Relational Frame Theory Explained

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a theory that focuses on how humans learn language and how language connects them to their environment.  According to RFT, the foundation of this learning is the concept of “relating”.  Typically developing children learn RFT through natural language interactions where they are exposed to contingencies that establish these response patterns.  Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and other developmental delays, however, find this key form of responding more difficult and language tends to be rote.


Dr. Russ Harris of The Happiness Trap explains Relational Frame Theory in a way that is easily understood and we are going to take a look at his explanation to better understand it ourselves.  Dr. Harris asks us to say the word “lemon” to our self and notice the psychological things that show up.  What images do you see?  Can you smell fresh lemonade or taste lemon pie?  Do you have memories of lemon trees or do you experience any emotions?  In RFT these experiences are called “events”.  Events include any private experience including a thought, feeling, or memory as well as anything you can hear, see, taste, smell, or touch.  This means that every single time you hear or think the word “lemon”, it is an event.  When you smell or taste a lemon, it is also an event.  The word “lemon” is related to many different events, such as tastes, memories, smells, and thoughts.


After this first exercise, he then asks us to say the word lemon, out loud, over and over again.  Within thirty seconds of repetition the word loses all of its meaning (for almost everyone).  Just like with any other word that is said repetitively, the word becomes an odd sound.  The images, tastes, memories, and smells that we previously related with the word “lemon” disappear and it simply becomes a sound: “lemm-unn”.  As children, the first few times we heard the sound “lemm-unn” it had no meaning, it was simply a sound we could hear.  At this point, the sound was not related to any other event, such as tastes, smells, memories, etc.  Between then and now the sound has been related to other events and has become a part of a vast relational network that includes smells, tastes, and textures, as well as images, feelings, and memories about lemon pie, lemon trees, sliced lemons, etc.  The way we learned to do that is through RFT.


Another example is taking a look at how language is learned.  When we are first born, we learn how to make sounds and as we continue to grow we learn to relate these sounds to the things around us.  Words such as “mommy” and “bottle” are linked to a person and an object in the outside world.  Soon enough these same sounds are not only related to our outside world but to our inside world as well.  The sound bottle is now related to an actual bottle as well as the taste of yummy milk and the sensation of thirst.  This vast relational network is limitless!


ABA builds the perfect foundation of language through mands, intraverbals, and tacts, but the human language is very complex. There is research that shows that relational framing can be trained in developmentally delayed individuals and those with ASD.  One example of training is through PEAK: a relational training system.  PEAK incorporates the basics of language as well as teaching behavior analytic strategies that promote relational responding.   Learning relational responding then leads to derived relations which is when something doesn’t need to be directly taught but is learned from the relations of stimuli.  For example: Susie directly teaches Johnny that an elephant is bigger than a dog.  Johnny can now derive that a dog is smaller than an elephant.  Derived relations are “the heart of the human language” and can help teach the ability to interpret the meaning of words and understand expressions.


It is said that RFT shows great promise for the future of those with developmental delays.  Relational training takes it a step further than ABA in the language department and not only teaches the basics, but also the elaborate and intricate parts of language.



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