UNM’s Department of Special Education, in the College of Education & Human Sciences (COEHS) is filling a critical need in New Mexico.

Now with its 55th graduate, the Graduate Certificate Program in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)  is creating Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) for the state. It’s a proper milestone for a program which just hit its 10th anniversary.

“It makes me feel really excited. Depending on which statistics you're looking at, we have been identified as a state where sometimes there are no behavioral health providers in an entire county, so for us to have prepared these individuals who are now providing this critical service for children and families just really warms my heart,” Special Education Department Professor Susan Copeland said.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) are responsible for teaching, instruction and behavioral support to individuals with developmental disabilities. While many focus on autism spectrum disorder, the field covers children and adults who have intellectual disabilities or emotional behavior disturbances.

“New Mexico has ranked, for example, at the top of the list for some time in the number of preschool children who have been expelled because of behavioral challenges. There is a dire need, if you look at both school systems and the number of children who need behavioral support,” Copeland said. “Here at UNM, we focus on that to use with children and adults with developmental disabilities.”

Copeland says ABA stretches well beyond the scope of a classroom. It's also a tool used in many businesses and gambling industry.

“ABA is a very large field and it's actually used in many different ways. There are very few BCBAs here in the state,” she said.

With so many places with a need, it’s no surprise there’s an intense demand for people with these certifications. It goes well beyond that.

“When you look across the state of New Mexico for adults, there's just an incredible need for behavioral support for these populations and just not very many people with the training to do it. When they complete the certificate and pass the national exam, they become board certified,” Copeland said.

That means in just a decade, UNM has turned out over one-fifth of all of New Mexico’s behavior analysts. Copeland is one herself, and was the second BCBA ever in the Land of Enchantment.

“That makes a difference in the rest of that child's life. Every time you're working with a new client and a new family, it's an opportunity to work with them to figure out what it is that their child needs and what they as a family want,” Copeland said. “How can I take this really awesome technology and apply that with the family to make sure that that child has a life worth living.”

It’s a good proportion of Lobos making a difference in New Mexico. However, there are still only a total of around 150 behavior analysts to cover such a large number of clients.

“The need, I think, has always been there, but we didn't simply have the professionals. There has been a recognition across the state that we have many children and adults who need these services, and ABA is one very important way to provide those,” Copeland said.

She references a report, which says New Mexico has one of the most intense needs in the country. 150 BCBA’s is a start, but that report estimates to match the need, that total needs to be closer to 2,000.

“I think we built some momentum. We have an awesome, amazing state with wonderful people, but we as a state have lagged a bit behind in recruiting professionals in many areas to come into New Mexico,” she said.

The other part of the uphill battle is the same problem many fields experience in New Mexico.

“Given the challenges in the state, the rurality of the state, New Mexico has counties where there are no behavioral health providers at all,” Copeland said. “People are having to drive hours to be able to get services. With very few exceptions, BCBAs are lined up on the I-25 corridor.”

It’s a need Copeland knows extremely well. She says there have been periods of time when emails came in weekly from families, desperate for help.

“I get emails now less frequently, but I used to get emails almost weekly from families desperate, looking for services for their children. I still get them, but not nearly as often, so I know we're making progress,” she said.

That’s something Copeland is making a priority as the program moves forward–moving these behavioral analysts beyond the I-25 corridor.

“We are trying to reach outside of the Albuquerque area. Communities want people from their communities who understand the demands of their community and the cultures to be the service providers,” she said.

Part of that requires reaching out to possible students, outside of the state, or even just beyond Albuquerque.

“The idea there is that we will reach people who want this training and will stay in their home communities. I think New Mexico has had some difficulty in many areas, perhaps recruiting people from across the state to work in especially more rural areas,” Copeland said.

Copeland also plays a role in ensuring BCBAs exist not just in New Mexico, but the world.

“It is also a very high demand profession. We desperately need behavior analysts here in New Mexico, but we need them all over the country and indeed all over the world,” she said. “Regularly, in one of my roles, I speak to international applicants who are trying to get that kind of certification and training to use in their own countries.”

Julia Sanchez and other ABA grad
Julia Sanchez graduates from ABA program.

UNM students are required to have a master’s degree, but COEHS makes it simple to get to that point, with support every step of the way. The certificate requires coursework led by experienced department faculty and hundreds of hours of hands-on experience, facilitated by community partners and supervisors.

Recent graduate Julia Sanchez is one of the results of the program, soon to be officially certified.

Having been a part of the ABA GCERT Program was an honor. My advisor and professors were very supportive and helped me grow as a student in the field,” Padilla said. “The course times were also very accommodating with my work schedule. I’m grateful to be graduated and can’t believe how quick it went by. I’m looking forward to soon taking my BCBA exam and becoming credentialed!“

Sanchez, and one other student who completed the certificate this May, were also recipients of a Hearst Foundation scholarship, which funded this education. The foundation also awarded $100,000 to the ABA certificate– UNM’s first award from Hearst in years.

Those interested in no longer delaying their certification, don’t need to wait to jump in. The program has rolling admissions.

“It is an endlessly fascinating field. It does require quite a bit of training, but at the end of the day you really have the opportunity to work with a range of individuals and in a range of settings. It's just really a very exciting profession,” Copeland said.

Copeland welcomes the opportunity to speak to anyone interested in becoming a BCBA. You can email her here or learn more at the Department of Special Education.