RFT, VB, & EIBI, oh my!

Lots of people have been telling me that they think the community could benefit from a tutorial-type blog for those who are new to understanding Relational Frame Theory, particularly its implications for behavior analytic practice. I asked Dr. Siri Ming to provide a guest blog on her own personal trajectory with RFT. Siri has a grasp on the applied implications of RFT better than most people I know. I myself had the pleasure of serving on her dissertation committee, so have been thrilled to see her continued contributions to the adoption of RFT by practitioners. I hope you love her account! (*Special thanks to my doctoral students Natalia Baires and Sebastian Garcia for their ongoing support and ideas as well!)

RFT, VB, & EIBI, oh my!

guest blog by Siri Ming

While ACT is deservedly getting a lot of buzz within the behavior analytic community, it often seems like its theoretical underpinning—Relational Frame Theory—is viewed as a dense, rather incomprehensible and complicated mass of experimental jargon. I’m here to tell you that it isn’t really so incomprehensible, and when you take the time to learn a bit more, you might experience those same “aha” moments that led you into behavior analysis in the first place. I certainly did.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I fell in love with the power and elegance of RFT. Barnes-Holmes and colleagues had (much earlier) proposed a synthesis of RFT and Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior that I’d been trying to fully understand; they proposed that we could view Skinner’s classification of verbal operants essentially as being either taught or derived. This idea fit perfectly with my experience. I’d been working for a long time with tremendously skilled behavior analysts creating very effective programs but had been feeling like I was missing something when I was working with kids who just seemed to get “stuck”. All of us involved in EIBI have had experiences with kids who just start flying when they get some good teaching—the kids you can’t keep up with the data on. But what about the ones who don’t? What about the ones whose responding, for lack of a better word, just seems “rote”? We could indeed teach these kids many skills—hundreds or thousands of tacts, listener discriminations, intraverbal answers to “Wh” questions, but we couldn’t really have a conversation with them. At least not a flexible, fluent conversation that flow from topic to topic. What are they missing? With this question in mind,  I took a red-eye to Chicago in 2008 for ABAI, walked off the plane, hopped onto a train, and attended Ian Stewart  and John McElwee’s workshop on applying RFT to EIBI programs, where I caught my first real glimpse of a very big part of the answer to that question: these students were missing a repertoire of relational framing. Just as important, I began to understand that relational framing, as a generalized operant, can itself be taught. Therefore,  I joined Ian and John in the pursuit of effective and efficient ways to do just that.

RFT provides an incredibly powerful tool with which to analyze verbal repertoires, and to lay an early foundation of flexible and fluent responding, rather than teaching potentially isolated and rote skill sets. The very definition of relational framing sets the stage for this analysis and a deeper understanding of critical variables to consider in early intervention: relational frames can be conceptualized as generalized, contextually-controlled patterns of arbitrarily-applicable derived relational responding. I can’t begin to unpack all of this in one little post, so I hope if I can pique your interest enough, you’ll seek out some other sources. In the meantime, let’s just take a couple of these pieces of the puzzle as examples.

First, relational framing involves patterns of relations—and even relations between relations. With this idea, the analysis of derived relational responding moves beyond stimulus equivalence, a pattern that behavior analysts are already familiar with. With equivalence, stimuli are essentially interchangeable: A=B=C. But language involves much more than just “sameness” relations (which RFT calls frames of coordination). RFT honed my view of patterns of responding, and I began to see examples everywhere once I got started. When my daughter suggested going to “Value City” to find what we were looking for because it must be bigger than the actual thrift store “Value Village,”  this was not a matter of equating two things. “Village” and “city” are not interchangeable—one is bigger than the other, which makes the other smaller. RFT research has examined many of these patterns, including comparison, opposition, and the “deictic” responding involved in perspective-taking. Some of our research  has focused on these patterns, including a look at how class inclusion can be seen as a non-arbitrary basis for more complex hierarchical responding. In this study, we made the non-arbitrary aspects of relations of “containment” more salient by using actual containers nested together. For instance, a container for “pigs” and a container for “horses” both went inside a larger container of “animals”. Learners who initially could not answer a question such as “Are there more cats or more animals?” when presented with an array of five cats and two dogs, were able to answer such questions across a number of different categories after going through this relational training. That is, they developed a generalized repertoire of a new pattern of relational responding.

Another defining element of relational framing is that it involves arbitrarily applicable relational responding. I’ve found that the distinction between non-arbitrary (based on physical attributes such as relative size, physical identity or difference, etc.) and arbitrary relations is one that behavior analysts have not always fully considered. RFT research has shown that when arbitrary relational responding is not demonstrated, relevant non-arbitrary relational responding must oftentimes be taught first. For my younger learners, this emphasis on a foundation of non-arbitrary relational responding significantly influenced my views on curricular programming. Our analysis of relations of “difference” as a continuum from non- arbitrary to arbitrary relational responding led me to include programming for oddities as an early cusp skill, along with non-arbitrary relational pair matching (e.g., apple-apple with orange-orange rather than banana-pear, because they show a “same” relation, or cat-dog with horse-sheep rather than cow-cow, because they show a “different” relation) in addition to the perhaps more usual discrimination tasks of finding things that are the same or different.

The final aspect we’ll consider here is contextual control. One focus of my PhD research involved the surprising complication of having learners pass tests of derived relational responding in frames of coordination (i.e., equivalence) while still in baseline. This unexpected responding occurred in the context of a game with animals, after participants had been screened to ensure the absence of such responding by using abstract stimuli as seen in equivalence research. We ultimately found that by simply changing the verbal context, even when using the exact type of abstract stimuli, we could predict and influence an early learner’s demonstration of derived intraverbal responding. That is, we demonstrated that a learner could pass derivation tests when told a story that “crazy animals” had names and made sounds. For example, if abstract picture B was named A (e.g., “blanti”), and made the sound C (e.g., “oof”), the learner could respond without further teaching such that “blanti” made the sound “oof”, and “oof” was the sound that “blanti” made—just like if I showed you a picture of my cat, and you learned to tact her by her name, “Emi,” you would be able to answer a question like “what does Emi say?”. However, with similar stimuli, when told that picture B goes with sound A and with sound C, the learner could not respond such that sound A and C go together. These results profoundly changed my view of how to assess early learners’ relational repertoires using real-life contexts, and how to approach equivalence-based teaching as involving a variety of contexts for early derived relational responding.

The research on applying RFT to EIBI programs is really still just beginning, but it is so exciting to be a part of—I hope you’ll join me in exploring the many possibilities. If you’re interested in learning more about RFT, I’d recommend starting with the RFT tutorial on foxylearning.com and Niklas Törneke’s Learning RFT—or attend the ACBS World Conference in Montreal in July!

Siri Ming. Ph.D. BCBA-D