Phyllis was educated in the Philadelphia area and received her doctorate in special education from Temple University, where her advisor was Donald Hammill. Phyllis's interest in special education began when she was a seventh-grade language arts teacher working with children who had learning and behavioral problems. Shortly thereafter, she followed that interest and began teaching a class of adolescents with social and emotional disturbances. She went on to become a school psychologist and director of special education before entering academia at the University of Arizona in 1973. From there she went to the University of Texas at Austin for several years, then to Beaver College in Pennsylvania as a professor of special education. There she chaired the Education Department and coordinated the special education program.
Among Phyllis's professional contributions are several textbooks dealing with emotional disturbance, numerous journal articles pertaining to special education, and several assessment instruments used to identify aspects of children's learning. From 1981 to 1986, she served as editor of Learning Disability Quarterly, the professional journal of the Council for Learning Disabilities. Currently Phyllis is an independent researcher and author.