Education and Development


Contextual theories have a long history in the study of child development. Early contextual theories such as the studies of reflexes via Pavlov and consequences such as reinforcement and punishment through the early behaviourists informed our understanding of how human behavior is learned and can be influenced. Contextual approaches gave therapists and educators something that the early introspective approaches had not- an ability to generate precise and individually tailored technologies and therapies to promote learning and development through altering and designing context.

Early contextual approaches, had significant limitations as highlighted by Noam Chomsky and other leaders in cognition science. The challenges posed by the critics of these early contextual approaches could be simplified to: 1) How can behavior analysis explain language acquisition that has occurred in the absence of direct learning through reinforcement? (ie. poverty of the stimulus problem), and 2) How can behavior analysis account for novel behavior that has not been directly taught?

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) has been able to answer to these critiques through basic research. It has done this by providing an account for language development through analysis of training in bidirectional relations, which addresses the poverty of stimulus critique (eg. see Lipkins, Hayes & Hayes, 1993). Furthermore, by providing an explanation for how humans learn to engage in Derived Relational Responding, RFT has been able to show how humans engage in apparently novel and creative behaviour through a history of learning (Multiple Exemplar Instruction).

The implications for the increased analytical power provided by Relational Frame Theory is that it allows developmental and educational professionals insights and strategies for addressing aspects of human development they previously could not, such as self-concept and moral reasoning. Core domains of cognitive development, such as language acquisition, the learning of logic, and decision making, can now be studied through a fine-grained analysis that targets measurable units of behaviour and learning history that can be translated for immediate application in therapies or teaching strategies.

Applications and Extensions in Education and Development

Key domains that are relevant to education and development that have been studied and expanded upon by RFT and CBS research are outlined below:

1) Early Language Development: Studies have increasingly shown that the poverty of the stimulus can be accounted by what Relational Frame Theory calls ‘coordination’ (also known as stimulus equivalence). This has great value for educators and speech pathologists, as it allows them to design therapy approaches for language and learning problems. For linguists and developmental psychologists, RFT research provides a contextual and functionalist approach to understanding the unique human ability of language. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering RFT and early language development.

2) Basic Reasoning: The ability to infer or logically work out a solution based on limited information is known as Derived Relational Responding. Evidence that humans derive in accord with the predictions of RFT can be seen in a wide range of work such as that done by Berens and Hayes (2007) where comparative relations were targeted. It was shown children could learn to ‘derive’ value in the predicted way. Importantly, the Berens study directly addresses one of the more common challenges posed by developmental researchers ‘how do children move from the literal to the abstract’? In, essence these results show us that the ability to infer or derive, can be shown to be a product of a persons history of examples and experience with language. This is also consistent with findings from Hart & Risley (1995) who show the pivotal role the amount and type of language experiences impacts development in cognition itself. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering RFT and basic reasoning.

3) Metaphor and Analogy Development: The power of analogy and metaphor can be seen in the ubiquity of symbolic and pretend play and the early development of idioms in development. RFT researchers conceptualise analogical/metaphorical thinking as ‘relations amongst relations’ and the evidence suggests this is indeed the process that is occurring. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering RFT and metaphor and analogy development.

4) Perspective Taking: Perhaps the most researched relational ‘frames’ in RFT have been in the domain of perspective taking skills. This ability has immediate interest for developmental researchers and practitioners, due to its impact on empathy development, theory of mind, and social reasoning. Clinicians interested in self concept and awareness benefit greatly from this work. The interest and demand for this has resulted in a book length analysis and summary of the state of the RFT research (listed below in resources). Practitioners working with Autism will find the RFT perspective taking literature of particular interest. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering RFT and perspective taking.

5) Cognitive Development: Relational frame theory has made significant inroads into providing an analysis of the role context and learning history play in the development of important cognitive domains. Cassidy and Roche (2011) were able to make significant gains in children’s IQ’s by teaching them relational framing skills and relational framing capacities have been shown to correlate and, presumably, play a casual role in a number of cognitive domains. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering RFT and cognitive development.

6) Development of Value, Preference and Motivation: One of the pivotal psychological aspects of the capacity to engage in derived relational responding is that it predicts our emotional and motivational responses. From a developmental perspective this is of great importance as it helps us understand how children learn preferences and values for things such as self and other, or the desire value for self-efficacy and compassion. A wide array of psychological functions have now been empirically shown to be under the influence of context and derived relational responding. Importantly, motivation and emotional responses can be transferred through basic coordination right through to more abstract relations such as hierarchy (how we group things). The implications for this on decision making and valuing in general are enormous and can shape our future child rearing, educational and cultural practices. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering RFT and development of value, preference and motivation.

Academic Applications in CBS Education and Development:

Academic applications are likely to dramatically expand in the future as technologies and teaching approaches are informed and refined by the insights and discoveries presented by RFT. We have seen basic applications for early literacy all the way up to more advanced domains, such as complex mathematics in tertiary populations. By understanding and utilising relational processes, teachers will better be able to design teaching methods that facilitate quick learning of basic and complex concepts but also expect a generative effect due to the student having learned to derive solutions as opposed to learning them by rote or with basic rules. Our resources section below outlines useful readings covering academic applications in CBS education and development.

Research Topics of Interest in Development and Education

Research using RFT is heading further into more complex and applied areas of development such as;
· Executive functioning and delayed discounting through analysis of relational frames such as temporal and casual responding.

· Applications in literacy and numeracy continue to be developed with a focus on ways to merge RFT with established paradigms such as Direct Instruction or Precision Teaching.

· Refinement and further application of deictics to perspective taking in children with Autism

· The role of deictics and other frames in the development of empathy.

· The role of language in impeding or developing prosocial development through parenting stratagies.

· Further analysis of RFT applications to develop and increase IQ.

· Broader application and integrating of RFT in ABA and related programs for children with Autism.

· Role of temporal frames and rule governed behavior in ADHD and ODD.

CBS+Education and Development Work in ANZ ACBS Community

Darin Cairns has had ongoing involvement in early intervention programs, and has long been advocate for clinical psychology being viewed through the lense of developmental processes. This interest has led Darin to study and seek ways to apply Relational Frame Theory to higher order human functioning such as: perspective taking, empathy, development of self-concept, reasoning skills, and the processes that lead to psychological meaning.

Currently, Darin is working on weaving RFT concepts and methods into conventional verbal behaviour analysis and ABA programs, and writing a parent manual for promoting psychological flexibility in children with emotional and behavioural issues.

Here are a couple of Darin’s presentations from previous ACBS World Conferences and ANZ ACBS Annual conferences that our community have found to be essential CBS learning tools:




1) Suggested Readings

The book length texts and chapters below summarise RFT’s current work and directions within the contextual behavioural approach to human development.

Novak G., & Pelaez M., (2003), Child and Adolescent Development: A Behavioral Systems Approach
Dymond, S. & Roche, B., (2013), Advances in Relational Frame Theory.

Rehfeldt R., Barners-Holmes, Y., (2009) Derived Relational Responding: Applications for Learners with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.

Stewart, I. (2010). Relational Frame Theory. In S. Goldstein & J.A. Naglieri (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer Science and Business Media: Berlin

2) Videos
For those interested in RFT’s role in educational/academic technologies and approaches they may wish to view

3) Web Resources
For those interested in RFT applications to cognitive development they may wish to look at

4) Additional Readings

Useful readings for Early Language Development:

Lipkens G, Hayes S.C, Hayes L.J. (1993) Longitudinal study of derived stimulus relations in an infant. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Vol 56 pg 201–239

Palaez, M., Gewirtz, J., L., Sanchez, A., & Mahabir, N.M., (2000) Exploring stimulus equivelance relations in infants. Behaviour Development Bulletin.

Luciano, C., Becerra I.G., & Valverde M. R., (2007) the role of multiple-exemplar training and naming in establishing derived equivalence in an infant, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 87, 349-365.

Stewart, I., McElwee, J. & Ming, S. (2013). Language generativity, response generalization and derived relational responding.The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 29, 137-155.

Murphy, C., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2010). Establishing complex derived manding with children with and without a diagnosis of autism. The Psychological Record, 60, 489-504

Useful Reading on Basic Reasoning:

Berens, M., & Hayes, SC., (2007) Arbitrarily Applicable Comparative Relations: Experimental Evidence For A Relational Operant, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis vol 40(1) 45-71

Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2002). Naming, story telling, and problem solving: Critical elements in the development of language and cognition. Behavior Development Bulletin, 1, 34-38.

Hart, B., & Risley, T., (1995) Meaningful Differences In the Everday Experiences of Young American Children.

Useful Reading on Metaphor and Analogy Development:

Barnes Holmes, D., Regan, D., Barnes Holmes, Y., Commins, S., Walsh, D., Stewart, I., Smeets, P.M., Whelan, R. & Dymond, S., (2005) Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behaviour. Nov 2005; 84(3): 435–451.

Useful Reading on Perspective Taking:

McHugh, L., & Stewart, I., (2012) The Self and Perspective Taking: Contributions and Applications from Modern Behavioral Science.
McHugh, L., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Stewart, I. (2006). Understanding false belief as generalized operant behaviour. The Psychological Record, 56, 341-364.

Useful Reading on Cognitive Development:

Hora D, Peláez M, Barnes-Holmes D, Rae G, Robinson K, Chaudhary T. Temporal relations and intelligence: Correlating relational performance with performance on the WAIS-III. The Psychological Record. 2008;58:569–584.

Cassidy, S., Roche, B. & Hayes, S. C. (2011). A relational frame training intervention to raise Intelligence Quotients: A pilot study. The Psychological Record, 61, 173-198.

Munnelly, A., & Dymond, S., (2014) Relational memory generalisation and integration in a transitive inference tasks with and without inducted awareness. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 109, 169-177.

Useful Reading on the Development of Value, Preference and Motivation:

Dougher M.J, Augustson E.M, Markham M.R, Greenway D.E, Wulfert E. The transfer of respondent eliciting and extinction functions through stimulus equivalence classes.Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 1994;62:331–351.

Roche B, Barnes D. Arbitrarily applicable relational responding and sexual categorization: A critical test of the derived difference relation. The Psychological Record. 1996;46:451–475.

Useful reading on Academic Applications in CBS Education and Development:

Ninness, C., Dixon, M., Barnes-Holmes, D., Rehfeldt, R.A., Rumph, R., McCuller, G., Holland, J., Smith, R., Ninness, S.K., and McGinty J. (2009) Constructing and deriving reciprocal trigonometric relations: A functional analytic approach. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Volume 42, Issue 2, Summer 2009, Pages: 191

Ninness, Chris; Rumph, Robin; McCuller, Glen; Vasquez, Eleazar III; Harrison, Carol; Ford, Angela M.; Capt, Ashley; Ninness, Sharon K.; and Bradfield, Anna (2005) “A Relational Frame and Artificial Neural Network Approach to Computer-Interactive Mathematics,” The Psychological Record: Vol. 55: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Walker, D., Rehfledt, R.A., & Ninnes, C., (2010) using the stimulus equivalence paradigm to teach course material in an undergraduate rehabilitation course. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis Vol 43

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