ABA alumna gives back to children with autism, FSU

Erica Martin

Jennifer Phelps drew the floor plans for her dream clinic when she was 13. Now the owner of Engage Behavioral Health, the FSU applied behavior analysis (ABA) alumna helps current students achieve their dreams to serve children with autism.

Phelps’ clinic, which provides ABA services to families, offers hands-on experience to Tallahassee ABA students through assistantships developing individualized programs for children with autism and other behavior issues.

“I truly feel blessed to keep the cycle of mentoring FSU graduates going,” Phelps said. “Our communities need high quality BCBAs, and that takes a community of educators. Partnering with FSU to be their feet on the ground is one of our greatest successes.”

Through graduate assistantships, each student’s tuition is fully funded, a status usually reserved for Ph.D. students. Working in the clinic, ABA students also document 1,000 supervised hours required to be eligible to sit for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst certificate.

Professors emphasize the “Seminole family” from recruitment, highlighting alumni success and expertise. Once enrolled, students are placed with agencies that have been vetted, often run by former students.

“We train our students to operate at a very high level of professional and ethical practice, and then they are placed with someone who had the same training,” said ABA program director Jon Bailey, Ph.D., BCBA-D. “When they get to their placement, they get to meet someone they have heard wonderful things about and they want to learn from them.”

Phelps said mentoring the master’s students has been one of the most worthwhile and critical components of her career.

“Rewarding things happen every day,” she said. “The more quality BCBAs we help create the more people in our community we can reach. Whether someone who does an internship at Engage stays with us or goes on to work someplace else, we have met part of our mission.”

Phelps opened her first location in the Tampa Bay area in 2012 and expanded to Tallahassee in 2014. Because of increased demand, the business now has clinics in Sarasota, Northern Virginia, Pittsburgh and Knoxville, Tenn.

Phelps also is CEO of consulting firm Engage Management Solutions and special-needs school Learn for Life Academy.

Focusing on self-improvement rather than comparing her business to others has helped her succeed as an entrepreneur, she said.

“The goal is to be the best CEO that I can be and for my company to be the best provider of quality and ethical services,” she said. “Keeping a steady focus on always improving doesn’t leave any time for worry. The best part is that when you look back you always see success and something else to improve upon.”

Of the 249 graduates of Florida State’s ABA program, 19 have gone on to found their own agencies.

“Setting up their own agency usually comes after a few years of working for some other company and realizing, ‘I can do better than this,’” Bailey noted.

“Learning the science behind behavior change has shaped me into a better spouse, mother and CEO,” Phelps said. “It should be the foundation of every college major.”

Phelps fell in love with ABA after reading Catherin Maurice’s “Let Me Hear Your Voice” when she was 12.

“The more I read, the more I fell in love with the science,” she said. “Pairing the love of the science and the passion to help families made ABA a natural choice.”

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a specialty in applied behavior analysis from the University of South Florida. After graduating in 2004, she came to FSU to study under Bailey, who she learned about in her undergraduate coursework.

“Dr. Bailey's strong values in ethics and his ability to bridge the gap between concepts and principles to real-life application of services made me want to study under him,” she said.

“Our ABA program in a short period of time has become one of the elite schools in the world,” Bailey noted. In 2015, the program was ranked No. 1 worldwide for exam pass rates.

The program, which sees more than 70 applicants annually, admits an average cohort of 16 each year.

“All of our faculty in this boutique program are Board Certified Behavior Analysts, which is rare in psychology,” Bailey said. “This means that we all have extensive hands-on experience working with clients in a wide variety of situations from classrooms to residential settings in addition to being Ph.D.s. We have stories to tell and practical tips and guidelines to share with our young recruits in addition to being published researchers and textbook authors.”

“FSU’s program stands out among others because the professors take extra time to really know their students and help them grow,” Phelps said. “I truly believe that if I had not attended FSU I would not be a successful business owner today.”