As a busy working mother of two small children, Christina Hesley hesitated to walk away from her full-time job. Still, she dreamed of going to graduate school to expand her career by becoming a behavior analyst.
Now, as a master’s trained, board-certified and licensed behavior analyst, Hesley is providing a lifeline to families and schools that have run out of places to turn in dealing with challenging behaviors. She recently opened her own private practice and already has a waiting list.
“Everyone I know has waiting lists. Parents and schools are desperate for this type of help right now. We shouldn’t have to have waiting lists,” she said.
In her previous career as a teacher, Hesley always had a heart for working with kids who engaged in challenging complex behaviors.
“Those were always my favorite kids because their behaviors were a puzzle to figure out. There was always a mystery to solve,” she said.
Through the study of human behavior, applied behavior analysts quickly learn that these challenging behaviors are not mysteries at all— they serve a purpose for that child.
“It is our job to figure out what that purpose is, so we can begin to teach the child a safer behavior to get their wants and needs met,” said Dr. Sally Shepley, co-director of the applied behavior analysis (ABA) program and the Center for Applied Behavioral Supports (CABS) at the UK College of Education.
Students working on their master’s degree complete most of their required fieldwork experience at CABS, where a team of students overseen by certified and licensed behavior analysts work with children and their caregiver(s) to create feasible family-implemented behavior plans to address socially significant behaviors that improve everyone’s quality of life.
The UK Woman and Philanthropy Network has played an important role in establishing the program at UK by providing support to students studying to become board-certified behavior analysts.
“Women and Philanthropy support has significantly impacted our students’ ability to give back to the community through their work in homes, clinics, and schools. In addition, we have also been able to provide services to various areas of Kentucky, including some areas where this type of support is scarce. The Women and Philanthropy support has been money well-invested in our students, as they have gone on to serve in communities in significant ways,” said Dr. Allan Allday, an associate professor in the ABA program.
Hesley’s path to this field started in 2003, when she began teaching special education in Utah. She worked at a title 1 school, an alternative high school for youth in custody and teen moms, and a parent cooperative charter school. After a move to California, she worked at an alternative high school in Oakland and a day treatment center in San Francisco.
“Going into UK’s Applied Behavior Analysis program at age 37, I thought I knew so much,” she said. “I did have a lot of experience, but I left the program as a completely different person, understanding behavior on a completely different level. It changed me, and changed what I could do for families and schools.”
During her master’s work at UK, Hesley participated in a clinic partnered with behavioral pediatrics. It focused on training caregivers to implement effective strategies to manage challenging behavior and increase social and communication skills.
“In the clinic, I was able to see the ability to safely turn the challenging behavior on and off, and I thought, oh, this is real. We are getting results. I think once you witness that, there is no turning back,” she said.
After completing her master’s degree at UK, Helsey worked for the school psychology program at the University of Utah, supervising students working toward their degrees while also providing direct services to schools that contracted with the university.
During the pandemic, she began thinking about the next direction for her career. She took a leap of faith and opened her own private practice. Now, she has contracts with schools to deliver a variety of programs, such as leading parent trainings, coming up with individualized behavior plans for students who are struggling, and consulting on organizational behavior management. She also works with individual families in homes or through teleconsulting.
“I love working with parents because they are the constant variable in kids’ lives,” she said. “These moms and dads often say to me how good it feels to find someone that actually can help them. They are burned out. They have thrown so much of their time and resources at attempting to improve their child’s behavior, and often nothing works and families are left feeling discouraged and hopeless.”
During her intake sessions with families, screens and technology are almost always an issue. Helsey feels helping parents navigate raising children in a technology-saturated world is an area of high importance in the field of applied behavior analysis. She named her practice Screen Wellness and is focusing on creating sustainable solutions for families’ digital health.
“I am helping parents navigate environmental arrangements. We are creating family tech agreement plans, much in the way we create behavioral contracts. There are rules and consequences for how children engage with phones and technology. I can also help parents and caregivers learn about alternative devices that are available and show them how to navigate parental controls. We also cover how to have difficult conversations about pornography, cyber bullying, and other hard topics,” she said.
Helsey credits her master’s program for preparing her for this work.
“The amount of face time we got with our professors and the level of supervision we had was important. We had a wide variety of experiences in the field through a partnership with UK Behavioral Pediatrics, plus we would go into homes and into schools. Plus, we did thesis research. I felt more than prepared coming out of that program.”
To learn more about degree programs in Applied Behavior Analysis, visit https://education.uky.edu/edsrc/eds/degrees-programs/aba/. To learn more about services offered by the Center for Applied Behavioral Supports, visit https://education.uky.edu/edsrc/eds/degrees-programs/aba/clinic/.