Throughout the lifespan of Applied Behavior Analysis – and well before its applied form – the science of human behavior has been refined and shaped into what it is today. Through trial and error, thousands of empirical studies have outlined the principles and philosophical underpinnings of the science, helping it become one of the most effective methods of influencing behavior change. With focus on the influence of contextual factors on observable behaviors, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has made a name for itself in treating those with autism. Using objective measures, the guiding principles, and empirically backed procedures, ABA has shown to teach this population, and many others, a wide range of skills that greatly increase the well-being of those that we serve.

ABA is also efficient in reducing the overall frequency and intensity of behaviors that may be considered contextually inappropriate or harmful. Oftentimes, by teaching the appropriate communication – and/or functionally equivalent – skill, these inappropriate behaviors tend to decrease alongside the increase in behavioral repertoire.

At times, this science of ours can feel incredibly effective and like it can be used to solve many of the world’s problems. However, the reality is that while our practices can be effective at influencing behavior change, we are limited by our current framework in how much we can actually influence; emotional regulation, habit formation, problem solving, broad social skills, and many others are examples of what we struggle to teach. This isn’t to say that ABA can’t continue helping individuals in its current form. Many foundational behaviors needed for language and communication can be taught through the methods we currently have available to us. The use of direct contingencies, discrete trials, and repetition of skills are effective in teaching those that can be taught through direct relations. However, if we want to see long lasting behavior change or teach skills that will help these individuals grow and learn from their experiences alone, we need to learn to teach them how to learn. From what research has shown us, this can be done through the use of Relational Frame Theory.

What is Relational Frame Theory (RFT)?

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Depending on where you studied and how long you’ve been in the field, you’ve at some point heard about Relational Frame Theory. Maybe one of your Master’s courses touched on it a little or you’ve heard of a clinic nearby using PEAK. Maybe you dug into it a little bit, felt a little overwhelmed, and thought “That sounds really interesting, I’ll have to look more into that when I have more time”. Given that you’re taking the time to read this aptly titled blog post, I’ll assume now’s the best time to “look more into it”. And while I couldn’t possibly explain everything there is to know about RFT in this blog post, I can do my best to guide and inspire you into the great unknown.

Relational Frame Theory, developed by Steven C. Hayes and his colleagues, is the behavioral theory of human language. Closely related to Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and its Operants, Hayes goes one step further to fully define not only how we relate to our world through language, but also how those relations affect our behaviors.

From the onset of life, we begin learning through direct relations between what we experience in the environment and how our behaviors affect these things – I cry when I’m hungry, I get fed. The more we interact with the environment – or the more it interacts with us – the quicker we learn and make relations. As we build these direct A to B relations, we slowly build networks of more complex relations between all of the different A to B sets. Meaning we start to make relations like B to C and C to A and A < B > C and so on and so forth. And some of these happen without us even trying to make the relation.

Ok, I know that was a lot. But stay with me. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Very early on, you may have learned fire is hot. For most, this is not a hard relation to build. We can look at it like this:

Fire (A) = Painful (B)

Through this relation we may have also learned that:

Painful (B) = a boo boo (C)

So for most, it isn’t much to say:

Fire (A) = a boo boo (C)

You’re able to make this relation quickly through whatever experiences you may have….

RFT takes relations like this and defines the processes in which these relations occur. This leaves us with concepts like Mutual Entailment (A to B and B to A), Combinatorial Entailment (A to B and B to C and A to C), and the transformation of stimulus functions (or how different factors affect the relations…relations with each other). However, this is also where most people feel overwhelmed and start to lose interest. And like I said in the beginning, I can’t possibly teach you everything there is to know. So let me instead “guide and inspire you”.

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While the conceptual work of RFT can be overwhelming and not user friendly, its application has the potential to change the way we as clinicians look at our field. ABA is incredibly effective in increasing a learner’s foundational skills and reducing contextually inappropriate behaviors that have been inadvertently reinforced in the past. However, once a learner starts to develop language skills we begin to run into more complex behaviors that won’t be as easily influenced or taught through these methods. RFT takes our standard ABA principles and expands them across this relation building, giving us the ability to teach these complex skills. As Steven Hayes states, “The key concept that underlies Relational Frame Theory is extremely simple—try to think of relating per se as learned behavior.” With that mentality, we can take what we know about acquiring and diminishing behaviors and use that to help learn new ways of relating. Skills such as problem solving, perspective taking, rule following/creation, and empathy are all possible through this method. And once our learners have these new, abstract skills, they will be able to learn through the experiences and stories of others, rather than having to experience them all directly.

The response effort for fully grasping and exploring this theory is substantial. Its concepts alone take multiple books and articles for one to start to understand its implications. However, I believe the potential outcome for learning more about RFT is highly rewarding. So in an attempt to reduce this response effort, I’ve procured a list of resources that may help you on your journey. Take it one resource at a time. Dedicate effort towards learning something new about it once a week. But keep pushing forward, and expand your relations with RFT.

Resources:

Association of Contextual Behavioral Science – The homebase for all things RFT, ACT, and Functional Contextualism. Tons of resources and information. https://contextualscience.org/acbs

Relational Frame Theory: Description, Evidence, and Clinical Applications – An excellent article that explains RFT pretty well. https://go-rft.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/RFT-Description-Evidence-and-Clinical-Applications.pdf

Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science – For all your literature needs, this journal will help give you a better idea of what is possible with RFT. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/journal-of-contextual-behavioral-science