Students now can earn a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis, a scientific approach to studying and improving behavior, through a new College of Education online program.
The Applied Behavior Analysis Program is currently led by interim director Wendy Machalicek, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and a board-certified behavior analyst at the doctoral level.
“I think one of the more exciting things about this program is that it allows the student to individualize their area of specialization,” Machalicek said. “This is a master’s degree in the science of human learning and behavior, which applies to all of us in all settings.”
Behavior analysts work with their clients to assess skills, develop goals and then apply interventions. For example, goals might involve increasing a client’s social communication skills, academic engagement, exercise or positive self-talk. An intervention to increase aerobic exercise might include client weekly goal-setting, text prompts from the behavior analyst, graphical feedback on minutes spent exercising at target heart rate, and self-managed positive reinforcement.
When teaching complex skills, like teaching an adult with an intellectual disability to make a meal, behavior analysts model the steps, prompt step completion, and break down a teaching session into smaller actions to make it more manageable.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so behavior analysts also ask clients to give feedback on the goals, procedures and outcomes of intervention to ensure each element is feasible, acceptable and effective.
“That means people need to agree that we’re working on socially important goals, and that our procedures are acceptable and the outcomes are acceptable,” Machalicek said. “We want to incorporate their voices into how we train future behavior analysts and how we evaluate progress.”
Behavior analysts often work with clients in a variety of settings to support autistic individuals or those who have intellectual or developmental disability. That includes students with and without disabilities in early childhood and pre-K through 12th grade education, in health care settings to address substance misuse and mental health, and in business settings to improve employee performance and safety.
To address such a wide range of applications, the Applied Behavior Analysis Program will offer courses on the principles of behavior, experimental analysis, research methods and ethics. Graduates will learn how to design and conduct their own research that guides practice.
“We want graduates to leave this program with a lifelong love of learning,” Machalicek said.
The consistent use of research findings and client feedback guides analysts’ decision-making throughout their careers.
In addition to awarding a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis during the first year, the online program also supports students in getting experience hours during an optional second year.
The experience hours, when combined with a master’s degree, may make it possible for graduates to sit for the board-certified behavior analyst exam.
A board certified behavior analyst certification can be combined with other certifications like psychology, education, special education, speech language pathology, social work, occupational therapy and more. Additional training and licensure can enhance job opportunities.
“There’s a national shortage of behavior analysts, special educators, school psychologists and speech language pathologists,” Machalicek said. “So there’s a growing need for individuals to support children in their behavior and their learning in schools.”
The program is unique because unlike institutions offering fast-paced certificate-only programs, UO’s applied behavior analysis program will give faculty members the valuable time necessary to help students develop into compassionate providers.
“For us, it was really important that we turn out behavior analysts who can engage in compassionate care, who are culturally responsive, and can work across cultures with people from different backgrounds than their own,” Machalicek said.
That means it is especially important for graduates to understand diverse perspectives. The program is developing a task list for students that focuses on diversity, equity, social justice and inclusion, where students acknowledge biases and learn to work across cultures.
Kimberly Marshall, a board-certified behavior analyst at the doctoral level, will join the UO as a lecturer and the new Applied Behavior Analysis Program coordinator in the fall. She will teach several of the courses in the program.
Marshall specializes in verbal behavior and research about effective teaching. She says students must be trained in neurodiversity-affirming practices, which are practices that acknowledge that there is a range of differences in behavior and brain function.
“It is imperative that behavior analysts come to interventions with an open mind about the priorities for the intervention,” Marshall said, “and are able to focus on what is important to the client and the client’s community.”
The Applied Behavior Analysis Program is currently seeking community members, including autistic individuals and family members, to participate in an advisory board that will help determine how to train and evaluate students.
The priority deadline to apply for the program is June 1, and the final deadline is Aug. 1. An informational webinar will be held May 6; information is available on the program website.
“If we turn out 15 students who understand the science of human behavior and learning really well, they can impact the lives of thousands of people during their career,” Machalicek said. “That magnification of our efforts in the College of Education is truly something magnificent.”
By Madeline Ryan, College of Education