Learn About Being a Behavioral Therapist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

What does a behavioral therapist do?

Behavioral therapists are healthcare professionals who help treat mental health disorders. They use their training and knowledge to work with and treat adults and children who experience anxiety, phobias, addictions and different disorders. The patient and behavioral therapist work together to treat overcome unhealthy behaviors.

The role of a behavioral therapist could involve:

  • Researching and designing a program and schedule of therapy, tailored for each client

  • Helping the client develop the skills that they will need to be successful in their treatment

  • Acting as a mediator and point of communication between clients and their friends and families in cases of rehabilitation

  • Keeping accurate notes and documentation for their client consultations

Average salary

A behavioral therapist may work full-time or part-time hours for a health care facility, or they could manage their own practice. The salary will depend on the size of the employer, the candidate’s experience, level of education and professional qualifications. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $19.36 per hour

  • Some salaries range from $7.25 to $39.90 per hour.

Behavioral therapist requirements

As a health care professional, there are educational requirements and skills needed to become a behavioral therapist.

Education

Behavioral therapists need at minimum a master’s degree and a state license to practice. Many behavioral therapists earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. to specialize in a certain group or disorder. A frequented educational route for this career is:

  • Bachelor’s degree in psychology or related field

  • Master’s degree in psychology or related field

  • Doctorate in psychology

Programs of study will include topics such as different treatment techniques, ethics, research methods, conditioning and learning, treatment techniques and ethical issues. The program schedule will include a period of supervised work experience. During supervision, you will work with clients in a practice alongside a licensed behavioral therapist.

Training

There is a wide variety of clientele in a therapy practice. Therefore, there will be a period of training specifically tailored to familiarize you with clients. 

On-the-job training for a new behavioral therapist will also include learning all about the practice or hospital. This may include the culture, values and the practical day-to-day management of the institution. You will find how to manage patient files, the appointment system and scheduling meetings.

Certification

By law, you will require a license to practice therapy. Your license means that you have the minimum qualifications to practice as a behavioral therapist. Licensing is an ongoing requirement and you must renew the license about every two years depending on your state’s requirements. You can expect the following licensing procedure: 

  • Educational standard: A master’s degree is standard, but there may also be specific modules and courses that are requirements.

  • Clinic hours: As part of your educational program, you will need to complete supervised clinic hours. You can also complete an internship with a therapy practice if you need to increase your hours to meet the requirements. The necessary hours are around 1,500 to 2,500 depending on the state. Your supervisor must meet the state’s standards. 

  • Exam: All states expect you to pass a minimum of one written examination conducted in a controlled environment that focuses on the psychological theory of behavioral therapy. You may also need to sit for an exam on the laws of the state regarding mental health and therapy.

  • Continuing education: You must take a certain number of continuing education hours at a certified institution to qualify for your license. You can expect this to be approximately 30 to 40 hours logged every two years. 

The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists offers several certifications in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that includes a program of study covering all aspects of CBT. These include the Diploma in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Certificate in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. These certifications are only available to licensed therapists with a specific period of work experience and published articles in the field.

Skills

A behavioral therapist uses their extensive knowledge of psychotherapy to help their clients overcome stressful behaviors. A good therapist needs to continually develop their skills and understanding of behavioral principles to be effective. As a therapist, you must have a range of skills to successfully treat your patients, including:

  • Emotional intelligence: You must be able to listen and interpret a client’s needs carefully. You will need to pay attention to their nonverbal actions to gather as much information about their behavior to create thorough and detailed treatment plans. 

  • Clinical skills: Once you have had a discussion with your patient, you will need to correctly diagnose the condition. You must be able to implement an effective and suitable treatment plan.

  • Critical-thinking skills: As part of the diagnosis, you will need to think about the connection between cause and effect. You’ll use problem-solving and critical-thinking skills together when considering how to treat a client.

  • Communication: Most of your work will be client-facing while meeting with clients in person. You will also talk to the family and friends of the clients and colleagues in your facility. Your verbal and written communication skills need to be excellent to achieve a high level of client care. 

Behavioral therapist work environment

Behavioral therapists work in a private office setting, and the role has the following environmental characteristics:

  • Sitting in a chair for each therapy session for about an hour at a time 

  • Sitting at a desk and using computers, printers or telephones while writing client records and notes

  • Communicating as required with other members of the therapy team 

  • Guiding communication between parties related to the client and other therapists who are involved in treating the client

Behavioral therapists may work to provide support and therapy to clients in the following situations:

  • In their own therapy practice

  • In a group practice with other behavioral therapists or with different kinds of therapists 

  • Hospitals

  • Schools and colleges

  • Prisons

  • Social services centers

Some behavioral therapists offer services through online platforms.

How to become a behavioral therapist

You can follow these steps to become a behavioral therapist:

  1. Earn an advanced degree. Research the educational requirements for your state as there can be variation. At a minimum, you’ll need a master’s degree. You may need to cover specific topics and coursework in your degree.

  2. Gain experience working with clients. You will log clinic hours through your educational program, but you may also need to pursue further hours through voluntary work or an internship. You need several thousand hours of experience, which you will complete over an extended period.

  3. Gain your license. Once you have the education and work experience, apply for your license. This legal requirement is an essential step and will require you to pass an exam. 

  4. Earn certifications. Although voluntary, additional certifications will identify you as an exceptional professional who is continually working to better their therapy practice.

  5. Prepare a resume and cover letter. Include all relevant education, outlining any relevant modules or coursework. Listing your experience working with clients is important, including the name of the practice, dates and a summary of the clients you were working with. An impressive resume and cover letter can help you gain a position as a behavioral therapist. 

  6. Apply for positions as a behavioral therapist. You should research the market to see what type of institutions are in your area and which ones offer the style of therapy that you use. Increase the chances of being selected for an interview by applying for positions that suit your qualifications and experience. You should tailor your resume and cover letter so it outlines why you are the ideal candidate for the role.

Behavioral therapist job description example

The Children’s Center is seeking a full-time behavioral therapist to join the staff. They will be responsible for following the legal and professional guidelines for behavioral interventions and for managing their own caseload. The candidate must follow the values of the Children’s Center and always strive for excellence. The successful candidate will have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. and state licensure. They must have at least three years of experience working with children and families either in a clinic or community setting.

Responsibilities include:

  • Meeting with children and their families

  • Developing individual treatment plans

  • Following up with patients regularly

  • Successfully communicating with patients and family members throughout the course of treatment

Related careers

If you are interested in a career similar to a behavioral therapist, consider the following:

  • Social worker

  • Direct support professional

  • Psychologist

  • Psychiatrist

  • Physician

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