Adaptive Skills

Is your child acting immature?

Is your child:

  • Acting really immature for his or her age?
  • Crying and melting down in a moment, with little provocation or warning?
  • Struggling to manage a basic morning routine?
  • Failing to take his dishes to the sink?
  • Still needing help in the shower?
  • Going to school with dirty, uncombed hair, un-brushed teeth and the same clothes as yesterday if you don’t step in to assist?
  • Not knowing how to tell time, to read a calendar, or to count money?
  • Not following through with chores?


Some children do not seem to mature as quickly as other children do. They seem to need more help, guidance, and hand-holding to complete their day-to-day tasks.

You may see this need in your very bright child who is reading two grade levels ahead. Maybe you have no concerns academically, but you wonder if your child would ever make it to school on time, bathe, or choose proper clothing for the weather without your support.

You may be the parent of an 8-year-old, but already you are wondering, “How will this child ever make it in college?” Children mature at different rates, and often people say that girls mature faster than boys. In very young children, we need to adjust our expectations for premature babies by taking into account gestational age at birth.


Adaptive Skills are functional skills including daily living skills, self-care, community living, functional academics, domestic skills, functional communication, socialization, coping skills and motor development.

The term functional living skills refers to an individual’s ability to function within the home and the community. So, for functional academics, we would not consider geometry or algebra, but rather we would include counting money, telling time, or computing the cost of an item.

Daily living skills refers broadly to skills we need day-to-day. These daily skills include self-care and domestic tasks. For example, a child who can brush his teeth independently, put his clothes away, and wash his own hair, has skills in the area of self-care.

Domestic tasks may include: taking a plate to the sink, vacuuming, unloading the dishwasher, putting away toys or making toast.

Community living includes remembering to look both ways before crossing the street, going on an outing with a peer, taking the bus, or making an appointment on time (for older teens).

Functional communication includes expressing wants and needs succinctly and being able to follow directions, focus attention on a book or lecture, have a conversation with another person or retell the plot of a book or movie.

Socialization refers to skills like: sharing toys, making friends, planning and attending playdates, and having good sportsmanship.

Coping skills include manners, emotion regulation, and the ability to follow social rules for different settings, such as using quiet voices in the library.

Motor development includes gross and fine motor skills. Gross motor includes walking, running, and riding a bike, while fine motor is drawing, typing, and unwrapping a small piece of candy.

Adaptive skills are relatively broad, and so additional articles will talk about these areas in a more in-depth manner. Clinically, we must consider that children with disabilities often have challenges in one or more adaptive areas.

Children with Autism may have delays across all adaptive domains. Children with ADHD may struggle with receptive communication and with domestic and self-care skills. Children with emotional challenges may also be delayed in their adaptive skill development. Anxiety and depression can lead to a reduced expression of appropriate self-care and social skills.

Children who have attachment-related challenges often have delays because of less exposure to skills or lack of social motivation. Children often walk and talk much later if they spent their early months or years in a neglectful environment.


Break skills down into simple steps, and support these developing skills for your child. Work with them to clean up toys in the bedroom or to rake the yard.

Create a morning routine poster to hang in the bedroom and bathroom that reminds your child of the steps to complete the routine. Make a chore chart with stickers that can be exchanged for family game night, ice cream or a trip to the park. Keep things simple, and make rewards meaningful.

Don’t threaten things you cannot or will not enforce, such as, “No TV for a week if this room isn’t clean.” If everyone else watches TV, this consequence may not be possible. Instead, say, “First put all your dirty clothes in the hamper, then you can play outside.” This reward is simple and immediate, and the chore is clearly stated.

Some children struggle with adaptive skills even with all of these lovely strategies. This struggle means it is the time to consult a behavior therapist. Consider having your child evaluated to better understand his or her strengths and weaknesses that may contribute to adaptive deficits.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Socializing: difficulty socially interacting with others impacts adaptive skills because children learn as they interact with one another, share toys and make friends. Vygotsky’s social learning theory posits that social interaction underlies typical learning and development. Social Skills impact adaptive behavior
  • Communicating: trouble with communication impacts a child’s ability to express his or her wants and needs, to develop conversation skills and to engage reciprocally with peers
  • Intelligence: trouble with thinking and reasoning can cause general delays that would encompass areas like communication, daily living skills, socialization and motor development
  • Motor planning or handwriting (Moving & Sensing): motor impairments are a component of adaptive skills. Being able to move about, grasp items, turn the pages of a book and later to draw and write are important skills that facilitate learning
  • Focusing: if a child struggles to pay attention, then receptive communication may be impacted. Also, perhaps the child was not paying attention or encoding tasks and routines, like how to properly brush teeth, where the toys go at the end of playtime, etc.


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Intellectual Disability: children with intellectual disabilities have general delays across cognitive and adaptive domains. Children with Down syndrome or another genetic condition and children who have been exposed prenatally to drugs or alcohol may be more at risk for this potential disability
  • ADHD: challenges with attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity often translate into “immature” behavior and lower skills in some areas, such as listening and following directions, emotional control, and self-care tasks
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors can have an overall impact on adaptive skills, or perhaps the deficits are social, while other adaptive areas are developing typically
  • Language Disorder: challenges with communication will impact functional communication. Thus, conversation skills and expressive and receptive language may be less developed in children who have language delays
  • Attachment Disorder: children who struggle with attachment to primary caregivers have often come from inconsistent or unpredictable settings, or poor prenatal care. Children may be late to talk or walk, and this delay may then impact their adaptive skills
  • Anxiety or Depression: excessive worry or sadness that has an impact on day-to-day functioning; children with these emotional struggles may withdraw from peers, communicate less and let self-care skills decline


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to provide a customized profile of concerns or a live consultation with a psychologist
  • Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA Therapist): to treat behavior; can help child increase adaptive skills and improve communication. In-home treatment plans make addressing self-care and domestic skills easier
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to examine possible symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms as needed; work on social skills via a social skills group or psychotherapy interventions
  • OT or Speech Pathologist: to treat motor or language deficits. In combination with ABA, this approach may be most effective for children with Intellectual Disability or Autism

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • WISC-V: an IQ test used to establish a baseline of intellectual abilities, which can help us understand your child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • Vineland-3: a comprehensive test of adaptive skills for ages birth to 21 years that includes communication, socialization and daily living skills. Other adaptive measures include the ABAS and the SIB-R, which is the best test to use for an adult
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST, TOVA: assessing areas of executive function may help to determine the skills and resources your child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and pay attention (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • ADOS-2: a test of social communication indicating an autism diagnosis should be considered
  • Roberts, BASC-3, Clinical Interview, RCMAS, CDI-2, Human Figure Drawing: an emotional assessment through drawing tasks, open-ended questions, interviews, rating scales, that could provide useful information into your child’s emotional experience. (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)


[1] Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s. 


[2] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Books for kids:

[3] Cook, Julia (2012). Personal space camp. 


[4] Esham, Barbara (2015). Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the wiggle fidgets. (New edition) (Adventures of everyday geniuses.) 


[5] Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function). 


[6] Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.


[7] Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)  


[8] McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.


[9] McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind activity book.


Image Credit:
Description: Dancer
Stock Photo ID: #538067618 (iStock)
By: Lisa5201
Previously Licensed on: April 25, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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