Students and teachers in bright tie-dye clothes and posters with upbeat messages were readily found in Millstone Township, New Jersey, schools before spring break this April. These Spirit Days during Autism Awareness Month were designed as an upbeat way to recognize everyone needs friendships and to build an age-appropriate understanding of the complex developmental conditions known collectively as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Jillian Behan ’17, ’19, a special education teacher in the district, was one of the minds behind the themed week. “We really work on raising kind humans here, especially kindness toward classmates who are different than they are,” she said. It’s kindness that she hopes is shown to her students. Her multiply disabled classroom has five kindergarten to second graders who, because of their autism, sometimes engage in behaviors that can impede academic instruction. That’s when Ms. Behan uses the training she received in Georgian Court University’s master’s degree in applied behavior analysis (ABA) program.
ABA is one of the few approaches that are consistently effective at dealing with behavioral disorders such as autism, ADHD, panic disorders, and others. “The ABA approach determines the root cause of a child’s maladaptive behavior and then applies the most ethical intervention with positive reinforcements,” said Ms. Behan. “It’s about removing barriers and creating opportunities that open the door for a more fulfilling life.” For example, a student who acquires the behavioral skills to have fewer tantrums might have more time in a mainstream environment or an activity he or she enjoys.
“Since my students are so young, I view my class as an introduction to school behavior,” she said. “When there’s less disruptive behavior, there’s more time to learn.”
Ms. Behan learned about GCU’s program through a chance discussion with Theresa J. Brown, Ph.D., BCBA-D, professor of psychology and director of GCU’s M.A. in ABA program. She applied for her current job while completing coursework, which may have been influential in getting the job she loves.
“Because of my ABA education, I have the confidence to know I am highly trained and am doing everything I can to make my students’ lives better,” she said. “I have a strong knowledge base and treat the kids with compassion, respect, and kindness while utilizing principles of science to help them.”
Three Tracks: An ABA program for Diverse Occupational Specialties
GCU was one of the first colleges or universities in New Jersey to offer a master’s in ABA program, course work that’s required before taking the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) exam. The demand for BCBAs continues to grow in the United States—up 38% from 2020 to 2021 alone, according to Burning Glass Technologies. One reason could be the versatile application of ABA theory toward challenging behaviors by highly trained, credentialed professionals. “People tend to think of ABA for classroom settings, but it’s used very commonly in clinics, private homes, and hospitals,” said Dr. Brown.
The foundational Georgian Court program already had several strengths—small class size and all courses taught by full-time faculty who practice in the field and live the Mercy core values of compassion, respect, justice, integrity, and service. Now, beginning in Fall 2022, the 39-credit hybrid program offers three distinct tracks: generalist, autism specialist, and school specialist.
“The tracks reflect the many occupational avenues our graduates can take, depending on their interests,” said Dr. Brown. The generalist track provides a strong foundation for home settings, hospitals, or clinic jobs; the autism specialist track features specific content applicable to children or adults with autism; and the school specialist track is aimed toward aspiring behavior analysts who want to work in school settings. These individuals could work in both general and special education classrooms in school settings.
While the track choice is personal, Dr. Brown anticipates the program will continue to produce graduates who are well-prepared to come alongside people with special needs. “There’s a misconception out there that people with autism and other behavioral conditions are unable to have full, enjoyable lives,” she said. “That’s simply not true. They certainly can. Behavior analysts can provide support and guidance to do so. At Georgian Court, we’re passionate about equipping students interested in this fascinating field with the best education and training available.”
The GCU M.A. in Applied Behavior Analysis program accepts applications on a rolling basis. Interested in learning more about the program? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story contributed by freelance writer Sheila Noonan. Photos by Russ DeSantis.