Practitioner Success Story: Lisa Searls

Practitioner Success Story: Lisa Searls

An Interview with Lisa Searls

Increasingly, behavior analysts are beginning to practice in the areas of health, sports, and fitness. Navigating the journey to careers in these areas may be difficult. To highlight those who have been successful and who want to help up and coming practitioners, we are launching a series where professionals practicing in health, sports, and/or fitness share their stories.

Our second success story highlights the path of Lisa Searls, MA, BCBA, Founder/Director Motivating Change LLC. Lisa expanded her behavior analytic work to helping others with their fitness and weight loss goals. Lisa graciously responded to our questions, in order to share her story so that it may help those looking for a similar practice.

Q: How did you begin your practice in behavior analysis? 

LS: I graduated with a BA in Psychology, along with teacher certifications in both general education and special education.  My first teaching experience was in a school for children with autism.  While teaching, I received a master’s degree in special education; however, I was very interested in learning more about applied behavior analysis.  After teaching in the public schools for seven years, I went back to school to earn my master’s degree in Behavior Disorders from Teachers College, Columbia University.  I took the BCBA exam in 2003, and I continued working with public schools as a behavior consultant.  

Q: What led to your start in health, sport, and fitness and creating Motivating Change LLC? 

LS: In my twenties, I began running and attending group fitness classes at the gym.  After having my children, we moved to PA and I decided to work part-time in the public school so I could be home more with my daughters. In PA, I reconnected with my childhood best friend, who is a fitness instructor and personal trainer running a very successful boot camp.  She invited me to take her class and I immediately fell in love with it, but it was a half hour away and it became challenging to do a commute for exercise on top of my work commute and schedule.  I wanted her boot camp, but I wanted it close to home.  She showed me how to get my aerobics instructor certification and helped me start my own boot camp! I put flyers in local mailboxes and ran a class on the black top in the park. 

Over time and as the class grew, I began teaching 3 classes a week and eventually also rented out indoor space to continue class through the winter.  As I became more comfortable with teaching boot camp classes, I decided to combine my two passions and I began to implement principles of applied behavior analysis into the class.  I started a 12-week Healthy Mind, Healthy Lifestyle Weight Loss Challenge which focuses on increasing positive behaviors in order to decrease unnecessary “snacking or mealtimes.”   I break down skills for the participants, give them weekly challenges, a daily checklist, and prizes for weekly winners as well as a grand prize for the person with the highest percentage of weight lost at the end.    

At the same time, I began helping another public school begin a program for children with autism.  Originally, this was for 3 hours a week and has since grown to 2 full days a week. 

As my school hours and the number of fitness classes I was teaching increased, I felt the right next step was to incorporate it all under one umbrella and started Motivating Change, LLC.  

Q: Can you explain how you have used your experience in health and fitness to collaborate with other ABA agencies? 

LS: During my graduate studies, I focused heavily on peer tutoring and its effects on both the tutor and tutee.  I wanted to design a summer program in which children with disabilities and children without disabilities came together and learned from one another academically, socially, as well as physically.  I ran a small camp in PA for two summers and had my own children participate as peer models.  I was so excited about the experience we provided for all the kids that attended the program, including my own children.  However, it was a lot of work to get the camp organized and too much for me to do alone.  I reached out to a friend, Stasia Hansen, who also graduated from TC, Columbia.  She was already running her own LLC, Best Practices in Behavior Analysis, in NJ. I explained what I was currently doing, my vision, and the challenges I was having running it alone.   She loved the concept, so we joined and created Kids Connection, a summer program where kids work together to develop a positive attitude about school, learning, oneself, and others.  Through principles and tactics of applied behavior analysis, such as peer tutoring, the kids learn to work cooperatively with others to better communicate, resolve conflict, accept differences, and increase personal health and fitness levels.  

Q: What additional certifications and or education did you obtain and what certifying agency did you use?

LS: Over the years, I have received a Primary Aerobics Instructor Certification, Kids & Teens Fitness Trainer Certification, and Cycling Instructor Certification from the American Aerobic Association International (AAAI).  I have completed other certifications such as Shaun T’s Insanity Certification from BeachBody and the Tabata Bootcamp Certification from Mindy Mylrea.  

Q: What barriers did you overcome when starting your practice?

LS: One of the challenges I often face is balancing family and work.  As a wife and a mom, my family comes first, which is why I switched to part time for the school district.  I absolutely love the boot camp community that I have created and our mornings together; however, some days are challenging because of my long commute.  I currently provide classes 3x a week and wish I could commit to more.  Another challenge I am often dealing with is finding space for boot camp.  Being in the northeast, it gets cold, so I am constantly trying to find places to rent space from for the winter. 

I also continue to struggle with marketing and utilizing social media to promote what I do. With my long commute, and my work days being pretty involved. When I get home, I want to be with my family so I do not put much time into social media and marketing my class, relying on client referrals to grow.  And of course, my latest challenge has been COVID-19.  When I was not able to hold in-person classes, I immediately started teaching classes on Zoom.  Once small groups of people were allowed to gather, we resumed class in the park, however we were no longer able to share equipment and everyone had to bring their own weights, mats, and jump ropes which was an adjustment. We are literally taking things one day at a time in determining when the next class will be and its location.  

Q: Based on your experiences, what recommendations or advice would you give someone pursuing a career in health, sport, and fitness? 

LS: I would recommend to just get it started and use your training as a BCBA to guide you. You really need to just do it, start out small and don’t be afraid to fail. When I started both the boot camp and Kids Connection, I found a place, set a time and date, did a little advertising and just ran with it.  When I first started the boot camp, I would hold the class whether one person showed up or 15 people showed up and that is still the way I run it to this day. I would also recommend including your clients in the process. I survey my clients often about what they like and don’t like about the class, times that work for them, things they would like to see added to the class, and location.  

My goals, objectives, mission statement and curriculum are a constant work in progress and continue to develop each and every day. I am so grateful that I took a chance in implementing a Healthy Mind, Healthy Lifestyle Weight Loss Challenge.  I think it is common for people with our educational backgrounds to feel intimidated by the health and fitness industry. However, I believe our knowledge of assessing skills, choosing specific goals and objectives, data collection, data analysis, and providing positive reinforcement goes a long way in any industry.  I have learned that you won’t know unless you try!

Disclaimer: This is a personal success story. Any views or opinions represented in this story are personal and belong solely to the professional interviewed and do not represent those of the Behavior Analysis in Health, Sport and Fitness Special Interest Group or its affiliates.  Any certifications listed were acquired by the professionals due to personal choices based on their career path and goals and do not represent requirements for pursuing a career in Health, Sport and Fitness.  All readers are encouraged to review credentialing requirements for their career path of choice.

Are you considering respecializing or expanding your scope of practice? While there isn't one set path or process for respecialization of one's scope of practice, the BACB website has a great webpage, About Behavior Analysis, with helpful resources. The webpage has videos and one-page fact sheets related to ABA in health and fitness & ABA in Sports, in addition to a guide for Recommendations for Respecialization.

Want to share your own story? The HSF Professional Development Committee has set up a form to collect stories from behavior analysts who have had success practicing in the areas of health, sport, and fitness. We look forward to hearing from you!

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