Faculty Spotlight: Alex Hollo

Dr. Alex Hollo discovered her passion for helping students with high-incidence disabilities as a tutor in a program for at-risk youth managed by Vanderbilt University.

Though Hollo’s undergraduate degree was in English literature, her work with this program quickly inspired her to further her knowledge in special education.

“I loved those kids, and I loved everything about it,” Hollo said.

Once she earned her master’s degree in special education from Vanderbilt, Hollo moved to New York to teach students in residential treatment centers. There, Hollo began working for an organization where she taught students with learning, emotional, and behavioral disabilities to train service dogs for people with physical disabilities.

Hollo worked in this capacity for 10 years, but she ultimately decided to return to Vanderbilt to pursue her doctorate in special education. In this research-intensive program, Hollo found her niche as a scholar by working to answer a question that came from her years of experience working with students in residential treatment centers.

“What I noticed as a teacher and a practitioner is that you have these kids, who, a lot of the time, don’t fully understand what you’re talking about,” Hollo said. “They don’t have the rich or sophisticated language skills needed to understand complex, higher-order concepts, emotions or processes. They want to tell you something, but they don’t know how, so they act it out. No one gets the message they’re trying to send.”

As a doctoral student, Hollo began to investigate this issue, finding that there were 30 years worth of research describing this problem, but no one had suggested a solution.

“The overarching theme of my research is that kids with severe behavior problems have poor language skills, but nobody notices because of the behavior problems,” Hollo said.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, Hollo’s current research seeks to develop interventions that address this problem, for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and for the educators who work with them.

“If you give students a way to communicate, problem behavior decreases,” Hollo said.

More specifically, Hollo is working to devise a means of functional communication for students who aren’t nonverbal, but who don’t use language appropriately. She is also analyzing ways to help teachers communicate more effectively with students, an intervention called “Effective Directives.”

“It’s about teaching teachers to modify how they give instructions to students so that the students are more likely to be able to follow them,” Hollo said.

Outside of her research, Hollo, who is also a board-certified behavior analyst, teaches courses in CEHS’ applied behavior analysis graduate program. According to Hollo, applied behavior analysis is “a science of learning and behavior that emphasizes designing interventions based on an understanding why people do what they do, which we would refer to as the function of behavior.”

Hollo explained that behavior analysts investigate this question by observing what people do and what happens in the environment as a result. They modify conditions so they can examine differences in behavior depending on what occurs before or after that behavior.

Throughout all of Hollo’s teaching and research, she hopes to demonstrate the importance of using evidence-based practices such as this in the special education field.

“My goal is to teach people how to identify sources of information and how to critically analyze those sources of information, regardless of what they’re going to do with that information,” Hollo said.