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.



Behavioral Gerontology: A Different Picture

When we think of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) our minds go straight to Autism and the younger population.  However, ABA has positive benefits for those suffering from other developmental issues as well as those in other age groups.  In fact, behavioral gerontology, the application of the principles of ABA in elderly patients to address the problems of aging, has many benefits and prove to be effective in treating the older population suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and anxiety.  These issues combined with other physical infirmities can cause many behavioral problems including confusion, hoarding, apathy, OCD, a decrease in personal hygiene, difficulty communicating, and memory loss.  Though our first instinct is to treat the older generation with a handful of medications, some of the issues they face are not medical, but can stem from the environment as well.  So let’s step out of the box and explore ABA and gerontology.


As we’ve discussed before, ABA looks at the context in which problem behaviors occur.  The antecedent (what happens before the behavior), the actual behavior, and the consequence (what happens after the behavior), and because of this approach and the emphasis on environmental factors, ABA is the perfect treatment when looking at age-related behaviors.  This proves true when looking at a few case studies and examples of using ABA to treat elderly patients.  In one study, dementia patients in a care facility were getting lost when looking for their room.  These patients suffered from short-term memory problems yet could recall older memories very clearly.  The solution was not to turn to pharmaceuticals but to attach shadow boxes that contained memories, as markers on their rooms. This solution not only helped with the patients being able to independently find their rooms but also helped with their frustrations and attitudes.  A simple environmental change can make a huge difference.


Another use of ABA techniques in the older population is the use of the token economy.  Positive reinforcement is one of the more well-known techniques in ABA and can lead to consistent and long-term appropriate behaviors.  Using tokens to earn and gain access to preferred items or activities can serve as a huge motivator to anybody, including the elderly population.


Let’s consider tossing out the idea that the elderly population’s only hope is through multiple medications.  Let’s consider tossing out the idea that they are “set in their stubborn ways” and seek to really understand their frustrations that can lead to inappropriate behavior.  Let’s consider ABA to help change the behavior of older patients as well as improve their memory and mood!  Confusion, depression, apathy, memory loss, difficulty communicating- all issues that ABA techniques can help improve and provide a better quality of life for those last years.



Parents: The Keys to Success!

“While children can make great gains with ABA therapy, the children who make the most gains are the ones who have parents who are actively involved in their child’s therapy.”  Some parents are immediately intimidated by this by thinking that they must attend every therapy session and replicate each therapy session at home.  Being actively involved in your child’s therapy simply means carrying over the skills he or she is learning and practicing these skills at home.  Your child is with you more than they are with their therapist so make this time count!  Speed up their progress with additional practice and their goals will be met.  Parent involvement is not only crucial in skills training but in behavioral management as well.  As always, consistency is key and when the behavior plan is carried over to the house, you will see major changes.


Practicing educational skills at home doesn’t require extensive data tracking or attending every therapy session.  There are many skills your child is working on that you can incidentally teach as well as by making practice a part of their routine.  For example, lets say your child is working on identifying a picture of a cat.  As you read them a bedtime story, ask them to point to the cat on the page of the story or if you’re taking a neighborhood walk, point to a cat and say “what’s that?”  Another example of working on skills at home is through your child’s routines.  If at therapy they are working on washing their hands, buy their favorite scented soap, and allow them to practice washing their hands!  Working on their goals at home will speed up the process of them reaching mastery as well as encourage generalization.  Teaching your child skills can be done through natural teaching and take up no extra time and require no extra thought.  Why not?


Behavior challenges are something that can impact the whole family on a daily basis.  If at home your child is engaging in an inappropriate behavior to obtain something and getting a different response then when this same behavior happens at school, positive behavior change will take longer.  Consistency is so important when it comes to behavior.  Going over your child’s treatment plan with their therapist and following through on this plan at home can create a better learning environment at school as well as a better environment at home.   It can seem easier to give in sometimes and make exceptions but this isn’t doing anybody any favors.  Carry over your child’s treatment plan at home and see a speedy and positive change in their behavior.  Again, why not?


Parent resources are everywhere!  Start by talking to your child’s therapist and observing some skills and behavior management techniques that can be practiced at home!  Your child’s therapist wants to see positive change and skills mastery just as much as you do!  Your child’s school or other community centers may also provide training sessions in ABA that can be beneficial!  The more you know, the better!  Other resources can be found on the internet through sites such as Autism Speaks.  Take advantage of different guides, tips, and checklists that align with your child’s skill level and behavior problems.  Another resource that can lead to other resources and connections is other moms and dads!  Make connections with parents who are experiencing raising a child with special needs and entangle yourself in a web of resources!


It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!  Skills training and behavior management at home can make daily life more fulfilling for the whole family as well as speed up educational goals at school.  Get connected and make that positive change!



ABA and Autism: It Doesn’t Stop There!

When we talk about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) we tend to immediately think of Autism.  While ABA is commonly seen in the education and treatment plans of individuals with Autism, it can also be used for many other disorders as well as common issues.  ABA is simply applying behavioral principles and techniques to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior.  It is used all over to help a wide range of ages of people to overcome all kids of social and behavioral problems.  These problems could be a common issue such as quitting smoking, as well as disorders including Autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Down syndrome.  


When we look at any behavior, we can also look at the function that it serves.  For example, smoking cigarettes serves a function.  Smoking doesn’t just happen but it happens because it may relieve anxiety, and allow escape from stressful situations, etc.  Just like with the problem behaviors that some children with Autism struggle with, smoking can be considered the problem behavior and a functional assessment can be conducted to assess the chain of events before smoking occurs as well as the result of smoking or the consequence.  Strategies to address smoking behavior include strategies that also address problem behaviors exhibited in children with Autism.  Self management strategies (recording the occurrence or absence of the behavior and receive reinforcement), stimulus control strategies (avoiding certain events that exert control over behavior), and contingency management strategies (engaging in alternative responses that serve the same function as the behavior).


We looked at a common issue that ABA can have a positive effect on and there are also other disorders other than Autism that can best be addressed using ABA techniques.  A lot of problem behaviors that children with Autism engage in can also be seen in other disorders such as OCD and Down syndrome.  These behaviors include, but are not limited to, self-injury, aggression, and repetitive behavior.  After a functional assessment is conducted, a treatment plan can be put in place which may include alternative behaviors to replace problem behaviors, reinforcement in the absence of the problem behavior, as well as many other interventions that cover a wide range of issues, big and small.


These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  ABA therapy and techniques are Autism’s “go-to” but doesn’t have to stop there!  The number of issues and other disorders that ABA can serve is numerous and should be considered in the treatment of many different behavioral issues across the board.  If you’re a teacher, caregiver, or simply looking for some techniques to address your own behavior, explore ABA!



In-Home ABA Therapy: Natural, Comfortable, Convenient!

In-home ABA therapy is tailored to fit every families needs, no matter how different they are.  Whether a parent wants to focus on behavioral problems, language deficits, or independence with routines, in-home therapy uses a child’s natural environment to implement child-specific programs and provide training and a model for parents to work on these skills as well.  In-home ABA therapy  is an amazing option for little ones not in school yet (early intervention), as well as a great addition to center-based ABA therapy (after school program or summer program).  There are many benefits of in-home therapy that a school setting cannot provide as well as benefits that help enhance the skills learned in the school setting.

The obvious benefit of implementing an in-home therapy is that this allows the therapist to observe and teach the child in his or her natural environment.  Some children may experience anxiety and nervousness in unfamiliar environment which could cause difficulty learning as well as slow progress in addressing problem behavior.  Observing problem behavior in real-time and in the child’s natural environment and addressing them as they are happening can provide a therapist with a better idea as to how to implement an effective treatment plan.  The comfort of their own home is also a great start to teaching independence with routines (bedtime, morning, meal-time, etc.) and can provide a strong foundation to generalizing these skills to other settings.

Another benefit provided by in-home therapy is the involvement of parents/caregivers and siblings.  Though a therapist can learn a child’s problem behaviors and areas of need, there is nobody that knows the child better than their family.  Allowing parents and caregivers to be active participants in therapy session can lead to greater success as well as a more open line of communication between the therapist and the caregiver.  This can also lead to parent training and the idea that the parent can help teach their child independence and help them manage their behavior with consistency and great progress.

Other benefits of in-home therapy include convenience and  the ability to control factors that could distract from learning or trigger problem behavior.  While in a busy classroom, other children, lighting, and noise can be hard to control but at home, a child’s needs can be met and distractions can be limited providing a better setting for learning and managing behavior.  In-home therapy is also ideal for parents with busy schedules and multiple children.  It provides a solution while still providing a safe and structured environment.

In-home therapy seeks to provide a good foundation for early intervention and work on enhancing the skills that are learned in schools or other settings.  The benefits are huge and help with generalization of skills and behavior management in the natural environment.  Definitely big things to consider!