Applied behavior analysis (ABA) 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 showing it to be an effective intervention for disorders related to everything from traumatic brain injury to compulsive and addictive behavior. As a result, behavior analysts enjoy plenty of professional opportunities in diverse settings well outside the typical range of psychological practice.
Regardless of where you practice or the types of clients you treat, it’s almost universally expected that you meet a few specific qualifications to be hired on at a clinic or school district, or even to practice ABA independently:
- Earning a qualifying master’s or higher degree in behavior analysis, psychology, or education.
- Gaining real-world experience through a supervised practicum or fieldwork
- Passing the national certification exam to qualify for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) credential
- Obtaining a state license if your state has a licensing requirement in place for ABAs
It’s a relatively new field, and while not all states have yet to enact licensing laws that specify professional requirements for ABAs, most have gone at least 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. This has effectively made a master’s degree the minimum requirement for both independent practice and employment 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 (BACB) is a nonprofit organization that has helped establish practice standards and regulations in the field of behavior analysis. The BACB offers the nationally recognized credentials often used as the basis for the state licensing of behavior analysts, assistant behavior analysts, and direct contact technicians.
Though the BACB hasn’t revised its Model Act for Licensing/Regulating Behavior Analysts since 2012, in August of 2018, the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA) adopted its own Model Behavior Analyst Licensure Act, which largely mirrors BACB recommendations, but clarifies some language on the licensing qualifications individual states may choose to adopt when establishing their own regulations and licensing laws.
The APBA is an independent professional association and advocacy group working on behalf of ABA practitioners to uphold the highest professional standards and further the profession through a clear and universally recognized regulatory structure, so naturally they work hand in glove with the BACB. In fact, just like the BACB Model Act, the APBA’s 2018 Model Act makes BACB certification the basis for state licensure. This is no different than other professions like nursing, psychology or speech-language pathology in which all state licensing boards align themselves with one nationally recognized examination and certification process.
It’s all part of the push to see ABA recognized and regulated just like other licensed professions in healthcare and psychology.
These kinds of uniform qualifications reflect:
- Legal standards established through state and national case law
- Accepted standards for certification
- Best practice and ethical standards in the behavior analysis profession
As of 2020, 31 states have developed state licensing laws for applied behavior analysts that follow the BACB 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 that requires a 40-hour training program 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. It’s also a requirement many employers set when seeking qualified practitioners, regardless of whether or not state law requires it.
Regulation and Licensure of Applied Behavior Analysts Remains Varied
Although the BCBA® credential has become the universally accepted standard for behavior analysts in the U.S., state requirements can differ considerably.
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 otherwise still in the process of creating, introducing, or passing legislation.
- Thirty-one states have established licensing laws for applied behavior analysts that are aligned, at least in some part, with the BACB’s Model Act and require BCBA® certification.
- Some states, like Vermont, Alaska, and Utah, accept BCBA® certification as one pathway to licensure, but don’t mandate it as an absolute requirement.
- Certain states, including Georgia and Idaho, have no state licensing laws for applied behavior analysts and do not explicitly require BCBA® certification for insurance reimbursement.
- A small number of states, including Colorado, require practitioners to hold a psychologist license to practice ABA.
As you approach the final licensing phase, you will work closely with your state board (usually a Board of Applied Behavior Analysts or Board of Psychological Examiners).
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, as applicable. But licensing laws aside, earning the BCBA® credential tells the world that you have developed the knowledge and skills through education and supervised fieldwork that it takes to practice as a full-authority applied behavior analyst, and that you’ve passed the exam necessary to prove it.
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 emphasis. Lesser credentials for assistants and technicians are also available with less education.
There are three options for completing a graduate program that aligns with the BACB Model Act and that meet 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 in 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 program titles 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 Special Education (Applied Behavior Analysis)
- Master of Arts (MA) in Applied Behavior Analysis
The ABAI also accredits doctoral programs in ABA and EdS programs with an ABA emphasis.
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 they may be offered as a post-master’s certificate program independent of a graduate program, provided it is offered by a department in which a qualifying graduate program is housed and identical to the courses 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 and students who don’t reside near an institution with a recognized program to complete the required coursework remotely.
A VCS includes at least 270 classroom hours of graduate-level instruction. The number of hours is slated to increase to 315 by 2022 as described in the 5th Edition Task List). Until then the classroom hours that comprise the VCS break down as follows:
- 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 it and determine it is up to standard before you’d be able to take the BCBA® certification exam.
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 ABA practitioner, 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.
If you go this route, you are responsible for locating an appropriate experience on your own 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