June 18, 2009



Dr. Cheryl Young, College of Education, 657-2195
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269


MSU Billings faculty member develops series of courses in applied behavior analysis dealing with autism and other challenging behavior


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Even before the Montana Legislature approved a bill this spring requiring health insurance policies to cover treatment for children with autism disorders, Dr. Cheryl Young saw a need waiting to be filled.


The need wasn’t the support of families and daily challenges of autistic children. That much was obvious to Young and countless others. The need was in finding a way to help educators and professionals better understand and plan programs for special populations.


“After I got here (in August 2008) I found out that I was the only one in the state that was certified in applied behavior analysis,” said Young, who teaches special education at the Montana State University Billings College of Education. “I thought the best thing we can do in Montana is to train people.”


Young notes that as of this summer, she is one of three Montanans certified in applied behavior analysis, but there remains a sense of purpose.


In a way, it’s like connecting educational dots. Over on one side of the landscape there are the needs of educators, school administrators and others who work with people with challenging behaviors. One the other side is Young and her expertise at MSU Billings. 


Cheryl YoungIn connecting those dots, Young pulled together an array of material for a series of graduate-level classes specifically focused on applied behavior analysis. The classes provide working professionals and others with information and training necessary to be able to sit for a certification exam by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board.  The MSU Billings courses provide the only BACB-approved curriculum in the state.


By taking a handful of courses, there is vast potential. Working professionals or grad students who obtain certification would be able to help fill a need for families, school districts, social service agencies and others who need to provide important instruction, programming and services for children and adults with autism and other related disabilities.


The field of behavior analysis grew out of the scientific study of principles of operant learning and behavior. It has two main branches: experimental and applied behavior analysis. The experimental analysis of behavior (EAB) is the basic science of this field and has over many decades accumulated a substantial and well-respected research literature. The literature provides the scientific foundation for applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is both an applied science that develops methods of changing behavior and a profession that provides services to meet diverse behavioral needs.


Even though Young developed the idea of offering the courses after getting to know the intense needs of local families who had children with autism, she said applied behavior analysis can serve many needs.


“Certification can spread over a wide variety of careers,” she said, including special educators who have challenging students, school psychologists or in-home specialists.


“The level of professionalism and competency required in those fields requires that you understand all the components we talk about,” she said.


Professionals in applied behavior analysis engage in the specific and comprehensive use of principles of learning in order to address behavioral needs of varying individuals. That could include, for example, building the skills and achievements of children in school settings; enhancing the development, abilities and choices of children and adults with different kinds of disabilities; and augmenting the performance and satisfaction of employees in organizations and businesses.


Essentially, as Young describes it, the study of applied behavior analysis deals both with quality of life and quality of education. 

For example, anyone who is interested in helping others who have behavior challenges achieve a well-balanced lifestyle, the study of applied behavior analysis is a good fit. For those who want to learn how to use techniques grounded in behavioral principles (such as positive reinforcement or precision teaching), Young’s classes will help.


As the expertise relates to autism, the potential is huge. According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects one in 150 children in the United States today. Yet public and private school systems are not always able to provide the best education for autistic children because of funding or training limitations.


That’s where applied behavior analysis therapy comes in. As research-based intervention therapy, it is becoming more recognized as one of the best educational strategies for children with autism. Education and certification can help meet those needs, Young said.


The three graduate-level classes address the basics of applied behavior analysis, assessment and program planning for special populations and data-based instruction. The first cohort of 15 students began work this summer and another series of classes is planned for the fall.


“We talk about the ethics, definitions and characteristics of this field and what they do,” she said. “It’s not just for those who work with children with autism, but has application anywhere where behaviors are analyzed, such as in forensics or marketing.”


Her background as a behavior specialist and experience in a residential institution keeps Young busy.  During the most recent legislative session, she was asked to provide scientific information on the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis therapy as an early intervention for children with autism and is keeping current on her own certification, which she has held since 1988.


For more information about the cohort of applied behavior analysis classes at MSU Billings — which can be taken online — contact Young at 657-2195 or via e-mail at cyoung@msubillings.edu. For information on these or other master’s level classes at MSU Billings, contact the Office of Graduate Studies at 657-2238.


For information on board certification in applied behavior analysis, go to www.bacb.com.


Photo above: Dr. Cheryl Young has maintained certification in applied behavior analysis since 1988


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