Everyday, I help break down a confusing ABA term and put it in plain English! Whether you are studying for your BCBA exam, explaining ABA to parents or are a student, there is no reason to be so confused over ABA terms. While “behavioral language” is very confusing, these concepts don’t have to be. Today we will discuss

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, a relational frame is “Any specific type of arbitrarily applicable relational responding.” and “relational frame theory (RFT) is, “A theory of derived stimulus relations proposing that stimulus relations are inherently verbal and that accumulated experience with relational exemplars creates generalized repertoires of relating.”

This sounds really confusing! But it is actually a very simple concept that has profound implications for learning and offers a very cool ABA technology that can be applied to practice. 

Relational frame theory has to do with derived and related relations. It has to do with how humans use language to create relationships between things. There is no limit to the arbitrary relationships between things such as more/less better/worse bigger/ smaller ect.  For example, a dog can be similar to a cow because they are both animals or different in that one is an herbivore and one is an omnivore.  Therefore a relationship is created between a dog and a cow.

The idea of relational frame theory is that relations can be created between two or more objects that can alter human behavior and enhance learning outside of traditional associated learning or stimulus equivalence simply through language.  For example, if I tell you that my dog Lucky behaves worse than Kujo and you have met Kujo and know he is very aggressive, you will avoid Lucky simply by the relationship that I established between him and Kujo.

Or, I show you a golden retriever, a pitbull and a chocolate lab and tell you that they are all dogs because they say woof woof, walk on four legs, have fur and wag their tails and then you see a collie you will know it is a dog because of the relational frame established between a dog and its characteristics.

What these have in common is that I have established these relationships simply through language without coming into context with the specific objects.

The reason this is important is that learning can be enhanced simply by explaining the relationships between objects and creating a relational frame. This saves time because it means that a learner does not actually have to come into contact with the actual contingency. 


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.