How To Become a Behavioral Specialist: A Step-by-Step Guide

Updated March 10, 2023

If you are interested in helping others, a career as a behavioral specialist could be a great opportunity for you. A behavioral specialist is a specialized mental health counselor who helps patients and students implement new behavioral strategies. Learning more about the typical daily duties, necessary skills, average salary and career outlook for this career could help you decide if this is the right path for you. In this article, we provide important career details and list the steps you can take to help you become a behavioral specialist.

Related: Learn About Being a Mental Health Counselor

What is a behavioral specialist?

A behavioral specialist, or behavior specialist, is a medical professional who specializes in behavioral studies. They are a type of counselor who helps patients with behavioral or developmental disorders. They may work in government buildings, healthcare organizations or schools. They can specialize in children or adult behaviors and emotions.

What does a behavioral specialist do?

Behavioral specialists observe and provide support for patients who have behavioral or emotional conditions. Their responsibilities can vary depending on their work location, but common duties include:

  • Observing, recording and evaluating a patient's behavior

  • Designing behavioral treatment strategies

  • Providing assistance and guidance through the treatment process

  • Communicating with patients, their parents and teachers

  • Collecting data about a patient's progress

  • Writing patient reports and documenting behaviors

  • Performing tests to evaluate the patient's growth

How to become a behavioral specialist

If you are interested in becoming a behavioral specialist, consider following these steps:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

The first step to becoming a behavioral specialist is earning an undergraduate degree. Some schools offer specialized degrees in behavioral studies, but behavioral specialists can also study relevant fields. Common majors for the field can include:

  • Behavioral science

  • Psychology

  • Sociology

  • Social work

  • Human services

  • Education

  • Applied behavior analysis

2. Earn a master's degree

Most states require behavioral specialists to earn a master's degree, especially if they work with children. A master's program typically takes two years to complete. Some programs may combine a master's with a bachelor's program. Others may allow professionals to work during the day and attend school part-time. The type of degree can vary depending on the area of focus and school program. Possible degrees can include:

  • Behavioral psychology

  • Behavioral analysis

  • Education

  • Psychology

Some professionals choose to earn a doctorate in behavior analysis. This is optional but could help specialists further advance their careers.

3. Gain experience through training

Before working as a behavioral specialist, professionals must complete a training program. Depending on your degree, this may be part of your education. For example, master's programs in applied behavioral analysis typically include a training component where students can gain experience in the field. Alternatively, there are organizations that offer training as part of a licensing or certification program.

4. Obtain a license

Each state has its own licensing guidelines, so be sure to check your location's requirements when planning your career. Most states require proof of education, training and experience as part of the licensing process. They may also perform a background check if the specialist plans to work with children.

5. Consider additional certification

Some behavioral specialists decide to earn additional certification. This is typically optional in the field, but could help candidates earn a competitive role or higher salary. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) offers two levels of certification:

  • Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA): This certificate is for individuals with a master's in the behavioral science or analysis field. If a behavior specialist has a doctorate in the field, they can earn this certificate with an additional designation (BCBA-D).

  • Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst: This certificate shows a candidate has a bachelor's in behavior analysis or a related field.

To earn these certificates, professionals need to submit proof of education and training. Then they must pass an exam showing their skills and knowledge. To maintain these certificates, behavioral specialists must reapply every two years. This may involve continuing education or completing further training.

Important skills for behavioral specialists

Successful behavioral specialists often possess these skills:


Behavioral specialists need effective communication skills to work with patients, teachers and parents. When working with children, they may explain new strategies to students and parents and work with school staff to create individualized learning plans. They can also use nonverbal communication skills to help them communicate with and understand their patients.

Related: 10 Communication Skills To Add to Your Resume


Empathy is an important skill for behavioral specialists. These professionals must be compassionate and understanding to connect with patients and family members. Being empathetic could help behavioral specialists build relationships and create customized treatment plans as they learn more about the individual patients.


A behavioral specialist uses observation skills to monitor and record accurate and thorough data. They can use strong observation skills to notice behavioral patterns or track progress. They may observe a patient during an initial screening. This data can help them diagnose certain conditions. They can also use data to measure certain goals.

Related: Observation Skills: Definition and Examples

Analytical reasoning

Analytical reasoning can help behavior specialists reach scientific conclusions. They can analyze the data they collect to help diagnose a patient. They can also use analytical reasoning to think creatively when designing treatment plans. They may analyze research and tools to create specific resources for their patients.


Behavioral specialists can use organizational skills to maintain records. This can include notes, treatment details and progress charts. If they work for a school or hospital, they may follow the company's recording system, but many professionals need to organize their own notes. Creating an organized note system could help them track progress.


Many behavioral specialists work with children to support their learning. Experience teaching or instructing students can help behavioral specialists perform their daily duties. By understanding how students learn, they may create more effective treatment plans. Also, instructional skills could help behavioral specialists explain new behavior strategies to students.

Average behavioral specialist salary

The national average salary for behavioral specialists is $115,965 per year. Common benefits in this career include tuition reimbursement, insurance plans, professional development assistance and retirement savings. Salary can depend upon your location, education and experience.

Job outlook for behavioral specialists

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the mental healthcare industry to grow. They project employment for mental health counselors, including behavior specialists, to grow by 25% from 2019 to 2029. This is higher than the average rate of growth for all occupations.


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