmental disorders, autism, and various behavior disorders. The results can be helpful in establishing intervention goals and in guiding treatment efforts. Ultimately, adaptive behavior testing is useful in helping a wide range of individuals achieve more satisfying, productive, and independent lives.


  1. American Association on Mental Retardation. (2007). The AAMR definition of mental retardation. Retrieved from
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Bruininks, R., Woodcock, R., Weatherman, R., & Hill, B. (1996). Scales of Independent Behavior-Revised. Chicago: Riverside.
  4. Harrison, P., & Boney, T. (2002). Best practices in the assessment of adaptive behavior. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology IV. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  5. Harrison, P., & Oakland, T. (2000). Adaptive Behavior Assessment System. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
  6. Harrison, P., & Oakland, T. (2003). Adaptive Behavior Assessment System-Second Edition. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
  7. Sparrow, S., Cicchetti, D., & Balla, D. (2006). Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Second Edition. Bloomington, MN: Pearson Education.

See also: