The one-of-a-kind program is designed to train educational professionals from rural and underserved school districts as autism spectrum disorder experts, behavioral coaches and board-certified behavioral analysts.
When her supervisor sent her an application to the Teacher Training Institute (TTI) at Texas Tech University's Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research, Lindsey Gurley said she didn't know what to expect. Gurley, a special education teacher in the Shallowater Independent School District who had not had this type of training, said it seemed like a good opportunity, so she applied.
Two years later, a letter from a student's mother showed her the importance of that training.
"She wrote, ‘I thank God for you and the staff so much and for everything you have done for our family,'” Gurley said. "In the beginning of his eighth grade year, this student would have tantrums at least once a week lasting about 45 minutes. After the training, I was able to speak to my supervisor and look at the student's behavioral data. We figured out the function of his behavior was escape and came up with an intervention plan.”
Within three weeks, they saw improvement.
"Now, he was asking us for breaks and completing his work with no complaints,” Gurley said. "I think that right there shows the impact applied behavior analysis can have on our little community.”
Identifying a need
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is just part of the training educators receive at the TTI as they learn how to teach and support children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
"This is the only program we know of in this country specifically designed to train educational professionals from rural and underserved school districts as autism spectrum disorder experts, behavioral coaches and board-certified behavior analysts (BCBA),” said Wesley Dotson, Burkhart Center director. "Ultimately, the most important impact of the program is that the students with autism served in our participant's classrooms, schools, districts and communities experience a higher quality of education, an increased ability to benefit from positive and effective supports and an increased capacity to live independent and successful lives because their school programs better meet their needs.”
While each school district defines the level of expertise differently, TTI trains its graduates to function in all three roles. Typically, a BCBA is considered the highest level practitioner for a student with autism. BCBAs are required to have a master's degree in special education or a related field, have completed a six-course sequence of specialized curriculum in behavior management and also have completed a supervised clinical experience of 750-1,500 hours of practice in implementing intervention protocols and training others to do so.
"BCBAs are qualified to not only conduct assessments and design treatments, but also train and supervise others in doing so as well,” Dotson said. "This program provides additional training through coursework, workshops and clinical experiences to also prepare our BCBA graduates as autism experts who know the clinical characteristics of autism and also the evidence-based practices the literature recommends for working with students on the spectrum.”
Dotson said there are roughly 1,200 BCBAs in Texas, but for every one, there are more than 500 children with autism who need their expertise. The shortage of BCBAs is further compounded by the fact that many of the specialists qualified to design effective interventions for students with autism practice within 100 miles of Dallas, Austin and Houston and in private practices or clinics.
In addition to a shortage of BCBAs in public school districts across the state, Dotson said studies have shown educators without training are unaware of or do not use practices identified as being successful for students with autism in their classes. Fewer than 10 percent of Texas children with autism received specialized support for their needs before age 7, and even after age 7, many do not have access to educational personnel with training in evidence-based practices in autism or positive behavioral supports.
Bringing in specialists comes with a price tag many rural and underserved districts can't afford.
"It costs an average of $3,000 per consultation or training day to have outside specialists come in to provide services a district does not have internally,” Dotson said. "It's a huge expense for most rural and under-resourced districts.”
Creating a solution
All of this means children who live in lower-income homes or who can only access services through public schools often do not have consistent access to specialized support. Children in rural communities tend to be even more underserved. This is where TTI comes in.
Established in 2015, the program provides educators the chance to complete a master's degree in special education and takes about one and a half to two years to complete, depending on how quickly the participants complete the practicum and coursework. When the training is complete, educators return to their districts with a better understanding not just of working with and supporting children with autism, but how to help their fellow educators do the same.
"Effective intervention and support can drastically improve the outcomes for individuals with autism across their life, including their likelihood of gaining employment, finishing school, getting married and avoiding mental and physical health issues resulting from unemployment and poverty,” Dotson said. "Giving school districts the tools needed to effectively serve children with autism is one of the most powerful ways we can better serve the currently 50,000 to 60,000 students with autism in Texas public schools today.”
So far, 16 educators have completed the program and one more will graduate in December.
"Educators were selected based on the need of the district and area they were in, their access to students with autism and their willingness to become a board certified behavior analyst and work in their district after completion of the program to help train additional staff in their area,” said Melanie Teague, TTI grant manager. "They are from 13 different districts throughout Texas.”
Those districts include the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Austin Public Schools district and Amarillo, Alamo Heights, Friona, Hughes Springs, Irving, Lubbock, Mount Pleasant, Mount Vernon, Poth, Seminole, Shallowater and Sulphur Springs independent school districts.
"This program helps the educator become both a more competent educator and also a confident trainer and mentor,” Dotson said. "The vision is that our graduates become resources for their entire area by acting as trainers, mentors and supervisors of others seeking this kind of training, and by delivering high-quality intervention in a way that raises the bar for what is possible in that area. By recruiting educators who are already tied to and have relationships in their communities, the goal is to build influence and impact from within rather than to dictate change and direction from the outside.”
Seeing the change
In Poth, a town of fewer than 2,000 residents located about 35 miles southeast of San Antonio, behavior coach Judy Ortiz said the training she received from the Burkhart Center has allowed her to become a better advocate for her students and positively change how people think about what students with disabilities can accomplish.
"I work in a very rural school district that has limited resources,” Ortiz said. "Many parents do not have the time or the resources to provide ABA services for their children on their own. Having this training helps bring ABA techniques to their child during the school day and provides in-home training to build consistency between time at school and time at home.”
Ortiz, now in her 14th year of teaching, said she was long-interested in furthering her career and education. She attended multiple autism conferences and every autism and behavior training workshop offered by the district's regional service center. Though they were somewhat helpful, many covered the same information or methods Ortiz was already using.
"I knew there had to be more I could do and learn,” Ortiz said. "My supervisor encouraged me to apply to the Teacher Training Institute and I thought, this is an opportunity to not only further my education but also to help the students I serve.”
Ortiz began the program in August 2015 and graduated in August 2017. She recalls that the training was intense and overwhelming at times, but also immediately useful in real-life situations when she returned and began implementing the things she learned in her district.
"The information I gained was incomparable to any training I had attended before,” Ortiz said. "The weekly cohort, BCBA supervisor and class meetings helped to discuss concepts in real-time, which was beneficial not only to me but also the students I teach. It also provided me with a group of amazing teachers, professors and staff who have supported each other through this journey.”
Robin Cook, a behavior intervention specialist in Amarillo, has worked with children with disabilities, including severe autism, at most of the district's 55 campuses for the past 21 years. She has been part of the autism evaluation team, and has served as the parent in-home coordinator for students with autism. She currently trains and supports educators throughout the district.
Like Gurley and Ortiz, her involvement in the program began with an email from her supervisor. Cook applied and was accepted into the program to obtain a master's degree in special education with a focus in applied behavior analysis in fall 2015. She had previously been introduced to basic ABA principles while obtaining her undergraduate degree, and while she took it upon herself to learn more, she said much of her implementation was through trial and error until she received training through the TTI.
"Once I began my coursework at Texas Tech, I discovered the meaning behind ABA methods and principles, and how complex behavior really is,” Cook said. "Every child is unique, regardless of their label. The principles of ABA can help all students, and I had only scratched the surface during my own investigation. With my education through the Burkhart Center, I feel confident that I have new skills and can make ABA more accessible to students, teachers and parents.”
Cook said this type of training is important for all educators and students as schools make changes to become more inclusive campuses. Applied behavior analysis is an effective way to support all students across all behavioral needs – social, academic, functional and vocational, she added.
"I've learned that changing interfering behaviors can be quite challenging, but ABA is a means to improving the lives of students and families. It offers socially significant interventions based on data and empirical evidence,” Cook said. "Our students with autism or other developmental disabilities may still receive support in an adaptive curriculum classroom, but more of these students spend a part of their day in the general population with typically developing peers. Students with and without disabilities need to work and learn together, and this is more easily accomplished when behaviors don't impede that learning.”
Ortiz said the training taught her not only how to analyze behavior, but also how to identify the cause of behavior and teach her students the consequences of certain types of actions. Learning to gather and analyze data about her students allows her to intervene and help change or adjust behavior when needed.
"Since the training, my roles at my district have increased,” Ortiz said. "I now complete all of the functional behavior assessments and write the behavior intervention plans, as well as provide the teachers with support through trainings and modeling ABA techniques.”
Gurley said she also has seen her role in her district grow.
"Everyone has behavior and can benefit in some way from ABA, which is all about looking at the function of behavior,” Gurley said. "We look at data so we can find interventions that target the function. Shallowater is part of a cohort with the Olton, Abernathy, New Deal and Hale Center school districts, and the training I received is very important because I can help out smaller districts or teachers who might feel lost or hopeless.”
Although Cook, Gurley and Ortiz all only recently completed their training, they already see the effects in their districts.
"I have confidence in the strategies I now offer educators and families,” Cook said. "I've learned I can influence a teacher when I clarify why a student behaves in a particular way, and when I can show that teacher how to change or manipulate the environment to produce a positive effect. I have provided training to families as teachers direct parents to me as a resource. I can now work toward more positive outcomes as the program through Texas Tech's Burkhart Center has taught me that ABA is doable in the public school system and not just effective in a clinical setting.”
Like Cook, Ortiz said her training has helped students with and without disabilities work better together.
"This training has provided a resource to the district to help support students with autism and other disabilities so they can be included with their peers in a positive and productive manner,” Ortiz said. "It has provided me with knowledge about analyzing behavior to share with the professional staff at my district and has provided hope for all students, parents and teachers that everyone can be productive citizens in our community.”
Teague said those at the Burkhart Center look forward to training even more educators who will go on to impact not just the thousands of children in Texas who live with autism, but all children who need additional support in their education.
"The tools and training learned through this program not only apply to those students with autism, but it can also provide ways to approach any behaviors that are of concern and impede student learning,” Teague said. "We hope the program will continue to grow and help with training educators to better serve the needs of the children with autism spectrum disorder in their districts, as well as other children with special needs.”