Read time: 3 minutes

Special Education Teacher to ABA Therapist

Danielle Kanouff

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.”




To learn more about Vanderbilt University Department of Special Education’s Applied Behavior Analysis Training Programs, please visit

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1. Instruction

2. Modeling




While learning new math content, the teacher will:

·      Instruct the concept.

·      Model an example.

·      Practice another example with the student.

·      Provide feedback in the form of positive praise and consideration.

·      Give constructive feedback.

·      Provide time between each step for processing.


Backward Chaining

Essentially, the teacher will complete all steps in a chained task except for the last:

  • Allow the student to complete the previous step independently or with the least restrictive prompt.
  • Continue until the student is independent with the last step.
  • Expand the student’s independence, starting with the previous two steps and so on, until he can complete all steps independently.


Forward Chaining

1. Think of forward chaining as the opposite of backward chaining; the teacher allows the student to complete the first step in a chained task independently or with the least restrictive prompt.

2. The teacher will complete or assist in the completion of the rest of the steps.


Video Modeling

1. Individuals will observe themselves performing a target behavior successfully on video.

2. The aim is to have the behavior imitated.

Example 1: Teacher records the student participating in waiting and ordering food in the lunch line. The targeted behavior is to join with peers in an educational setting.

Example 2: Teacher records the student interacting with a peer in a special education setting. The targeted behavior is to increase interactions with peers to promote social skills.


All of the antecedent interventions listed above are evidence-based practices that are proven to be effective with the prevention of maladaptive behaviors and skill acquisition for functional replacement behaviors.


As clinicians, we need to anticipate maladaptive behaviors in practice. This anticipation allows us to be steps ahead of our patients, focusing on the expected, desired behaviors needed for beneficial treatment and service outcomes. I hope you can use a tip or two from this series and apply them to your practice.


Thanks for reading,



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About the blogger

Danielle Kanouff, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA

Danielle has been working with children since 2009 when she began her career as a teacher. After moving to Nashville, TN, in 2011, she became a special education teacher.

She worked primarily with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity.

Her love for children with disabilities inspired her to earn her master’s degree in special education at Vanderbilt University in 2016. During this time, she also obtained her Behavior Analyst certification and licensure.

While she is no longer in the classroom, she continues to keep a full caseload working with children and young adults who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their families, and the children's medical, educational, and therapeutic team members.

Her goal at 3C is to share what she’s learned working in the field of education and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

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