Special Education Teacher to ABA Therapist

June 8, 2021
by Danielle Kanouff

Danielle @ 3c

Working with children was always something I enjoyed, so after I landed my first full-time teaching job, I was beyond excited! Teaching in a top-performing school district in the country made me feel like I could tackle whatever was to come.


After a few years and several students added to my caseload, it was a constant feeling of keeping my head above water. These children all had special needs – ranging in diagnoses of autism to intellectual disabilities to learning disabilities to ADD/ADHD.


How was I supposed to truly give them what they needed when I only got to see them for a couple of hours per week at most? Working as part of a team and collaborating with other teachers and staff was incredible. However, I still felt limited with time and ability to teach creatively –  divergent from the traditional curriculum.


It wasn’t until I was presented with a challenging case where a new team member was called in to help out. She was a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who introduced me to “ABA.”


A Behavior Analyst studies human behavior and what we can do as educators, parents, caregivers, and other health professionals to help improve the quality of life of those in need. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) focuses on behavior change based on patterns and events surrounding said behavior (Behavioral Treatment of Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, BACB, 2021).


ABA teaches people how to effectively communicate, “behave,” and develop life skills - all integral and essential to daily living, whether in a classroom or the real world. An ABA therapist seemed similar to a special education teacher, but with many of the details focused on escalation prevention and how the student functions off his or her environment (Behavior Analysis in Education, BACB, 2021).


After we thought we tried it all to help our particular student, with the assistance of the new ABA team member, we were amazed and delighted to witness an improvement in the student's quality of life.  By using ABA's basic principles and fundamental practices and tailoring them to this student’s unique needs, I was easily convinced I needed to make a change professionally.


At that point, I started to apply to a couple of graduate programs that offered this particular course of study. When I got accepted into Vanderbilt University’s program, there was no looking back. I ended my last year as a full-time special education teacher and sprung forward into this new endeavor with passion.


Going through the full-time graduate program at Vanderbilt University was like a dream. Although rigorous, we were fully immersed in the field from the outset. I trained as an intern at TRIAD at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in the Department of Developmental Medicine and the Vanderbilt Behavior Analysis Clinic. In addition, I participated in a Peer Supports & Interactions Study. I also performed research for my studies among local schools participating in a long-term study carried out by the special education department. 


These experiences, paired with formal classroom instruction, created a robust training program that made me feel confident about what was to come after graduation.


Since graduating in 2016, I have worked with several clients ranging in age from 2-year-old toddlers to young adults, and now legal-aged adults to both in-home and out in the community. These all have been such amazing journeys!


Establishing relationships with the client and their families has become so meaningful; watching each individual’s progress along the way is sometimes more rewarding than what I can put into words. It’s a feeling that lasts.


I hope to continue to help change the lives of others for the better, even if it is something small enough, like teaching the simple phrase “more.”



Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). Behavior Analysis in Education (Version 01/2021). https://www.bacb.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Behavior-Analysis-in-Education-Fact-Sheet_210108.pdf


Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). Behavioral Treatment of Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities (Version 01/2021). https://www.bacb.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Behavioral-Treatment-of-Autism-and-Other-Developmental-Disabilities-Fact-Sheet_210108.pdf


To learn more about Vanderbilt University Department of Special Education’s Applied Behavior Analysis Training Programs, please visit https://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/programs/special-education-med/applied-behavior-analysis-training-program.php.

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