Applied behavior analysis is a scientific discipline, distinct from psychology, that involves behavioral assessments, an analytic interpretation of the results, and the application of behavioral modification therapy based on this analysis.
Though best known for being the leading behavioral therapy for autism spectrum disorder, ABA is backed by decades of empirical evidence from hundreds of peer-reviewed studies as being an effective intervention for disorders related to everything from traumatic brain injury to compulsive and addictive behavior.
Because ABA has broad applications in almost any situation where a particular behavior or response needs to be taught or encouraged, behavior analysts find employment in a diverse array of fields well outside the typical range of psychological practice. Regardless of the practice domain or career path, certain requirements for entering the field of applied behavior analysis are universally recognized:
- Earn a qualifying master’s or higher degree in behavior analysis, psychology or education.
- Gain real-world experience through a supervised practicum or fieldwork.
- Pass the national certification exam to qualify for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) credential.
- Obtain a state license if your state has a licensing requirement in place for ABAs.
While not all states have enacted licensing laws that specify professional requirements for ABAs, most states have gone as far as to include language in their medical insurance laws that specify the qualifications ABAs must have to provide therapy that is eligible for reimbursement. In virtually all cases, insurance and/or licensing laws either require practitioners to hold the master’s-level BCBA® (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) certification or meet similar education standards, effectively making a master’s degree the minimum requirement to practice independently in virtually all states.
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An Introduction to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board and the Model Act for Regulating ABAs
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board is a nonprofit organization that has helped to establish practice standards and regulations in the field of behavior analysis and that offers the nationally recognized credentials often used as the basis for licensing behavior analysts, assistant behavior analysts, and direct contact technicians.
In 2012, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) revised the Model Act for Licensing/Regulating Behavior Analysts, refining its outline for recommended licensing qualifications that individual states could adopt when establishing their own regulations and licensing laws. The idea is to work towards establishing qualifications and practice standards for ABAs that are consistent throughout the nation, just as is the case with other licensed healthcare, mental health and therapy professions. These uniform qualifications are designed to reflect:
- Legal standards established through state, national, and case law
- Accepted standards for certification programs
- Best practice and ethical standards in the behavior analysis profession
Since then, many states have developed state licensing laws for applied behavior analysts that follow the Model Act’s content, standards and criteria for credentialing ABA professionals in three distinct roles:
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) – Master’s or doctorate-level credential for behavior analysts that independently or as team leaders conduct behavior assessments and design, implement and supervise treatment plans (or BCBA®-D for doctorate-prepared practitioners; the BCBA®-D is NOT considered a separate credential from the BCBA® does NOT grant greater authority, and is only available after first earning the BCBA®)
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA®) – Bachelor’s level credential for assistants that implement treatment plans under the supervision of BCBA®s and BCBA®-Ds
- Registered Behavior Technician (RBT®) – High school diploma level credential for supervised support staff
Many states that license applied behavior analysts either require BACB certification for licensure or accept it as a path to licensure. Even in states without licensing requirements, BACB certification is often required for insurance reimbursement of ABA services and by employers seeking the most qualified practitioners.
Regulation and Licensure of Applied Behavior Analysts Remains Varied
Although the BCBA® credential has become the universally accepted standard requirement for behavior analysts in the U.S., state requirements to practice remain anything but universal.
Requirements to become an applied behavior analyst will largely depend on the state in which you live. While many states have enacted clear licensing requirements, other states have only vague or nonexistent language about the practice of ABA under existing licensing laws for psychologists, counselors and therapists. Still other states have regulations that land somewhere in between or are still in the process of creating, introducing, or passing legislation.
For example, as of 2016:
- Many states, including Alabama, Maryland, Arizona, and Ohio, have established licensing laws for applied behavior analysts. Most states with licensing laws have aligned requirements for licensure, at least in some part, to the BACB’s Model Act and require BCBA® certification.
- Some states, like Vermont and Utah, accept BCBA® certification as one pathway to licensure but not as an absolute requirement.
- Some states, like Texas and Washington State, have developed, but not yet implemented, legislation for the licensure of applied behavior analysts.
- States like Indiana, Georgia, and Minnesota have no state licensing laws for applied behavior analysts and do not explicitly require BCBA® certification for insurance reimbursement.
- Some states without licensing laws, including Colorado and New Jersey, require ABA practitioners to hold the BCBA® or BCBA®-D credential to receive insurance reimbursement.
- A small number of states, including North Carolina, require practitioners to hold a psychologist license to practice ABA.
Always check with the state board (usually a Board of Applied Behavior Analysts or Board of Psychological Examiners) where you intend to practice to ensure you are adhering to specific state requirements.
Standard Requirements to Enter the Field of Applied Behavior Analysis
Though variations in state requirements may make it seem as if there is little uniformity in the applied behavior analyst profession, earning and maintaining BCBA® certification, or meeting education requirements consistent with BCBA® certification requirements, are universally recognized as the way to develop the expertise required to enter the field as a competent practitioner, even among behavior analysts practicing in states with no licensing requirements.
Ultimately, you must adhere to your individual state licensing laws, if any. However, earning the BCBA® credential ensures you have developed the knowledge and skills through education and training to practice as a full-authority applied behavior analyst.
Meet Education Requirements
The minimum educational requirement to become an applied behavior analyst under the BACB Model Act is a graduate degree in ABA or in psychology or education with an ABA focus or emphasis. Lesser credentials for assistants and technicians are also available with less education.
There are three options for completing a graduate program that is aligned with the BACB Model Act and that meets the requirements for BCBA® certification:
Earn an ABAI-BAAB Accredited Master’s or Doctoral Program
The Association for Behavior Analysis International’s (ABAI) accredits master’s and doctoral degrees in behavior analysis. Depending on the institution, coursework of ABAI-accredited programs may be offered on campus, online, or a combination of the two.
ABAI-accredited degrees are often housed in schools/departments of:
- Community Psychology
- Behavior Analysis
- Counseling and Family Therapy
- Human Sciences and Humanities
- Special Education
Examples of ABAI-accredited master’s degree programs include:
- Master of Science (MS) in Behavior Analysis
- Master of Arts (MA) in Applied Behavior Analysis
- Master of Science (MS) In Counseling with an option in Applied Behavior Analysis
- Masters in Psychology with a specialty in Applied Behavior Analysis
- Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis
- Master of Arts (MA) in Teaching as Applied Behavior Analysis
- Master of Arts (MA) in Applied Behavior Analysis
The ABAI also accredits doctoral programs and Ed.S. programs.
ABAI-accredited master’s programs consist of 405 hours of instruction, including coursework and supervised experience. Content areas include:
- Principles of Behavior: 45 contact hours
- Research Methods: 45
- Conceptual Analysis: 45
- Applied Behavior Analysis: 90
- Basic Behavior Analysis: 45
- Ethics 45
- Supervised Experiential Learning: 90
- Thesis or the equivalent: As required by the institution
Complete a Verified Course Sequence (VCS)
ABAI Verified Course Sequences (VCS) may be part of a master’s degree or post-master’s certificate program, or they may be offered as a course sequence independent of a graduate program, provided it is offered by a department in which a qualifying graduate program is housed and included in the degree program’s official plan of study. These stand-alone course sequences are designed for those that may already have a graduate degree in behavior analysis, education or psychology, but who still need to complete curriculum requirements to be eligible to take the certification exam.
All ABAI-accredited graduate programs include a VCS.
VCSs may be offered as campus-based or online programs. Online programs allow busy professionals or students not residing near an institution with a recognized program to complete the required coursework through web-based study.
A VCS includes at least 270 classroom hours of graduate-level instruction in:
- Ethical and Professional Conduct: 45 hours
- Concepts and Principles of Behavior Analysis: 45
- Research Methods in Behavior Analysis
- Measurement (including Data Analysis): 25
- Experimental Design: 20
- Applied Behavior Analysis
- Fundamental Elements of Behavior Change and Specific Behavior Change Procedures: 45
- Identification of the Problem and Assessment: 30
- Intervention and Behavior Change Considerations: 10
- Behavior Change Systems: 10
- Implementation, Management, and Supervision: 10
- Discretionary: 30
Meet Course Content Allocation Requirements
You may also meet BACB requirements if you complete a graduate program that satisfies specific course content allocation requirements. If the program you complete is not ABAI-accredited or does not include a VCS, the BACB must review and approve it if you pursue BCBA® certification.
Meet Experience Requirements
Formal training of applied behavior analysts is similar to other medical and behavioral health professionals, in that initial academic training is supplemented with experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical experiences allow students to build the competencies necessary to manage complex clinical problems across a variety of clients and in a variety of settings.
A supervised professional experience that meets BACB’s Experience Standards includes working under the direct supervision of an experienced BCBA® and learning the skills necessary to become an independent practitioner of ABA, which include:
- Conducting assessments related to behavioral interventions
- Designing, implementing, and monitoring behavior-reduction and skill-acquisition programs
- Overseeing the implementation of behavior-analytic programs
- Training and designing behavioral systems and performance management
Your professional experience will consist of either a practicum/intensive practicum offered through your graduate program or an independent field experience:
- A practicum requires the completion of 1,000 hours of experience (4 supervisor contacts and 4 observations)
- An intensive practicum requires the completion of 750 hours of experience (8 supervisor contacts and 4 observations)
Independent Field Experience
If you complete a program that does not offer a qualifying practicum, or if you choose to complete an experience independent of your program, you must meet the requirements for supervised independent fieldwork, which includes the completion of 1,500 hours of experience.
In this type of professional experience, you are responsible for locating an appropriate experience and obtaining the necessary supervision. The BACB maintains a Certificant Registry of qualified BCBA®s who may be able to supervise you as you complete your fieldwork. Many institutions offering either campus-based or online programs help students locate and secure a field experience that is located near them.
Pass the BCBA® Examination
The final step to becoming a BCBA® involves taking and passing the BCBA® examination. To do so, you must apply with the BACB and receive approval so you can schedule the exam, which is administered by Pearson VUE.
The BCBA® exam includes 150 multiple-choice questions covering the following content areas:
- Basic Behavior Analytic Skills
- Experimental Design
- Behavior Change Considerations
- Fundamental Elements of Behavior Change
- Specific Behavior Change Procedures
- Behavior Change Systems
- Client-Centered Responsibilities
- Identification of the Problem
- Implementation, Management, and Supervision