Mississippi university set to graduate teachers from new autism, behavioral disorders specialty program

Published 6:50 am Thursday, February 9, 2023

Graduates of a new University of Mississippi program for education majors are primed to assist schools in teaching the rising number of students diagnosed with autism and behavioral disorders across the state.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of students in Mississippi diagnosed with autism rose from 1 in 150 to 1 in 54, with more than 13,000 students being diagnosed statewide as of 2021. Despite the rise in diagnoses, Mississippi has too few board-certified behavior analysts to meet the need, said David Rock, dean of the UM School of Education.

The school’s applied behavior analysis program, founded in 2020, will this year send out 17 graduates to assist in the care and education of these students, many of whom plan to stay in Mississippi. While some will work in clinics, that many graduates will flock to where students need help most: the classroom, said Denise Soares, the school’s assistant dean and director of graduate studies.

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“Our goal, our big dream, is to have a BCBA (board-certified behavior analyst) in every school,” Soares said. “If we can empower teachers and teach them how to intervene with behavior, we will see these students succeed.”

The applied behavior analysis program is the state’s only program to be housed in an education school and is focused on classroom application of behavior analysis, Soares said. Graduates will have opportunities to help students in their day-to-day learning and guide them through difficult transitions.

“The No. 1 impact in a child’s learning in K-12 is the teacher,” Rock said. “Great teachers do great things. We know, without a doubt, the earlier the intervention with students who need support, the greater academic success those children have in life.”

The first cohort will complete their master’s degrees in May or August. Of that group, five will have completed the 2,000-hour requirement to sit for the board-certified behavior analysis exam and 11 more will have completed the required hours within six months of graduation.

The remaining student does not intend to apply for licensure, and just wanted a better knowledge of how to care for students.

Nine of the graduating class intend to remain in a classroom setting, including Michelle Farley, an Oxford resident who said she is already implementing what she’s learning in the ABA program with her students at North Pontotoc Middle School.

“The things that we learn in the program, I can immediately use that in my classroom,” Farley said. “It’s so practical. In every class I thought, ‘Oh I’m going to do that in my class tomorrow.’

“When I did, I saw these principles really work.”

Farley, who teaches a special education class for students in sixth grade or higher, told a story about a young student who had difficulties focusing and completing assignments. When she implemented a positive reinforcement and reward program for him, the student began to succeed.

“That’s the long-term goal: improved quality of life,” Farley said. “We want to teach them skills to access whatever resources they want.

“If they want a job with a paycheck, which is rewarding for many adults, we want to teach them what they need to do to be able to achieve that. We want them to do what they are capable of doing.”

Farley will finish her required 2,000 hours before graduating in May and sit for the BCBA exam as soon as possible. Following licensure, Farley said she plans to continue implementing what she’s learned in the classroom.

“That’s where we feel we can make the biggest difference in the lives of these students,” Soares said. “In the classroom.”

Kayla Crook, assistant professor of special education, and Soares are the primary instructors for the program. Crook said she wants to combat the notion that behavior analysts are only for students with behavioral disorders or autism. She argues that they can be beneficial for the entire student body.

“These students spend more time with teachers than their parents, often,” Crook said. “That’s so much time to make an impact and a real change.”

Behavior analysts learn to handle complex problems such as looking past a child’s outward expression of frustration or misconduct and finding the real cause of stress the child may be experiencing. If a student struggles or refuses to complete mathematics problems, are they simply willful or do they not understand the work? Are they acting out to seek attention or because they learn differently and need a different mode of instruction?

Understanding the “why” behind an action can help all students find more comfortable and successful learning environments.

“This program is not just for students who have autism or students of special education,” Crook said. “Behavior analysis helps all students, especially during that transformative time in their lives.

“The earlier an individual can start receiving these supportive services, the higher the chance that they will go on to lead successful lives.”

The applied behavior analysis program is funded in part by donations from the Parker Lifeshare Foundation, the Hosemann Family Autism Excellence Fund, Renasant Bank Scholarship and the Luetta W. Ford Scholarship for Special Education in honor of James W. Mann.