Thought Leaders 021 | Dr. Denise Ross | Part 1

This month on Operant Innovations - Thought Leaders, we are speaking with Dr. Denise Ross as she tells us about her history and coming from a school with few African-American students, then being able to bring it full circle by teaching and producing BIPOC students, doctors, and researchers. Dr. Ross reminded me that every stop we take along our journey is purposeful in teaching us more about who we are and what our goals are.


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Shauna Costello (00:00):

You're listening to Operant Innovations. A podcast brought to you by ABA Technologies. This month, on the Thought Leader series, we are speaking with Dr. Denise Ross about where she came from and how she got to where she is.

Shauna Costello (00:18):

Today we're here with Dr. Denise Ross. Thank you for talking with me today.

Dr. Denise Ross (00:24):

Thank you for inviting me.

Shauna Costello (00:26):

I'm very excited because I've had the opportunity to somewhat work with Dr. Ross when we were both at Western, but not for too long, and she's held some stuff back today, even. Like, "No. I'll talk to you about that later." I'm very excited to hear your story and see what your thoughts are. The first question is who are you and how did you get to where you are today?

Dr. Denise Ross (00:58):

Well, I grew up in a small town in Ohio where I was one of just a handful of African-American children and really students of color within my community, within my school. My mom was a nurse and my dad was a businessman and we grew up in this middle-class household and a middle-class community, but I was one of a few black children in that class, in that school. I think that now looking back, some of the things I think now were shaped by those early experiences. I remember my first encounter when my mom fought for me to not go to kindergarten. She had worked with me and she was just like, "You can read and you don't need to go to kindergarten." She went to the school, she told the school that I didn't need to go to kindergarten and they pushed back and they told her I did. She made them test me and they told her that, "She's no genius, but she can skip kindergarten." I went into first grade and my first experience of racism actually occurred in that first grade classroom. I had a teacher who openly accused me of cheating. I was five years old and I had no clue what she was talking about. I can look back now and see what that was, but at the time I didn't understand it. I now feel like I've come full circle in terms of being able to help other children who may have been having those experiences. Despite that, the school system was a really good school system and my parents were really attentive. I had an excellent education, but I had several family members, particularly first cousins who did not have access to good schooling because of economic disadvantage. They ended up not being able to even finish high school, nevermind going to college. One of my cousins, for example, who I was very close to when I was 19, I was a senior in college. Sorry, I was a junior in college. She was a senior in high school when she was 19. So it was just that I saw these disparities. Those disparities really made me realize, I remember finishing high school and knowing the differences between my cousins and me and my brother were that we had opportunities. We all came from the same family, but what was the difference? It was the opportunities we had. I was very intentional at that point about that being my why. I wanted to go to college and somehow help change the systems that produced inequities in education that consequently produced inequities and outcomes. My parents got divorced when I was in high school. I had also been one of a handful of black children, black students in this all completely white community. When I left for college, I just didn't have the best view of myself. I was insecure. My parents had just gotten divorced. I just remember feeling very insecure. For me, I'd grown up kind of going to church, but church was not important to me. I went to college and I remember going into... I went to Spelman college, which is an all black women's college. I was able to be free of any type of real discrimination. There was no racism. There was no gender bias because it was all women, mostly black women. I was surrounded by black women who were PhDs. At that point, I got to see and they kind of imprint on you. They're like, "Okay, this is who you can be." They tell you, "You're the top of the top. You're the cream of the crop." They tell you all these things and so Spelman produces these women who are just go getters because they do that. I remember going into the room of a woman in my dorm and she had a scripture on her wall and I was like, "Why does she have a bible verse on the wall?" She was our class president. I remember thinking, "She's successful despite having gone through racism, despite having gone through those things, because she's empowered by God. She's got this relationship with him and this relationship with Christ is what's making her who she is." At that point I made a decision that that's what I was going to do. I went home to my church in Columbus and I got down on my knees and I was like, "God, take my life." I needed that. It was like I needed to circle back to where my roots were and what was important to me, but it also empowered me to believe then that I could do anything. I can accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish, even when they were hard. It gave me a sense of purpose, right? I knew then that my purpose was to impact these kids. This is what I want to do with my life and my why has followed me through all the other pieces of my story. In having that feeling despite what had happened in my childhood, despite the things that I got through racially, I had God's love to help me. That was really helpful for me. Like I said, it was my why. I really knew then that I wanted to impact children who were economically disadvantaged and racially marginalized. That intersection of race and poverty disproportionately affects kids who are children of color. I wanted to be a part of that. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. That's how I was going to do it. While I was in college, I realized that being a lawyer, they weren't getting jobs. People weren't getting jobs. I decided that I was going to get a backup. I was like, " You can still be a lawyer, but you need a second, so decided on a minor in education." During my minor in education, we took an intro to special education class. I did a field experience where I went to a high school and worked with kids who had behavioral challenges. It was at that point that I was like, "I want to work in this field for behavioral disorders." That's what it was at the time, emotional behavior disorders. I wanted to go to Teacher's College and I had met a friend in college who was going to go there for graduate school. I was like, "This is what I'm going to do." I went thinking I would focus on special education behavior disorders. I had no background in psychology. I went and it was all behavior. It was behavior analysis. Doug Greer was the head of the program. I went my first semester and I literally failed every single exam the whole first semester, because we had to take behavior and do verbatim written definitions of all those terms. I had no background. I had a friend who had come from UCLA and she'd worked with Ivar Lovaas. She knew it all and I knew none of it. Doug had a recycle policy and they still have that where you can recycle your quizzes. Every time I failed a quiz, I'd get to do it again. In practicing it so many times I learned it. By the end of the semester, Doug looked at me and he just goes, "I see how hard you've worked. I see how hard this has been for you,." There were lots of things he did. He made us do lots of studies. I think you had to do five studies your first semester or something like that. We had to do research papers and so I learned a lot. He actually, the next semester gave me funding because I was just poor. He gave me funding to go to graduate school and finish out that semester. That semester I decided to get my doctorate. I was 22 years old and I went to him and I just said, “I want to get my doctorate.” He lectured me on how it was a way of life. "Are you sure you're going to do this?" I was like, "Yeah, this is what I want to do." Thankfully, within that week, he wrote a grant and he got me money to go to graduate school. I did not have to pay for it because I didn't have stipends. I had to work. I worked like 80 jobs outside of graduate school. I tutored kids, I played the piano for churches. Doug made sure I had tuition money and that was really helpful. I did that for those five years. I got to be mentored by him. In that time period, the focus of that program was really verbal behavior. So I learned a lot about verbal behavior and ended up doing my dissertation in that area. I helped to start an autism program. The first ABA autism program in New York city public schools. It was a CABAS program and I got to lead that. Now it's considered one of the best ABA programs in the state. I mean, in the city, New York city school system, because they've continued. It was 20 some years ago when I did it, but they continued that and continue to be a placement for behavior analysis. Well, he mentored me and he just really became a huge part of my life during that time period. I finished graduate school and went on to be what's my first faculty position at Florida Atlantic university. I was 26 and I went to teach there and my department chair was a black woman named Cynthia Wilson. Cynthia Wilson is not a behavior analyst. She's in special ed, but she made academia transparent for me. She was intentional about it. She would tell me things like, "You know, don't do a lot of service. Women do service all the time. It'll impact your ability to get tenure". She was very intentional about protecting me and making sure that I was able to be successful. She taught me the ropes like, "How do you survive here? What do you do?" Then Jack Scott was there. He's also in autism and he was a behavior analyst there. The department chair was another behavior analyst named Michael Brady and I felt like I had some support at the time. About the time that I went there, I realized that I did not want to be at a teaching institution only. I wanted to be in a research institution. Teacher's College had an opportunity and they let me come back and I came back and I got to focus mostly on research. When I was in Florida, a significant thing that happened to me was that I would do field experiences and supervise student teachers in field schools. I went into a school and there was this classroom full of kids who had emotional behavioral disorders. That was their label. They were first graders to third graders. On the side was a little boy who was like five years old, six years old. While everybody else was learning to read, he wasn't learning to read and I asked the teacher, "Why is the student not reading?" I had just come from kids with autism who couldn't speak. I'm in this room and I'm like, "He doesn't have a developmental disability. Why is he not?" Not that people with developmental disabilities can't learn to read, but there was no real obvious reason to me. Why was he not doing it? The teacher said to me that he had an intellectual disability. It was a label in Florida. Florida used to have labels. They'd label people educationally mentally handicapped, trainable mentally handicapped and she's like, "He's educationally mentally handicapped and he cannot learn to read." I was livid. I left there, I got in my car and I was like, "Why can't he learn to read?" I remember as I'm telling you this story, that before that, when I was teaching kids with autism, we taught them to read. I remember the principal at one of the schools I was at saying, "Why do they need to learn to read? They'll never use it." And being very livid about if they can learn, they need all the help that they can get. This experience where the principal is telling me, "You shouldn't teach kids to read," this experience where I go into the school and they tell me this little boy cannot learn to read. I grabbed and took him. First, I was mad and on the way  and I made some phone calls. A colleague and I got together. We wrote a grant. We got money to come back in and teach those kids to read. I took him one day and I sat down with him and I said, "You're going to read." He looked at me and he goes, "I can't read." I go, "You're going to read today." I took ed mark reading and he read. The way it's designed, you can read very quickly and he stopped and he was just shocked. We took a model. We took the behavioral reading curriculum and developed this model, where you use fluency, direct instruction, and then let the teachers choose their own kind of portion of that curriculum. Choose their own curriculum that they want to use. Some activity they want to do and then also do standardized testing with the kids and do regular meetings with the teachers. A graduate student and I did that. We did it at that elementary school and at a middle school. The first year we did it, everybody was skeptical. The kids made so much progress, that the next year the principal said that the middle school should do it with all the kids who can't read. We took all these kids and so I looked at that and I was like, "Hey, this is working." I then went on to Teacher's College and at Teacher's College, I worked and did something similar with eight community schools and programs within the community. Within churches, within local schools on the weekends. My students and I would go out and we would do this. I'd teach students how to teach kids to read. This passion for kids learning to read was really coming back to me in terms of the importance of this. I also at that time was learning how to build relationships with communities. Going out into Harlem and went, "How did we do?" I got to see how they saw us. They looked at Columbia like the ivory tower. "You're coming in and you have no idea what we want." lived in Harlem, but worked at Columbia and got to see how it looked. Columbia thought they were doing the community a favor and the community did not see it that way. While I was at Columbia, I think I was on like 43 dissertation committees and all of them were mostly around relational frame. It was about the time that Dermot Barnes-Holmes wrote relational frame theory and we were all doing work in that. This whole idea of generative responding at that point, because of all the practice with the students there, I became very familiar with it. I took away from Teacher's College, this idea of, "What does it look like for the community to see you come into it?" Also, "How can you embed relational frame theory, the whole concept of a frame into reading and what does that look like?" It added to what I knew. My father had an accident and I decided to move to Chicago to be closer to him. I went to work at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Chuck Merbitz, who passed away a couple of years ago, hired me to work on program building. There I got to help develop a doctoral program and helped develop a school. An elementary school that was focused on behavior analysis. In that time period, Joe Layng and his wife helped with some of the initial starting of that along with Doug. Joe allowed me to come to Seattle and Joanne and Joe let me stay in their house. They taught me so much about what they were doing there. I got to go to Headsprout and see up close what they were doing. The one thing I learned from watching that, in addition to the amazing work they were doing, was they explained to me that at Headsprout, they didn't replicate and didn't take an idea and replicated across hundreds of children until they watched it with just one child. They got the kinks out with one child before they replicated it with lots of kids. What I took away from that was if you have an idea or you have a plan or you have a research idea, that's new, test it with just a very small group first, because if you don't, you replicate mistakes, right? Get the kinks out. These are all the significant stepping stones that led me to this place. We started the school, we had some successes, the kids read really well, and we did the same thing I'd done at the elementary school in Florida and the middle school in Florida, only we used 100 lessons to teach your child to read. We used age appropriate things and the kids came out reading really well, but there were also lots of systems. Things I didn't understand. I learned in this situation how school funding is so important in terms of what happens and how Chicago has one of the lowest per pupil funding rates or used to at that time. When you're staffing and starting a school, that funding has to fund both operations and education where a school district has centralized operations. I learned in that situation just to focus and narrow myself on reading only as opposed to like, "Oh, I'm going to go out and just build a school that's going to help all these kids." That is something I can't do, but I could do reading and I saw how our kids learned to read. Even though there were lots of things I think I learned after that. I took a business class because this was like starting a business. I went and took a nine month certificate class, and I was like, "I'm going to learn how to do this better." After that, I went to DePaul university for two years where they taught me how to teach online. About that time, Dick Mallot asked me to come and speak at Western Michigan. Then there was a position there later and I went and applied for the position and it was to help start their online program. So that was what I did. All those previous experiences helped prepare me for that. At Western Michigan, I think I learned three major things. One was systems. I remember telling Doug, "Man, I'm learning so much about systems." He's like, "CABAS is a system. Why don't you learn that?" I learned so much from watching how BABS operated and the emphasis in that department from the OBM program and everything that was there about systems and my students who come through BABS or who had come through the OBM program actually began to teach me about systems. They would come into the lab and say, "We've got to break this up into smaller pieces." I learned so much from them. I also learned the importance of what it meant to mentor and advocate for black students. I had a lab that had a lot of students in it that were students of color. I had Hispanic students, I had black students and what it meant to mentor, what it meant to be somebody who had to talk them down from quitting at times because of the experiences they were having. I learned that, and then I learned a lot about reading. We did a lot of reading work. I learned a lot about building relationships with the rural communities. I hadn't worked in rural communities. That taught me about that, but mostly I think I had a chance to begin to really process my own views on the role that racial bias plays in what happens in our field and in the world. I'm grateful for that because when I went to my next position, which is now at the University of Wisconsin, where currently I'm chair of the Institute for Urban Education, which is an Institute that helps address critical teacher shortages in urban communities. We work with several school districts around Wisconsin. One of the things that's an emphasis in Wisconsin, is this idea that the university has a role in helping to balance inequitable systems that are imbalanced because of race. Wisconsin has an interesting history in terms of racial discrimination. The state has an emphasis on doing work that helps to address racial inequities. I get to apply behavior analysis to that. Now I realize it's not just reading. I need to now do reading in addition to helping people understand, helping to build innovations or build interventions that will help address systemic issues. For me, what's helped with that is being able to operationalize behaviors. Being able to ask really significant questions about why things are happening and how they're happening. I'm finding out that there's this intersection between that focus on academics that I've had, which is an issue in Wisconsin. Ten percent of the black children can read proficiently and that's in the country. There's an issue with reading across all groups. Then also this intersection of race and how you can see literacy as a form of social justice. If you can teach a child to read, then you will increase their outcomes. If I myself become what people are now defining as anti-racist, but I don't empower a child to do better, I haven't done anything. That's one of the things that we really emphasize and I'll take us back to the beginning of this. What I said is that I then take a circle back to who I was as a kid, when I was five years old in a community where there weren't a lot of black children and someone accused me of cheating and the feeling I had and how that impacted my life. Now I can come in on the flip side of that, use systems to empower other children to experience that, and then I can still follow the trajectory of my why, which is to help balance, help address systemic inequities based on that intersection between economic disadvantage and race. It's kind of a full circle for me at this point to take all these experiences and go, "How does this relate back to this problem I've been seeing since I was a kid?"

Shauna Costello (22:51):

Well, and it's so neat to hear too, because this is a question I'm constantly scouring social media, just for work related purposes, to see what people are talking about right now, especially in the field, because not being in the clinical realm anymore, I'm a little bit more removed about what's going on.

Dr. Denise Ross (23:10):


Shauna Costello (23:10):

And one thing I always see is what else we can do with behavior analysis. It's really hard for me to not just do anything because you can, but what you're doing now and it's just really cool to see how almost everything that you've done has built on top of each other.

Dr. Denise Ross (23:34):


Shauna Costello (23:35):

Each little step has really built on to make it into something even bigger.

Dr. Denise Ross (23:43):

Even the things I thought were bad. Even the things I was like, "Why am I in this?" I’ve often my whole career been the only African-American in most of my settings as a faculty member, except for my very first one in Teachers. There were a couple, but even when in those settings I can still say that all the experiences forced me to process my own perspectives. Even the things that seemed to me not to be very healthy or good at the time, I still feel grateful for those things.

Shauna Costello (24:17):

It gives me hope too, because I know you started in that more of an education background and when I talk to people... I was at Western. I didn't mean to go for behavior analysis, but that's what I found and I'm very happy I did, but now I'm trying to do something different too. Just seeing your progression as well, through all of these different things, gives me hope on a personal level and I can see how, talking for other people now, that can also do the same thing for others.

Dr. Denise Ross (25:04):

If you know your why, no matter where you are, you can always do the same thing. That trajectory, that thread of what you are supposed to do and what you are good at and how can your life be a blessing to other people. I think we think of that often as this touchy feely thing, but I think science helps. I think that your ability to gain skills helps other people, your development helps other people. All your skill sets can benefit somebody else. My students who graduated with their doctorates with me, I wanted to advise them to go... A lot of them, I thought, were really good researchers. I want to see more. I think we need more black researchers in behavior analysis. I don't see enough. I'm trying to work, right now, with different programs that are trying to do that. I do think that I really was like, "Can you?" It was really Dick Mallot. He was like, "We need to make sure we have more black researchers." He's the one who started me on that and until that time, I actually hadn't thought about it. I hadn't thought about across the whole field who's out there because when I came into the field, there were, but then they retired. I saw this and I wanted them to go to academia. I watched them choose clinical jobs. At first I just thought, "Why are you doing that?" I do think that when you're younger, I started my academic career teaching college when I was 26, you don't always know what you want to do at 26. Some of my development has been me developing and making shifts. I've tried to follow my why. I've moved, to me, to what seems like a number of institutions. I was young. You don't know all the time and so those people who stay in one place forever, it just isn't there anymore. I actually admire my students' ability to say, "This is not what I want to commit to right now. I'm going to try these different things and decide which ones I want to do." Everybody doesn't come out just knowing. While I've stayed in academia, I have moved as I've developed as a person into what I want more and more, and that has shifted over time.

Shauna Costello (27:16):

I think that you show too that just because you're in academia from what I've seen since I met you and I've known you is that you still... It's not just strictly in this ivory tower in academia. You don't close yourself off in that bubble. You purposely go out to the communities that you are in and try to see, "Okay, what are we doing? What can we do in these communities?"

Dr. Denise Ross (27:46):

Right. You do it so you can learn and you learn every day. I didn't tell the significant part of the story, but when we started the elementary school, the university faculty were partnered with a couple of universities and would offer to help us. It was the first time I'd been on the flip side of now looking at the ivory tower while I'm a faculty member there, and going, "I really need you to come in and be more supportive." I could see what it felt like to be in the role of a principal, the role of a teacher and have someone come and tell you, "My research can help you," and you're just like, "No. If it can, I can't even hear you right now.” You have to feed people first before you can actually give them any information or anything like that." All of those things are what you're saying. You go out into these communities and you learn yourself, and it helps I think with intervention research, because if you put yourself in the place of the people who will ultimately consume your research. I think one of the issues our field gets into is that we don't always think about how your intervention is a shift for the culture or group that will be impacted by it. With data it works, but it may not be right for this group. What are the barriers? What would stop them from implementing it with fidelity, would stop it from being used? A lot of times people go, "Well, we give them this information. Why don't schools use these effective things that we do?" Because there's some reason, and we need to spend time in that school, time in that organization, just watching between which is when you get to the question about, "Where should the field go?" I'll talk about that more, because I do think one of the mistakes we make is assuming that the experience we had within a couple settings is going to transfer to a different one. You will not know how to design an individual model unless you've sat in the environment, seeing what they do, seeing what their issues are, and then you can design it. Not come in and say, "Here's what you should use." I don't know, right? If you really want to think about the people we're going to impact, we're thinking about putting ourselves in their shoes. The only way to do that is to spend time there. Right?

Shauna Costello (30:04):

That's really neat too, because I worked in some schools throughout Metro Detroit and that always brings me back to the one example that I had. I was working in this classroom for students who had down syndrome and it was specific to students who had down syndrome. There was one student that they were having some behavioral issues with. He wasn't at the same functioning level as some of the other middle schoolers that were there. The teacher and paraprofessionals were just kind of lost. They were like, "We don't know what to do right now." The whole classroom environment is becoming this mess because of it. I'd go in almost an hour, every single day. Just one hour, every single day where I would take over for the paraprofessionals the entire time. They're like, "Wait. I don't have to do anything? Why not?" I was like, "I don't know. I don't know what we're doing yet. Why would I have you do this? " I literally was like, "Well, let me figure out." Because when I sat in on the IEP meeting, they're like, "Oh, behavior analyst. Is he okay? What's wrong?" I was like, "Honestly, on paper, this looks really good. I'm not sure. I want to see what's going on with it because I don't think anything needs to change on your plan." They're like, "Wait, what?"

Dr. Denise Ross (31:34):


Shauna Costello (31:34):

I sat in and I took over for one of the entire hours. Then once I got into their inner stuff that they put in place, it was just little tweaks. It was really just little tweaks, but I got to sit there for the entire class period for that one class period. Sometimes it would be more, sometimes I would just be a check-in, but in the beginning I took over for that entire class period, and they were like, "Wait. How did you do that?" You could see even though the paraprofessionals were very happy to have a break, they were still sitting there observing me.

Dr. Denise Ross (32:14):


Shauna Costello (32:14):

Then they would be like, "Wait, how did you just do that?"

Dr. Denise Ross (32:17):


Shauna Costello (32:18):

"How did you just get the student to do that?"

Dr. Denise Ross (32:21):

If you can do it, they can do it. It makes a whole difference. Walk in someone else's shoes, you know how to design an intervention better. You said it perfectly. It's little tweaks. It's a little thing that we don't see. When did I realize this? I was asked to come in and help with a reading program in Chicago and it was for kids who were in alternative school settings. They were high schoolers from 9th grade to 12th grade, but they were high schoolers who had trouble graduating. There was a mini school system in Chicago. It was a charter school system that had, I think, 4,000 students in 20 some schools. They said, "A good percentage of our kids can't read. Can you come in?" I was like, "Cool. We'll come in. We'll do the same thing I've done everywhere else. Direct instruction." They said to me, "Our students won't do direct instruction because they think it's babyish. They won't do it." That's interesting and they explained to me all the barriers to why their students couldn't learn to read. Why couldn't you come in and just implement something and I never thought about it. I never thought about the fact that secondary schools aren't built to teach kids to read. They come there for reading and there's no place for them to do it. There were so many things they said. I remember when I came to Western I wanted to design a curriculum that's built with this in mind so that you can implement it and not have to go do a whole curriculum, but you just target where the students are missing something. That's what my students and I worked on. It came from spending a semester where I would take students from Western back to Chicago. We would go spend time in those settings. That's how you learn because you spend time there and I think that that's a direction that we need go with.

Shauna Costello (34:08):

Thank you for listening to this episode of  Thought Leaders. Come back next month as Dr. Ross tells us where she thinks the field is going and/or where she would like to see it go. And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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