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Adaptive and Maladaptive Behavior

This is an excerpt from Developmental and Adapted Physical Activity Assessment 2nd Edition With Web Resource by Michael Horvat,Luke E. Kelly,Martin E. Block & Ron V. Croce.


Behaviors, social skills, and how well a student plays with equipment are important yet often undermeasured concepts in general and adapted physical education. Yet many referrals for adapted physical education are for behavior or social interaction problems students display in general physical education rather than physical or motor problems. It is often said that physical education can improve self-concept, but how a student feels about himself or herself in relation to physical education is rarely measured. Finally, many teachers talk about the importance of helping students without disabilities gain a positive, empathetic, caring attitude toward peers with disabilities. This chapter reviews common assessment tools and practices used to measure students’ behaviors, social skills, self-concept, play, and attitudes. Each section begins with a short case study relating a real-life situation of a student with a disability.


Students who present difficult behaviors are often the most challenging for both general and adapted physical educators. Difficult behaviors can include passive aggression (refusing to participate), verbal outbursts, running away, destroying equipment, and even physical violence toward peers and staff. Before the IEP team can determine an appropriate program for a student with challenging behaviors, the team needs to determine the types of behaviors being displayed, the intensity of the behaviors, and possible causes of the behaviors.


The ability to effectively meet social and community expectations for personal independence, physical needs, and interpersonal relationships expected for one’s age and cultural group is termed adaptive behavior (Brown, McDonnell, & Snell, 2016). Behavior that interferes with everyday activities is called maladaptive behavior, or more often, problem behavior. Maladaptive behavior is undesirable, is socially unacceptable, or interferes with the acquisition of desired skills or knowledge (Bruininks, Woodcock, Weatherman, & Hill, 1996). Problems in acquiring adaptive skills may occur at any age - in developing and mastering basic maturational skills for young children (e.g., the ability to walk or perform self-help skills), in learning academic skills and concepts for school-age children (e.g., basic reading, writing, and math), or in making social and vocational adjustments for older individuals (e.g., getting along with others and developing basic job skills).


Maladaptive behavior ultimately limits independence,the ability to do things on one’s own without getting into trouble. Independence is critical for success at school, at home, and in the community. It means not only being able to perform a task but also knowing when to do it and having the willingness to do so. When students exhibit behavior problems that affect independence, it leads to restrictions, extra supervision, additional assistance with behaving more appropriately, and possibly a more segregated placement (Bruininks, Woodcock, Weatherman, & Hill, 1996).


With regard to physical education, adaptive behavior includes following directions, getting along with peers, using equipment appropriately, putting forth an appropriate amount of effort, and generally behaving appropriately for the setting (e.g., not running away or getting into fights). Good adaptive behavior and a lack of behavior problems in physical education allow the student to be more independent (does not need a teacher assistant), be more successful, and be accepted more readily by the general physical education teacher and by peers.


In behavioral assessments, the first step is defining the targeted behavior to determine the extent of its occurrence before treatment. The assessment of behavior depends on accurate observation and precise measurement. Therefore, it is important that the examiner clearly and objectively define the behaviors to be assessed and then accurately observe and record these defined behaviors (Bambara, Janney, & Snell, 2015). For example, saying a student is "always getting in trouble" is vague and not measurable. Even a statement such as "Emily is aggressive toward her peers" is too vague to target for intervention. Aggressive could mean that she hits, bites, yells, or displays other forms of aggression. A better definition might be that "Emily touches and pushes other children two or three times while waiting in line to drink water and four or five times when sitting in a group waiting for instructions."


It is also important to examine antecedents (things that happen just before a behavior occurs that may cause the behavior) as well as consequences (things that happen immediately after a behavior occurs that may reinforce the behavior). For example, being paired with a particular peer may upset a student and cause an inappropriate behavior (screaming when the student sees that peer coming toward him), while chasing after a student who runs away may reinforce that behavior (running away becomes a game) (see the section on functional behavioral analysis in this chapter for more details on measuring antecedents and consequences).


Traditional behavioral assessments usually focus on two areas: adaptive behaviors and behavior problems. Assessing adaptive behaviors involves information such as a student’s ability to perform certain adaptive behaviors (e.g., dressing, getting from one place to another, staying on task), how often he performs an adaptive behavior, and how well he performs an adaptive behavior. Assessing behavior problems includes types of maladaptive behaviors, frequency of such behaviors, and intensity of such behaviors. For example, a question on the Scales of Independent Behavior - Revised (SIB-R) (Bruininks, Woodcock, Weatherman, & Hill, 1996) asks whether or not the student is hurtful to others (e.g., biting, kicking, pinching, pulling hair, scratching, or striking). The scale includes a place for the examiner to note the frequency (never to one or more times per hour) as well as the perceived severity of the problem (not serious, not a problem to extremely serious, a critical problem).Thus, the examiner is able to obtain an idea of the student’s present abilities, strengths, and deficits with regard to adaptive behaviors and problem behaviors. This information can then be translated into behavioral goals such as "demonstrates the ability to wait turn when playing small-group game in physical education" or "maintains appropriate personal space when playing games and interacting with peers in physical education."


Information from this type of assessment can also help the general physical education teacher determine whether a behavior is significant enough (i.e., occurs fairly frequently and at a serious level) to warrant additional support - such as a teacher assistant or adapted physical educator - or perhaps removal from general physical education into a self-contained setting. Other areas that are measured in behavioral tests include the following (Kazdin, 2000):

  • Frequency: number of behaviors during a designated time period
  • Response rate: number of responses divided by the time interval
  • Intervals: behaviors during a specified time rather than by discrete responses that have a beginning and end point
  • Time sampling: observations conducted for brief periods at different times rather than during a single block of time
  • Duration: amount of time the response is observed (effective for measuring continuous rather than discrete behaviors)
  • Latency: duration measure that observes the time lapse between the cue and the response
  • Categorization: classifying responses according to their occurrence (correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate)
  • Group: number of individuals who perform a specific behavior or response as opposed to individual responses