Q&A: Dr. Michael F. Dorsey, LABA, BCBA-D Professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts

Dr. Dorsey started in the field of behavior analysis in the early 1970’s, working in research labs, schools and psychiatric hospitals. In the years since, he has made important contributions to the field as a practitioner and researcher, and even penned the original model legislation used for developing state licensing laws. He currently serves as Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Behavioral Studies for the Van Loan School at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts.

We sat down for a conversation with Dr. Dorsey – who insisted we call him Mike – and got answers to all the questions we ever wanted to ask about what it takes to make a meaningful impact in the field of behavior analysis.

Tell us a little bit about how you got started?

I started in the field of Behavior Analysis around 1970.

Even as a sophomore in college, I began working in the research labs of my mentor James Kopp, Ph.D., Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, I also gained experience in schools and psychiatric hospitals. So by the time I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I realized the science behind what I was being taught and decided I wanted to go to graduate school to become a behavior analyst.

Don Whaley from North Texas State University brought Dick Malott down from Western Michigan to give a talk. I went to that talk, and when I walk into this dark auditorium there was this screen that must have been 30 or 40 square feet, and in big red letters all it said was “F—Mentalism” — he actually spelled out the rest of the word — and I looked at Jim Kopp and I said, “I want to be his student!”

I ended up being at Western Michigan for about five years. They created their Ph.D. program while I was there, so I got into the master’s program and finished the Ph.D., initially under Arthur Snapper who ran a rat lab ( you can see one of the Skinner Boxes from his lab over my shoulder).

And then I became intrigued with self-injurious behavior and decided that I wanted to do more with humans.

I really got involved with working with people with really challenging behavior — self-injurious behavior, aggressive behavior, that sort of thing.

I met and became enamored with Brian Iwata. I decided I wanted to transfer over and be his student, and for me the rest is history. Brian was really my mentor for decades. He moved on to John’s Hopkins School of Medicine. I followed him and took a job there, and that’s kind of how I ended up in the field.

You saw a gap in the ABA world and helped develop a unique Master’s program at Endicott. Tell us a little about how you developed the programs currently available at Endicott.

I had been teaching at Simmons College for six or seven years. One of the things I’d always wanted to do was build a program that bridged the gap between special education and behavior analysis, and I thought that was something that was really important.

I was doing a lot of consulting work in schools. What I found was that when we went in to consult with the special ed teachers about a kid in their class is that if you didn’t have a license in special ed, they kind of discounted your recommendations because we didn’t know anything about curriculum design or instructional strategies, all the kinds of things that they knew about. You knew about the ABA, but you really didn’t know about classrooms.

I was lucky enough that I got called one day by Dr. Richard Wiley, who was president of Endicott. He invited me to come over for a meeting—I didn’t really understand that it was an interview—and [I] ended up being offered a job to come here. And when he asked me, “What would you do different than other people are doing?” I said, “You know, the only program I know that’s like what I want to do is at Ohio State. My friend Nancy runs that one and is really successful, and I think it would be a great thing for Endicott to do.”

He said, “well then, come here and join us and do it!”
So the first thing we did was build the course sequence that put all of the programs together and worked with the people who were in the special ed graduate program. We could take enough courses out of that so that they qualified for licensure in special ed and they’d qualify to become Board Certified Behavior Analysts all in the same degree program, and it took off like a rocket ship.

We still have that program, but over the years we’ve grown a number of programs at Endicott’s Van Loan School, so now you can get a master’s in SPED and ABA, you can get a master’s in ABA, or you can get a master’s in Autism and ABA.

You also started an online Ph.D. program in ABA. Can you share a bit about what that looks like?

On the day of my interview I told Dr. Wiley, “Oh by the way, one of the things I want to do is I want to start a Ph.D. program in applied behavior analysis.”

And he kind of laughed and said, “Well, there’s not a Ph.D. in anything north of Boston.”

I said to him that if we’re going to do it, I want it to be an online, synchronous program with live classes that brings the students together at the same time, sort of like you and I are doing right now, except for instead of one face in front of me I have 12. They can all see each other and I can see them, and we have discussions just like sitting in class.

We did it, we got it approved, and we got students enrolled in it.

We just admitted our fourth cohort — it’s a pretty successful program. Bryan Blair, who was one of my doctoral students, just won an award at the Berkshire Association Conference for having the research project of the year for all students in all of New England, so it really validated the fact that we’re not just this little second-rate Ph.D. program, we’re actually training people that are competing with other programs.

Right now where are you seeing the highest demand for ABAs?

It’s autism. Eighty to eighty-five percent of the people in the field are working with individuals diagnosed with autism.

Are there other areas you would like to see ABA expand into?

I agree with many other people in the field that as a profession we need to look at other applications for behavior analysis. If you look at the history, all of that groundbreaking work was done with adults in psychiatric hospitals, yet we have very little to do with the mental health profession today.

ABA doesn’t just apply to autism. ABA could be in a rehab hospital, addiction, or traumatic brain injury.

I think organizational behavior management is a big one. The Van Loan School has an MBA program, and we’ve been talking to them for a couple of years about merging with them and running an MBA-ABA.

How does an ABA’s career generally progress?

Most people come out from a master’s degree program, sit for their certification, and get their license. It really bothers me when they go out and go into private practice on Day 1 right out of graduate school. Yes, you’ve got all of the courses, yes, you’ve got 1,500 hours of experience, but you’re not ready to go out all by yourself…Go work under somebody who is a mentor, figure out what the world is all about before you take off on your own.

Those people who take that advice end up in programs where even from Day 1 they’re splitting their time between direct service but also, once they’ve got some experience, they’re overseeing technicians and paraprofessionals. So the BCBAs are overseeing assessments, they’re writing the behavioral work plans, they’re helping modify teaching plans, and then promotions start happening. They begin supervising half a dozen technicians, then you get promoted to a management role and you’re running a program with 15 to 20 BCBAs working under you. So over time it kind of works its way up, and you end up wishing you had an MBA.

Talk a bit about the levels of degrees and credentials and what you would do with each of those.

So at the Van Loan School we have everything from this RPT training – a 40 hour certification for those with a high school degree – to bachelor’s to master’s to doctorate. The reasons for aspiring to move up are financial – they’re going to go from making $20 an hour to a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree and get licensed. If you’re licensed you’ll be making $60,000 to $70,000 a year, and you’re also doing more. You’re going to have more authority, more responsibility. You’re actually doing the assessments, writing the plans. There’s a lot of pride in that.

There are really two things about the Ph.D. One is the Ph.D. is really preparing you for research. So if you’re really interested in furthering the scientific field by researching, fellowshipping, and presenting at conferences, you can do that with a master’s, but that’s what a Ph.D. is really all about.

If you want to teach at a college or university for the most part you need a Ph.D.

What is the purpose or benefit of the non-degree certification program?

If you have a degree in special ed or any education field, you can take a certificate course and get board certified without a degree in applied behavior analysis.

It’s extremely useful for people who are special education licensed teachers and they’re working in a classroom where some or all of their students are on the autism spectrum.

But it’s not just there. For years I was dealing with people who had amputations. Part of my job was to set up behavior support plans to get them motivated and encouraged to do all of the hard work to walk again with a prosthesis.

We had patients with third degree burns all over their bodies. Part of my job was to write behavior support plans, train nurses, train all of the staff to participate in therapy that was painful for them.

Another area is out working in regular public-school classrooms with typically developing kids and helping where there are challenging behaviors – kids acting out, and setting up behavior support plans in public school, and training teachers and administrators how to better deal with those kids.

So having the additional skills in applied behavior analysis can be extremely useful in any number of settings.

Could you talk a little about the process of going from a master’s with a bcba certification to a doctorate with a bcba-D?

I’m going to represent the Van Loan School model of doctoral training, which I think is pretty consistent with other schools.

The first thing that students need to think about is a combination of what do I want to be when I grow up, and, what is a Ph.D.?

I get inquiries about our program literally every day. I get emails, and they want to talk on the phone. I’m happy to do that, and one of the first things I explain to these potential applicants is that a Ph.D. by its very nature is a research degree.

We’re not here to train you to be better clinicians. We assume if you’ve got a master’s degree in ABA or a related field that you already have a good amount of training in the basic framework of applied behavior analysis.

We’re going to bring you in here and teach you how to take that information and become a successful researcher. But it’s going to be a clinical researcher. It’s called a scientist practitioner model.

We’re going to teach you—if you’re working in a public school, rehab hospital, or in a site with kids with autism—how to take the stuff we’re teaching you and extend the research in that area so that you’re providing better services. You’re solving problems that the current literature doesn’t necessarily give you the tools to solve.

So it extends the science, it trains you, and you’re learning to do that scientist-practitioner model of research.

What steps does someone need to take to position themselves for this transition to Ph.D. studies?

Applicants to a program like ours need to have an application that demonstrates a commitment to behavior analytic research. And if you think about like a Likert scale, it can be anywhere from one on a Likert scale to 10. Ten is somebody with a master’s degree who’s published two or three journal articles, done research, led a research team – those are few and far between.

The next step down would be somebody in your community who’s doing research and you’ve gone over and volunteered and said, “I’d really like to learn about this, can I be a research assistant for you? Can I help you do some of that?”

All of the way down to, if they at least put in their application: I go to state ABA conferences. I go to national ABA conferences. I read research literature. I’m really interested in this particular area of research and can demonstrate a clear interest in ABA research.

Is it practical to stay in your current job while working on a Ph.D. in this program?

Oh, I think it’s essential.

Otherwise you’re coming up with research questions, you’re designing protocols and then you’re going out and looking for subjects for your research. That’s not the model we teach.

We teach – you’re working in a classroom, and Bobby’s banging his head. You’ve done everything you can find in the literature, but nothing’s working with Bobby. I’ve got this idea, and I want to do something new.

That’s the research project.

That’s when you come to us and we say, OK, here’s the research design, here’s the data collection system. Let’s write it up. Let’s get IRB approval. Let’s get consent from the parents, and then when you get it all done and Bobby’s not banging his head anymore, let’s make it a poster at a local ABA conference. Let’s go give a talk at a national conference. Maybe let’s write it up for publication.

Are there any unique ways of earning a Master’s or Doctorate without a heavy level of financial debt?

Some programs, they’ve been around for a long time, they have big federal grants, research grants, and they can support some of their students that way. We’re just getting into the grant writing end of it.

But what we do have is a healthy master’s program, and we’re able to bring people in. One of the first courses that they take from us in a doctoral program is called technology of teaching, and in that course we teach them how to teach a course. We pay fairly well for adjuncts taking courses, and they can almost pay their semester’s tuition by teaching a class.

Other programs, like I said, have other ways of helping people finance it.

There’s also all sorts of grants that students can apply for themselves. And then there’s the old financial aid, which you’re going to end up paying off for the next 20 years.

Should people just getting into the field think about getting personal liability insurance?

Oh, absolutely.

Even if you work in an organization that has liability that covers you, you need your own liability insurance.

I will tell you, and I’ve been told this by lawyers who represent those programs that if push comes to shove and it comes down to, am I going to save the organization or am I going to save you, I’m going to throw you under the bus.

You need your own liability insurance, which pays for your own lawyer, so that if there’s a complaint and somebody’s suing you, you’re not depending on the organization to protect you.

Is that true for those doing ABA as Special Education teachers in a school?

If I’m a lawyer for the school district, if it comes down to the teacher or the school district, that’s who I work for. You’re covered under the policy, but if I can go and cut a deal, I’m going to cut a deal and save the school district.

Where should BCBA’s go to get personal liability insurance?

Finding insurance for behavior analysts is the simplest thing in the world.

Go on the ABA website, there’s a tab, you click on that, you fill out a form. It’s short money, it’s a few hundred dollars per year. You want a $1 million/$3million. So $1 million per incident, $3 million total per year.

When you first enroll in a master’s program and you’re out working in the field, you need to have your own professional liability insurance.

By the way, you want to make sure that when you fill out that insurance thing, it’s like an extra $50 to get them to cover the expenses for your attorney. Make sure you check the box and pay the extra $50.

What would you say to someone who wants to open their own practice?

One of the biggest challenges that I see new people face is the temptation to walk out of a master’s program, sit for the exam, become licensed, and then want to go open up your private practice. I counsel them against that from Day 1.

The risk of doing that is just huge. There are so many things that you need to know that we don’t train you for in an ABA program. We don’t train you in human resources, we don’t train you in liability insurance, or how do you sign a lease for an office.

The way to go figure that stuff out is to go find somebody who is running a highly ethical, successful organization, and apply for a job and be honest with them and say, “Look, I’d like to come, I want to learn from you, but I want you to know my hope going into this is five years from now I’d like to open up my own program.”

Some people in that interview will say, “Thank you very much, it was nice meeting you,” and other people are going to say, “I understand that, that’s where I was when I was you. Come on, come to work for us, we’ll help you get started.”

What would you tell someone who is part of a larger care team involving professionals from other disciplines but feels that other members of the care team are misunderstanding the role of ABA or possibly the needs of the individual receiving care?

One of my favorite sayings is if you ever walk into a meeting and find yourself by far and away the smartest person in the room, don’t let anybody else in the room figure that out. Just sit back, keep your mouth shut, and figure out what you can do. What are the things that you can do to help other people in the room?

As long as what they’re doing and recommending is not “snake oil,” how can you help them be more successful in what they’re doing?

Try to be their friend, try to be supportive. Don’t go in there and start yelling “Skinner, Skinner, Skinner!” at the top of your voice at every meeting. Try to work your way into it.

Sometimes in Special Education and counseling/psychology professions we see a higher rate of burn out. What can practitioners do to make sure they’re prepared to stay in the field for the long run?

This is going to sound weird for a behavior analyst to say this, but I think that the best thing in the world you can do is to have a support group of people that are in similar situations.

The Greater Boston Association for Behavior Analysis meets every month. Our graduates and eventually graduates of other programs would all come over to Simmons College on a monthly basis, we’d have a guest speaker, and then we’d talk.

So somebody from Boston Public Schools would say “I’m facing this” and somebody from Newton Public Schools or Wellesley or whatever would say “Well, I faced the same thing and here’s what I did.” They’re sharing and supporting each other.

You need help. And you need support. And you need people who have had similar experiences that can help guide and support you.

What other advice would you give someone freshly out of school?

Don’t get out of school and go “I’m done now, I can just go out and go to work.” You need to be part of the profession. You need to join the state organization and go to state meetings.

If there’s other things going on, like there’s bills that need to get passed, go to the legislature, be part of that; testify in hearings; contribute to the overall success of behavior analysis in your state and at the national level.

You had the opportunity to be involved in the greater ABA community in a pretty significant way in the arena of licensing. Can you share a little about that?

If you were one of my students you would start laughing right now when I say I’m going to tell you a story because I’m famous for “telling stories.”

It was literally a cold, rainy December Sunday morning and my phone at home rings. And there’s a voice on the other end of the line, and that person says, “You’re not going to remember me, but I helped you on your dissertation back in 1978. My name is John Scibek.”

And I was like, “Oh my god, we haven’t talked literally since I moved away.”

He had gotten his Ph.D. in Behavior Analysis at Notre Dame, moved to Massachusetts, and eventually ended up being a state legislator.

He had this idea about regulating behavior interventions when it came to severely challenging behavior. He wanted to come up with a way to have a sort of state-wide peer review committee.

He needed me to help him write a bill and it was, “oh by the way, it’s the middle of December and it has to be filed by Dec. 31. Can you help me write a bill?” And I’ve never written a bill in my life!

I had been thinking for the last couple of years before that, and I really thought that the field of behavior analysis needed to evolve to the point where we’re invited to sit at the adult table. Especially in school districts in IEP meetings, because everybody else at the table is licensed except us. Yet we’re coming in and trying to tell them how to do a better job in serving kids.

We have board certification, but we don’t have licensure. I think board certification has been a tremendous asset to the field, it’s done a great service over the last, what, 20 years now? But I really believed that it’s time to sort of “step up” to the next level and create licensure for behavior analysts. It didn’t exist anywhere in the country.

So while I had him on the phone I said, “Well, how about if we do this: how about if I help you with that bill if you help me with this bill?” And he said, “Oh, that’s a great idea! Let’s do that!”

So over the next few weeks he and I wrote these two bills, submitted them both on time, got them on the docket for the legislature.

And boy we made mistakes! We wrote it to where behavior analysts would be under the Board of Registration of Psychologists, which was just the stupidest thing ever. But then the head of the Mass Psychological Association calls John Scibak one day and says, “I see you put behavior analysts under us. We strongly agree that you should be licensed, but we don’t want to have anything to do with it. If you’ll rewrite your bill, we’ll support you along.”

We had to submit it three times, so it took almost six years to get it through the legislature.

One of the other mistakes we made is we didn’t talk to enough behavior analysts and get enough broad support in the state to get people to understand why it was necessary and what the benefits would be. The only reason we did it was consumer protection. It really holds behavioral analysts much more accountable at a local level.

I think it’s really difficult for the Behavior Analysis Certification Board to hold individuals to ethical standards when they’re looking at people in 27 countries around the world, 30,000 BCBAs. That’s a difficult thing to do. Here, they’re just overseeing people in Massachusetts, where there’s about 2,000 behavior analysts.

Before we submitted it the third time, we were able to work on getting all the parts together and everybody on the same page. I really learned what the word compromise means, and was able to take some things I wanted out of the bill. We wrote a bill that people were able to support, got it through the legislature, got the governor to sign it. And it was enacted.

The short version of a very long story is that here we are now in 2017, about 10 years since the original bill was drafted, and there are about 28 states in the United States now that have licensing laws on the books for applied behavior analysts. So, it worked. It happened. And there are many other states that are in the process of building their own.

Not everybody liked it, and not everybody likes it today, but it’s all about consumer protection at the local level.

So what does this mean practically for the consumer?

The difference between the national certification and local licensing is ethical complaints. If a parent has a concern that you’re overbilling, or has a concern that you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, they can call the local licensing board rather than have to file with BACB in Denver.

So does someone really need the national certification if their state doesn’t require it? Can they just get licensed locally and call it good?

When people come and ask me, “Should I keep my BCBA?,” I give the same answer to everybody. If you know you’re never going to move out of Massachusetts for the rest of your life, that’s your choice. But if there’s a chance—only half of the states have licensing—if you move to a state that doesn’t have licensing or reciprocity, you don’t want to give up that BCBA. You want to keep it so that when you move to that state you can continue to practice behavior analysis.

What do you love the most about this field?

The people. Meaning two things: The one is the individuals that we serve and the success that we have with them and the families that see that success, and the reinforcement that you get from having done a good job.

But even more so for me and at the Van Loan School, it’s watching people come into the program and really learning and growing and blossoming and going out and being able to help other people.

What do you regard as the accomplishment you are most proud of in your career?

I think most people who know me would assume that I would say that my participation in the Functional Behavior Analysis research project in 1982 that resulted in the first objective measure of “why” individuals engage in self-injury – especially since it is the most cited empirical research project published in the history of ABA – would be my choice. For me, working with Massachusetts State Representative John Scibak to draft the first Behavior Analyst state licensing law, which has resulted in 28 states now having laws to license behavior analysts is even more important.

But then, on a personal level, co-founding the Institute for Behavioral Studies in the Van Loan School at Endicott College with Malcolm Patterson, Ed.D., including establishing the first Ph.D. program of any kind in a Massachusetts college/university north of Boston – with the number of graduates over the past 10 years and the people they have been able to serve seems even more important.

But in the final analysis, the young boy who I participated as part of his treatment team almost 13 years ago, who was diagnosed with severe Autism at 18 months but, after highly intensive ABA services for several years, was able to walk into his regular first grade classroom without an aide, IEP or any type of special education support is the single event in my career I am most proud of. He now attends middle school, has many friends, plays on competitive sports teams and is leading a fully normal life.