How George Mason University’s MSPED Pushes ABA Beyond Its Traditional Scope

Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Woldoff

teamwork abaWith its evidence-based approach to human behavior, applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy has been instrumental to improving autism intervention programs. In fact, ABA is discussed, researched, and applied in that specific context arguably more than any other. But as important as that use of the field is, the faculty of George Mason University’s Master of Education in Special Education (MSPED) online program think ABA is vastly underutilized in other areas.

Dr. Lisa Tullo, one of the program’s professors and an experienced Board-Certified Behavior Analyst- Doctoral (BCBA-D), says:

“Part of what’s so amazing about behavior analysis is it can be applied to virtually any area of life — academics, instructional design, sports, health and fitness, organizational behavior, gun safety, addiction, drugs, alcohol, gambling, animal training, criminal justice, Alzheimer’s and dementia, environmentalism.”

Dr. Christine Barthold, George Mason University’s ABA Program Coordinator, and a BCBA-D, says this untapped versatility is the driving force behind the school’s streamlined, online ABA certification program:

“We’ve been really intentional in the ABA program to make sure that our students know they’ll be learning about the science of why organisms – and I’m using that term very, very specifically – do what they do.”

Whether you’re a life coach, a parole officer, or just eyeing a management position in your current company, that kind of education could certainly come in handy.

Recently, Dr. Tullo and Dr. Barthold sat down with to discuss how ABA can be used in a wide range of careers and how George Mason University faculty have developed a curriculum that’s as rigorous as it is inviting and applicable.

Dr. Lisa Tullo

dr. lisa tulloThough Dr. Lisa Tullo joined the George Mason University community in 2021, she’s been a behavior consultant for public school districts across the mid-Atlantic region and a behavior analyst for and the owner of Choice Point, LLC, a consulting business. In addition to teaching classes like Principles and Procedures of ABA and Verbal Behavior, Dr. Tullo is heavily involved in George Mason University’s Division of Special Education and disAbility Research.


Dr. Christine Barthold

dr. christine bartholdDr. Christine Barthold is central to both organizing George Mason University’s MSPED program and teaching its students. Before joining the school’s faculty in 2014, she worked with individuals with disabilities, coordinated staff training programs for multiple organizations, and has been a personal trainer and health coach. But along with helping the public at large, Dr. Barthold is fully committed to addressing problems like burnout and compassion fatigue in her own professional community.


ABA: The Foundational Science of Human Nature

Because of its therapeutic applications, applied behavior analysis is often thought of as a type of therapy much like talk or occupational therapy.

elements of education on wooden blocks

But Dr. Barthold says this definition doesn’t do the field justice:

“What we want to do is promote the idea that ABA is a foundational science. It can be used therapeutically, but it’s not a therapy. That’s a really hard concept for a lot of people to wrap their head around, and I understand it.”

For instance, before pre-med students learn how to save lives and limbs, they take foundational science courses like biology, biochemistry, and immunology — topics that are the building blocks of more advanced studies.

Dr. Barthold and her colleagues’ philosophy is that ABA should be viewed the same way. Anyone that works with people as individuals or groups needs to have a basic understanding of human behavior. Then, they can apply those principles to any number of fields and specialties.

In the ABA certification track of George Mason University’s MSPED program, students learn that foundational knowledge through a series of classes that cover topics like the history of the field, the landmark research that continues to shape it, and analytic research design. Along the way, they also learn about common issues within the field so that they can approach it with a critical eye. With that strong base of knowledge, students can then take courses about complex behavioral issues and the implementation of ethical, science-supported solutions.

A Focus on Student Agency

George Mason University’s ABA curriculum may sound a bit broad, but according to Dr. Tullo, that’s one of the program’s defining and most empowering features:

“Our coursework is very intentionally designed to provide really diverse examples and opportunities for the students to apply the coursework in different areas. For a lot of assignments, it’s really up to them how they’re going to apply the concepts. So, if they’re interested in criminal justice or organizational behavior management, they can really work to apply the concepts to those areas.”

something to say

So in classes like Verbal Behavior, which Dr. Tullo often teaches, students aren’t limited to learning about the speech patterns of a specific population. The subject matter is more focused on highly researched guiding principles and underlying theories. Dr. Tullo says even students with advanced research experience benefit from this open-ended approach:

“We try to have people who have a clinical background think a little bit more outside the box so that they can broaden their knowledge, as well. That really makes it so that if you are interested in autism, you can think about clinical examples.”

This application-based approach to ABA, along with the program’s online format and the ability for students to take courses part-time or as part of their MSPED, makes the field more inviting, more accessible, and more relevant than ever before.

Reading the Research: Problems ABA Practitioners Are Equipped To Address Outside of Therapy

Every field and industry has its own set of common issues. But outside of material costs, many of these issues come down to interpersonal conflicts and the seemingly befuddling nature of human behavior.

ABA practitioners are equipped to handle these types of issues in:

  • Education. In 2022, the national teacher turnover rate reached a historic 10%. Principal turnover reached 16%. ABA professionals at every level can shape informed policies that address this multifaceted issue.
  • Criminal Justice. 83% of released state prisoners are arrested within nine years of release, indicating a dire need for scientific, behavior-based reform in the criminal justice system.
  • Business Administration. After 2021’s Great Resignation, 37% of workers who quit said pay was a major factor. However, 35% cited feeling disrespected at work and 33% said no opportunities for advancement heavily influenced their decisions.
  • Health Promotion. The CDC says over 60% of American adults don’t exercise enough. 25% don’t at all. Health professionals with a background in ABA could be instrumental in helping people replace sedentary habits with healthier ones.

While ABA practitioners often enter the workforce as therapists, these statistics show that in almost every sector of the economy, there’s room for skilled behavior analysts of all kinds.

Opening Doors and Enhancing Careers

George Mason University’s ABA Certificate program partially fulfills the requirements set forth by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI): the organization responsible for accrediting higher-education ABA programs. This means that upon completion, students are eligible to take the Behavior Analyst Certification Exam™ and become BCBAs®. Importantly, there is still a fieldwork component necessary for candidates to complete before achieving the certification. Still, Dr. Tullo says the ultimate goal is something much greater than professional certification:

“We really try to teach professional humility and critical thinking skills so students can seek further training. As we talk about careers, I think it’s important to talk about in the lens of being a lifelong learner and seeking out other education opportunities as we as faculty are constantly doing, too.”

Dr. Tullo’s words encapsulate the heart of ABA as a field. While behavior analysts may largely be focused on behavior interventions and research, their purpose in doing so isn’t for good behavior’s sake. They do it to create a framework for understanding. They do it so people, individually and as a society, can be the best versions of themselves. Dr. Barthold wants prospective students to know that in George Mason University’s ABA program and its MSPED program as a whole, the door is wide open to anyone with that goal:

“Certainly there are jobs out there for people who want to work with individuals with autism. But when we teach our courses, what we’re trying to do is provide foundational knowledge so that if somebody, let’s say, wants to go into juvenile justice, they can get the expertise to do that well. If that’s the way they want to go, then we want to support them and make sure that they get there.”