ABA Therapist vs. BCBA Therapist: What's the Difference?

Updated June 24, 2022

Behavioral analysis is a widely used method for behavior therapy that involves assessing the behavior patterns of a patient to determine their best treatment options. Common careers in this field include applied behavior analysts, or ABA therapists, and board-certified behavior analysts, or BCBA therapists. If you're interested in pursuing a career as a behavioral therapist, it can be helpful to understand your employment options and the qualifications they require.

In this article, we discuss what ABA and BCBA therapists are, explain the similarities and differences between the two professions and share tips for deciding which career path is the right fit for you.

Related: 6 Mental Health Jobs and Ways To Succeed in the Field

What is an ABA therapist?

An ABA therapist, or applied behavior analyst, is a professional who specializes in treating behavioral issues, most commonly in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Applied behavior analysis is the study of behavior patterns with the goal of determining an appropriate and customized treatment plan for each patient. ABA therapists use positive reinforcement techniques to encourage desirable behaviors in the children they treat. It's common for ABA therapists to work with one patient at a time, as ABA therapy in early childhood often requires intensive hours to yield results.

ABA therapists are responsible for a variety of tasks involved with assessing and treating patients in need of behavioral therapy. Their daily duties may include:

  • Analyzing patient behavior patterns to determine the right treatment strategy

  • Meeting with patients individually and with their families to discuss treatment progress and plans

  • Completing administrative tasks, such as record-keeping and scheduling

  • Assisting BCBA therapists with diagnosing and treating their patients

Related: How To Become an ABA Therapist

What is a BCBA therapist?

A BCBA therapist, or board-certified behavior analyst, is a professional who specializes in evaluating patients and curating their personalized treatment goals. BCBA therapists often treat autistic children, although they also work with patients with other diagnoses, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A BCBA therapist considers a patient's circumstances, including their age, income, skills and interests, to determine attainable goals for them.

To become a BCBA, you must already be an ABA therapist and have a master's degree in an approved discipline for board certification. To further your education in behavioral analysis, you can pursue a Ph.D. in applied behavior analysis or a related field. BCBA therapists with a doctorate have the title of BCBA-D, which distinguishes their additional education. They can teach at the university level and work as researchers in a laboratory. It's also common for BCBA therapists to work in school settings, where they can provide guidance, resources and support to teachers working with students exhibiting behavioral issues.

Related: What Does BCBA Stand For?

ABA therapist vs. BCBA therapist

ABA and BCBA therapists treat many of the same types of patients and use a lot of the same approaches for diagnosing and treating behavioral issues, but there are some distinct differences that differentiate both titles. Here are some of the primary similarities and differences between ABA and BCBA therapists:

Types of patients

Both ABA and BCBA therapists work primarily with patients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They also work with patients diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) or developmental delays (DDs). ABA and BCBA therapists primarily treat children, although other ages are also common. While an ABA therapist often works with patients individually, a BCBA therapist commonly treats multiple patients at a time.


Both professions require a bachelor's degree for most entry-level positions, generally in psychology or a related field. To become a BCBA therapist, you must have a graduate degree, usually in behavioral analysis or education. ABAs only need to hold an undergraduate degree to enter the field. Additionally, a BCBA therapist must pass the Behavior Analyst Certification (BCBA) exam from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) with a 65% or higher. They can typically maintain their certification by updating their status every two years and paying board fees.

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Work environment and salary

ABA and BCBA therapists can find work in many of the same environments, including therapy practices, mental health treatment centers, public school systems and private institutions. No matter the work setting, an ABA usually works under the guidance and supervision of a BCBA therapist, who has more qualifications and expertise in behavior analysis. Since BCBA therapists are more experienced, they typically make a higher salary as well. The national average salary for a BCBA therapist is $72,711 per year, while the national average salary for an ABA therapist is $49,023 per year.

Related: 15 Top Psychology Degree Jobs

Tips for choosing between ABA or BCBA

Here are some tips you can follow to help you decide between an ABA or BCBA career:

  • Research both career paths. It's important to understand the daily duties and responsibilities of both ABAs and BCBAs before pursuing either career to ensure your chosen path meets your career qualifications. Consider conducting thorough research on the educational and certification requirements for both professions to decide which aligns better with your credentials and willingness to learn.

  • Network with industry professionals. You may build your employment network by contacting individuals who are already working as behavioral therapists. Consider finding a mentor in the profession who can offer career advice for choosing between the two professions and introduce you to potential employers in the field.

  • Consider your options. If you're deciding which career path is best for you, it's important to consider all aspects of both professions to determine which best aligns with your goals. It's also quite simple to switch from being an ABA to a BCBA with additional education, giving you the option to increase your income and responsibilities as a behavioral therapist.


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