PhD student Dani Pizzella wants to bring behavior analysis to everyone

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Dani Pizzella examined the effectiveness of asynchronous distance learning in behavior analysis for her thesis. She was finishing her research at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and had to adjust her methodology, which initially relied on trained actors. Instead, she taught parents and loved ones how to act in the Zoom training simulations. (Photo courtesy of Dani Pizzella)

Dani Pizzella is neither a drama teacher nor a director, but she spent the past summer teaching her boyfriends, roommates and parents to behave like children in distress.

Rather, she is a Special Education Administrator and a two-time graduate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Education. The particular task was part of his doctoral thesis on the effectiveness of teaching behavior management techniques at a distance.

Initially, the plan was to teach the techniques to his research subjects with the help of trained actors. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for subjects and actors to meet in person and interact. Pizzella had to adapt quickly and come up with a plan B, which led to her stint as a director.

Yet she successfully defended her thesis and obtained her doctorate in education while working full time and as an assistant professor at UMSL.

Although his career started on a completely different path.

Pizzella studied communications and environmental sciences as an undergraduate at Webster University, but she was not passionate about the work. She was drawn to the idea of ​​pursuing a special education through her previous experiences as a nanny.

“I had done nanny work for disabled children,” Pizzella said. “It was something that I had grown up around, so I was really comfortable with it.”

UMSL’s special education program and specialized training opportunities convinced her to attend university for her Masters in Education.

“When I met Dr. Patricia Kopetz, she was talking about starting a behavior analysis program through the College of Education,” Pizzella said. “I wanted to do that, and UMSL was starting a program, so I was really interested.”

The concept is something Pizzella discovered while working with disabled children. Applied behavior analysis is a set of principles that serve as the basis for the study and management of behaviors through individualized interventions.

It can be particularly helpful for special educators to create positive learning environments for all students. In practice, Pizzella explained that a teacher can break a project down into small, measurable steps to make things manageable for the students. It also helps the teacher to better observe when to intervene if a task becomes too difficult or frustrating.

Pizzella completed her Masters and stayed on to complete the Behavior Analysis course, becoming the first Board Certified Behavior Analyst to complete her coursework through UMSL. But she still wanted to rely on her expertise.

“I wanted to take it a step further and have more research experience,” she said. “I currently work for a special school district and am an administrator of the behavior analysis division. I wanted to find a way to integrate behavior analysis into teacher preparation programs for special education teachers, so that they can have better behavior management in the classroom.

This led her to enter the doctoral program in teaching and learning process at UMSL. His thesis, “A Comparison of the Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Post-Training Outcomes of Traditional Behavioral Skills Training and Asynchronous Remote Training” compared asynchronous distance training in behavior analysis to traditional face-to-face training.

The idea was to examine whether asynchronous distance learning – teaching that does not take place in the same place or at the same time – could be just as effective, thereby making it more accessible.

She started her research with two groups, an in-person training group and an asynchronous distance training group. Members of the remote group received their training instructions from a Pizzella video recorded for them. However, they always had to meet actors on campus, so that they could practice interventions with another person during the evaluations.

“I had luckily finished the group in person and was working on the group remotely when it all stopped,” she said. “I had to modify what I was doing with my thesis so that the distance training group does not practice with an actor in a conference room at UMSL, but rather exercises with someone in his own house. “

She was able to rotate and teach parents and loved ones how to act in the training simulations on Zoom. Despite the challenge, he actually turned out to be more insightful than expected.

The training sessions and recorded assessments sent back to Pizzella for review were a window into what is really going on at home. They illustrated the realities that parents of a child with autism might face when trying to apply behavior analysis lessons.

There were other positives as well. The results showed that in-person and remote training was just as effective. Distance education has also been incredibly effective.

“The in-person training, I had to repeat each time with each participant, but to do it with the group remotely, I only had to register once,” said Pizzella. “So it’s exponentially more efficient the more people who watch the training video. “

In light of her findings, Pizzella is optimistic that behavior analysis will become widespread in homes and schools through asynchronous distance learning. She noted that there is a dearth of behavior analysts in the United States – most of them concentrated in urban centers. This approach could greatly benefit parents and teachers in more isolated rural areas who sometimes drive more than three hours to meet a trainee.

Ultimately, Pizzella also hopes to expand its research internationally.

“The idea was to make behavior analysis more accessible,” Pizzella said. “I have received requests for training from young women in China who are interested in learning more about behavior analysis. But if I talk to someone in Beijing, there is a 12 hour time difference. One of us tries to meet at a very inconvenient time for the other person. We should do things a little more asynchronously. This provides the flexibility analysts need to see more people. “

Fortunately, connecting with someone across the country or the world is less demanding than ever.

“The coolest part about it is it’s super easy to do,” she said. “You need a cell phone and some time. It’s not super invasive. You don’t need expensive products or anything like that. You need the things we already have, which is part of what makes it great.

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