Learn About Being a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
Updated May 10, 2023
A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) is a health care practitioner certified in applied behavior analysis (ABA) who strives to influence people's behaviors. Many BCBAs specialize in areas like autism, developmental disabilities or mental health issues. If this profession interests you, learning more about ABA and the duties that BCBAs perform day to day can help you make a decision on this career.
In this article, we explain what a BCBA does, outline the requirements to become one, provide a step-by-step guide for entering the profession, describe the work environment in this field and discuss how much they earn.
What does a BCBA do?
A BCBA is a health care practitioner who specializes in improving problematic behaviors in children and adults. They often work with people who have developmental disabilities or brain injuries, along with emotional, social or behavioral issues. They may also help people manage issues such as stress or anger in healthier ways or achieve personal behavior goals.
BCBAs can specialize in a specific population or issue, such as children, people with autism spectrum disorder or the elderly. Some of the common responsibilities of the profession include:
Meeting with patients to observe and assess their behavior
Meeting with families, teachers or doctors to discuss the patient's treatment and progress
Recommending ways to address behavioral issues
Developing plans to correct, maintain or improve certain behaviors
Helping clients set and meet behavior goals
Keeping detailed notes of patient meetings and progress
Giving tools such as reinforcement and conditioning to encourage positive behaviors or correct aggressive, harmful or antisocial behaviors
Conducting research and applying findings to their work
What are the requirements to become a BCBA?
A master's degree and board certification are necessary to practice as a BCBA. They typically spend about six years completing their education and earning experience before working independently. Here are some requirements to become a BCBA:
A master's degree is the minimum education requirement to be eligible for board certification in ABA. Relevant fields of study include psychology, behavior analysis, education, special education and early childhood education and development. Coursework covers topics such as the principles of behavior analysis, ethics, professional conduct, and research. Some BCBAs also choose to complete a doctoral degree in behavior analysis to expand their knowledge and job opportunities, or if they want to conduct behavior research.
A requirement of board certification is proving completion of the required amount of training. Candidates can do so in one of three ways:
Supervised independent fieldwork: At least 1,500 hours of clinical experience under an experienced behavior analyst's supervision
Practicum: At least 1,000 hours of clinical experience under closer supervision than supervised independent fieldwork
Intensive practicum: At least 750 hours of clinical experience under the strictest level of supervision
Once hired, BCBAs typically receive on-the-job training to learn the employer's processes and practices.
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) is the certifying body that oversees the credentialing of all BCBAs. Individuals can qualify for BCBA certification in one of three ways:
Coursework: The applicant has a master's degree in behavior analysis, education or psychology, as well as supervised practical experience. Individuals who have earned a master's degree in another field can still qualify if they have also completed BACB-verified behavior analysis courses.
Faculty teach and research: The applicant meets the same education and experience requirements as the first option above but has also spent at least three years as a faculty member in behavior analysis.
Postdoctoral experience: The applicant has a doctoral degree in behavior analysis, education or psychology, as well as supervised practical experience. Individuals who have earned a doctoral degree in another field can still qualify if they have also completed BACB-verified behavior analysis courses.
Once behavior analysts fill out the application showing they have met one of these criteria, they can take the BCBA examination. Exam topics include behavior analysis skills, behavior modification techniques, experimental design, measurement and assessment. Some states require BCBAs to acquire state licensure as well. Find out which states require licensure by visiting the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts website or contacting your state's professional behavior analysis association.
Essential skills to succeed as a BCBA include:
Problem-solving: The job involves assessing patients' behavioral challenges to determine the best treatment plans for them, with the best strategy often depending on the patient's condition. Someone with autism spectrum disorder, for instance, requires a different approach than a patient with a personality disorder.
Verbal communication: Meeting with patients and their families or consulting with other people requires clear and effective conveyance of information.
Patience: Behavior modification can be a slow process, and BCBAs often work with people who are prone to outbursts. Therefore, the ability to be patient and supportive essential when working with these individuals and their families.
How to become a BCBA in 6 steps
Board certification of behavior analysts involves strict requirements. If you're interested in becoming board-certified in ABA, follow these steps:
1. Earn a bachelor's degree
Choose an undergraduate degree in a discipline that relates to behavior analysis, such as education, psychology or social work. It typically takes four years to get a bachelor's degree. During this time, look for internships or part-time jobs at behavior centers and other clinical settings to gain experience and develop professional relationships.
Related: A Guide to Psychology Internships
2. Earn a master's degree
Apply for a master's program in behavior analysis, education or psychology. These fields include courses on behavior assessment, research, ethics and treatment, as well as hands-on training. You may even be able to take classes on specific developmental disorders. It typically takes two years to complete a graduate degree.
3. Complete supervised fieldwork
BACB experience requirements include the completion of a certain number of supervised fieldwork hours. These range from 750 to 1,500 hours, depending on the amount of supervision you receive. Consult the BCBA handbook and your supervisor to determine whether an activity qualifies as fieldwork.
4. Get certified
Once you qualify for certification based on your education and experience, you can apply to take the BCBA certification examination on the BACB website. Testing, which is computer-based, takes place in January, May and September. If you pass the exam, you are officially a board-certified behavior analyst.
5. Apply for jobs
Look for BCBA jobs at hospitals, schools, mental health clinics and other care or behavior centers. Aside from job search sites, consider asking members in your network, including your academic supervisor, whether they know of opportunities suitable for you. Remember to update your resume any time you gain a new accomplishment, such as having an article published in a journal or presenting at a conference.
6. Continue your education
Retaining certification involves paying a renewal fee and getting recertified every three years. To get recertified, complete at least 36 continuing education hours through courses, conferences, seminars and other BACB-approved events. Keep track of your hours so you can prove you have completed them. Failing to complete enough continuing education credits requires you to retake the certification exam.
BCBA work environment
BCBAs commonly work in hospitals, schools, nonprofits, mental health centers, government agencies or other clinics. Some travel to patients' homes. Most BCBAs work full time during normal hours, though some also work evenings and weekends to fit clients' schedules.
Challenges of being a BCBA
BCBAs occasionally find themselves in challenging situations. As they work with clients who have severe behavioral or emotional issues, it isn't uncommon for patients to exhibit emotional outbursts. Consequently, the job has the potential to be stressful, but it is also highly rewarding.
How much do BCBAs earn per year?
On average, BCBAs earn $78,505 per year. Specific earning potential may vary, with salaries across the country ranging from $58,159 to $105,970.
Location may greatly influence how much you earn in this profession. In New York, for example, BCBAs earn greater 41% compared to the national average. In contrast, those in Montana report salaries that are 43% below the national average.
What's the job outlook for BCBAs?
BCBAs fall under the category of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, a professional field for which the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 22% growth between 2021 and 2031. This growth rate is much faster than the 5% average growth projected for all occupations.
A 2022 report published by the BACB corroborates the upward trend in demand for BCBAs. The report notes that nationwide demand has increased every year since 2010, including a 38% increase between 2020 and 2021. Five states — California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas and Florida — have accounted for much of the recent demand.
BCBA job description example
Here's an example BCBA job description that can help guide you in creating your own:
The Carson Center for Behavioral Health is looking for a compassionate and skilled board-certified behavior analyst to join our team of health and wellness specialists. The BCBA is responsible for assessing patients with a variety of behavioral and emotional disorders and creating individualized treatment plans. The ideal candidate has the patience and empathy to work with a population of clients that includes individuals with developmental disorders, brain injuries, or emotional control issues. Exceptional communication and problem-solving skills, as welll as a record of effective behavior modification, are essential for this role.
If you're interested in learning more about professions similar to that of a BCBA, consider the following:
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