Anesa Doyle photo

Anesa Doyle ABA Faculty Lead

Parents of young children tend to spend more time at the dinner table than most folks.

As kids pick and poke at their food, parents encourage, cajole, and make demands and threats in the hopes of getting the youngsters to eat some broccoli, sample a new food, or clean their plate. It’s a battle of wills—and a source of fascination to experts in applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Anesa Doyle, MEd, BCBA, serves as a lead faculty for Capella University’s ABA program. An instructor at the university since 2013, she likes the challenges that come with the field: assessing individuals with behavioral problems, understanding how changes in one’s environment affect behaviors, and developing models and methods for altering certain habits and behaviors. Her training in early childhood education ultimately led her down a path to working with autistic children, which required a certification in applied behavioral analysis (ABA). “I fell in love with the field and went back to school so I could teach,” Doyle says. “I wanted to share my passion with others and spread the word.”

Expertise Into Entrepreneurship

As an instructor, Doyle often talks with students about using applied behavioral analysis to adjust behaviors in children. A typical scenario for using ABA with children might be to encourage good behavior. A cue is given (“Don’t run in the hall!”), the child responds (by slowing down), and a reward is given for the correct response (“Nice job!” or some positive reinforcement).

The topics that Doyle focuses on may vary, but the subject matter includes such behaviors as “food refusal,” the term for children pushing away foods they don’t want to eat. One recent afternoon, the instructor finished a presentation on food refusal, clicked out of the online classroom, and went downstairs from her home office to feed her children dinner. Her daughter wouldn’t eat what she prepared.

“I tried implementing the strategies that I taught my students in the hopes of getting her to eat,” Doyle says. “But there’s a difference between conducting a study and eating with your family at home. My approach wasn’t working.” Frustrated, Doyle and her husband, an aerospace engineer, came up with a solution. Within a week, with the help of a 3-D printer, they built a product that seemed successful in getting their child to eat.

Academic Ideas in Action

The product, 8 the Plate, is a dishwasher-safe plate with eight wedge-shaped compartments and a clear lid that covers all but one of the compartments. To access each compartment, the child must spin the plate, which turns only in one direction. The idea, Doyle says, is that the child must eat the food in one compartment before moving on to the next. “You might have some carrots in the first two compartments, and then a fruit snack. The child is motivated to eat the vegetables because it will allow them to turn the plate and eat the fruit,” Doyle says. “It’s based on principles of behavioral analysis.”

Doyle recommends that parents acclimate children to the plate by first filling the compartments with foods their children enjoy. Once the youngsters have learned how to spin the plate, parents can add new foods—untested items or healthy things that kids tend to resist.

The plate definitely has had an impact on dinners at Doyle’s house. “My daughter calls it the magic plate,” she says. “It’s fun, as well as effective. You’re building off the child’s motivation.”

For Doyle, the plate is a prime example of how ABA practitioners can make a difference in the life of a parent or child. The field is more than theoretical—there are many ways that it can be applied in the workplace, home, or elsewhere. “It’s exciting to see how people have responded,” Doyle says. “Parents have been very grateful, and my experience as an entrepreneur has given me new ideas of how to explain ABA and teach ABA theories to my students.”

Learn more about Capella’s Master of Science in Psychology, Applied Behavioral Analysis.