Education prof leads the way with behaviour science for inclusion

Nicole Neil is a behaviour analyst and Western education  who helped develop a n
Nicole Neil is a behaviour analyst and Western education who helped develop a new EdD program to help professionals in the field develop their leadership skills. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications)
She’s a circus performer and teaches others the craft. She’s trained dogs for their big-screen debuts. She tackles grueling workouts like Crossfit and half marathons through the mountains.

But Nicole Neil’s unique hobbies and her professional career as an applied behaviour analyst aren’t as different as you might think.

The common trait is her gift for teaching, whether in the aerial studio or a classroom at Western’s Faculty of Education.

"I’m a researcher who likes art. It’s a place for artistic expression. I also love teaching," she said of her classes at Western and a local circus academy.

Neil leads Western’s master of professional education program in applied behaviour analysis (ABA) and starting in September, she will also teach in the Faculty of Education’s new EdD program - which she co-developed - in the same field.

Nicole Neil

Its creation comes as the provincial government institutes new regulations for professionals in ABA, what some advocates say is a much-needed change to ensure those offering support to children and their families meet strict standards.

"Regulation restricts who can call themselves a behaviour analyst. Families, clients and the public can be assured that person has qualifications, knowledge, experience to provide them safe and expected services," Neil said of the new requirements.

"For our practitioners, our students, it’s important because the public now knows who they are. The profession is not going to be undermined by people calling themselves behaviour analysts without providing those services. It’s really all’about public protection."

What is ABA?

Regulation will help the public access safe, effective services, Neil said. It also means a governing body - in this case, the College of Psychologists of Ontario, which will become the College of Psychologists and Behaviour Analysts of Ontario as of July 1 - can provide accountability for bad actors.

The field of applied behaviour analysis uses science to help people tackle socially significant behaviour, such as developing skills and tools to regulate, communicate and participate at school or in community.

"A lot of practitioners work with some of our most vulnerable populations, such as those with developmental and intellectual disabilities," Neil said.

"We support opening doors that people want opened for themselves." - Nicole Neil, behaviour analyst and Western education professor

That work encompasses all kinds of learning and skill-building. It could be tools to help someone get dressed and put their shoes on, emotional regulation strategies to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings, or language abilities to communicate more easily.

For Neil, it’s about advocating and making space.

"A lot of the times the clients I work with are excluded because of their behaviour, because of the way their diagnosis represents, and it’s not what people want or expect in that situation," she said.

"My greatest joy is in being able to say ’no, this person belongs here, and there are ways we can help them be included. We can change the environment to help them be happy and functioning in this space."

Award-winning work

Neil’s leadership in the field has earned her several awards, most recently the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis Research Award.

This recognition was especially meaningful for Neil.

"I do research that’s kind of on the edges of our field. I do a lot of interdisciplinary work with psychologists, educators, people in disability studies and economics. It’s exciting when research that might not quite fit quite in the box is being recognized," she said.

(L to R) ONTABA President Jaime Santana presents Nicole Neil with the ONTABA Research Award in 2023. (Submitted)

"It shows our field, our association and our colleagues are open to exploring the possibilities of where applied behaviour analysis can go."

One of her research projects includes making "informal learning spaces" - think camps, museums and science centres - inclusive and welcoming to children with intellectual disabilities.

"They’re really important parts of life and childhood," Neil said. "When you think about why you decided to become an astronaut, it’s because you went to the space centre and got to sit in the spaceship, right?"

She’s brought that same inclusion to campus, where she runs STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camps for children with and without disabilities.

"We talk about disability awareness, we also talk about robots and coding. We’ve got a little bit of everything," Neil said.

The programs embed behaviour analysis principles to support the learning of all campers. Neil hopes the model at Western will encourage other camps to follow suit.

"It’s hard to find a space where people are knowledgeable about supporting disabilities. It is really valuable to have spaces where people are trained, qualified and have actually thought about you before you came in."

Training the trainers

Soon, she’ll be training other leaders in the field.

The new EdD program is the first of its kind in Ontario. Applications are now being accepted for the first cohort of 20 students, who will begin the three-year, virtual learning journey in the fall.

It will give ABA professionals access to top-notch leaders in their sphere and the ability to level up in their own work and leadership, whether in private practice, consulting, academia or program development.

Take Neil - in addition to her own practice, teaching and leading the MPed and EdD programs, she’s also setting standards in the world of ABA.

She sat on the province’s regulation working group to determine exactly what kind of qualifications would be required for those regulated by the College of Psychologists and Applied Behaviour Analysts of Ontario.

On top of all that, she’s written a practitioner manual to help professionals working with children with autism who also have obsessive compulsive behaviour. It includes new approaches like function-based cognitive behaviour therapy - combining that style of therapy for anxiety along with ABA strategies - and other learnings from Neil’s interdisciplinary work.

It’s all part of the skills and excellence on offer through the Faculty of Education’s ABA programs.

"Western is special in this field, special in Canada, with this level of knowledge," Neil said.

"There’s not a lot of people in Canada that have this expertise."