A Practical Guide to Navigating Applied Behavior Analysis Internships

You didn’t start down the path to becoming a behavioral therapist without thoughts in your head of sitting down with autistic kids, adults recovering from strokes, or individuals plagued by addiction issues and helping them find workable solutions to their problems. ABA is an intensively hands-on profession. And that means that hands-on training is a core part of becoming an ABA.

Practicums and fieldwork are an integral part of the training of applied behavior analysts. You won’t find internships, specifically, mentioned anywhere in the BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) fieldwork requirements manual, however. The BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board), doesn’t particularly care if you get your required supervised field experience through an internship or by some other route, but internships specifically don’t represent the path most often traveled.

But you definitely do need plenty of real-world experience prior to landing a career in ABA, and internships are a great, low-risk, high-reward way to get some hours under your belt.

What is an Applied Behavior Analysis Internship?

An internship is a field training experience that puts you in the role of a working applied behavior analyst in a real-world environment, treating actual patients and dealing with all the challenges of a practical work setting. Everything from the diverse array of patient cases you’ll encounter to mundane things like learning to love stale coffee and how to deal with office politics will help you get a real sense of what work is like for a licensed ABA.

Internships are a kind of job, but they are only offered for a set period of time, typically less than a year, but almost always at least several months. To meet BCBA certification and state licensing requirements, you must be supervised by a qualified superior during your internship hours.

Learn More About State-by-State Licensure Requirements

You will also need to qualify to be able to participate in treatment, even though you will be supervised every step of the way. That includes signing a formal supervision contract, documenting your experience, undergoing a set number of hours of meetings and supervised practice, and committing to the BACB ethics standards.

ABA Internships May Be More Structured Than Other Fields

Because ABA internships go hand-in-hand with BCBA certification requirements, they are often a bit more formal than internships in other fields.

The BACB recognizes two different ways to meet supervised fieldwork requirements, and an internship will make up just a portion of the total:

  • Supervised Fieldwork – A minimum of 2000 hours, with 4 supervisory contacts per month, and at least 5 percent of your total hours happening under direct supervision.
  • Concentrated Supervised Fieldwork – A minimum of 1500 hours, with 6 supervisory contacts per month, and at least 10 percent of your total hours happening under direct supervision.

In both cases, group supervision is allowed, but at least 50 percent of your total supervised time has to be one-on-one with your supervisor.

Your activities and duties during an internship are broad. You may:

  • Conduct assessments of clients who are candidates for behavioral intervention
  • Design, implement, and monitor behavior-reduction and skill-training programs
  • Write behavior and treatment plans
  • Communicate and collaborate with other caregivers
  • Oversee behavioral systems and performance management

None of these has to be completed in a single internship or field experience, however. You can mix and match positions to meet the cumulative requirements for certification.

How long is a typical ABA internship?

Most internships in ABA last for less than a year. They are almost always at least several months long, however, to give you the benefit of getting familiar with your role and actually absorbing some valuable lessons while you are on the job. An internship will contribute to the 2,000 total supervised fieldwork hours (or 1,500 intensive hours) required for BCBA certification.

Do ABA interns get paid?

Some ABA interns do get paid for the work they perform during their internship. There is no hard and fast rule, however. Some placements might offer a salary while others are offered entirely in exchange for the learning and experience you will get along the way.

What is the difference between an internship and practicum?

A practicum is a field experience that is considered to be part of your for-credit coursework. You almost always take part in practicum experiences for no pay, since they are part of your schooling. The time commitment is usually fairly low also, only a few hours each week.

Internships are more commonly structured like full-time positions, and may be salaried. But there is no clear line between practicum and internship. Depending on the college you attend, you might find that internship experiences are considered to be a kind of practicum.

What’s the difference between an internship and an externship?

An internship is a relatively long-term, embedded placement in an ABA therapy role that allows you to perform real work in behavior analysis. Internships offer supervised training in the actual daily tasks of behavior analysis by putting you in a job for a few weeks or months and letting you work directly with patients to put your classroom training into practice.

Externships are more about experiencing the possibilities of a particular job or setting. They are observational, which means you won’t be doing any work yourself, but just tagging along as another therapist performs their role. They are usually much shorter in length than internships, ranging from days to weeks. Externships are not as common in ABA settings as in other professions.

How to Find Applied Behavior Analysis Internship Opportunities

Before you can get all those benefits out of an applied behavior analysis internship, of course, you have to find one.

Your first stop on the trail of the perfect behavior analysis internship should be your master’s program advising staff.

It’s their job to make sure you get hooked up with the right kinds of field experience to qualify you for graduation and to develop real-world expertise in your areas of interest. They have been handling those kinds of placements for years, and they probably have solid working relationships with just about every ABA service provider in your area. Chances are, some of them are even graduates of the same program.

Your professors are your most natural support system when you are looking for ABA internships.

You’re even likely to get recommendations from them if you have a lead on a particular opportunity.

Looking For Applied Behavior Analysis Internships On Your Own

Other internships might be something you decide to hunt down for yourself. Whether you are looking for post-graduate supervised experience or just want to find a different setting than those offered through your university, it’s always possible to get proactive and land internships yourself.

Many of these are posted by employers, either on their own websites or on job boards. A quick search should turn up options in your area.

If you come up dry, though, you still have options. You can essentially create your own internship opportunities through volunteerism. There aren’t many employers who couldn’t use an extra set of hands. If you can make it work for little or no pay, which isn’t uncommon for internships anyway, you have a solid pitch to make to possible internship sites.

Because part of every ABA’s training includes supervised field experience, you’ll find that there is a culture of accommodation that makes it easy to ask about internship options even if nothing is posted. Every organization in the business understands that future BCBAs depend on supervised experience for licensing and certification. They went through the same process!

How To Make The Most of Your Behavior Analysis Internship

Two thousand hours of field work may sound like a lot, but you will find that it seems to flash by. There is so much to learn, so much to experience, and so many systems to get familiar with that you’ll be wishing your internship was twice as long.

It’s important to hit the ground running when you show up for your ABA internship. You can do that by being prepared before that first morning you walk in the door.

  • Study the organization you will be interning with. Learn as much as you can about their processes, their patients, and their systems. If a manual is available, devour it before you show up.
  • Get off on the right foot with your co-workers. These are the people you will be learning from, not just your supervisor. They want to share their experience and expertise with you, so learn their names, be respectful, and don’t be shy about buttering them up with a Starbucks run in the morning.
  • Show up with the right attitude. You will be coming straight out of master’s-level coursework in ABA and you will probably suffer from the common malady of the recently educated: you might think you know it all already. Shelve that impulse. Be humble, be open, be an eager student.
  • Write down your goals. It’s true that you are checking some boxes with your training in order to qualify for your BCBA, but it’s perfectly fine to have your own goals outside of the requirements. Do you want to learn about a particular type of autism therapy? Are you interested in new assessment techniques? Figure out what you want out of your experience and don’t be shy about asking your supervisor and co-workers to help you meet those goals.
  • Be flexible. No matter what your expectations are, a day in ABA therapy is definitely going to shake them up. You are dealing with clients with various levels of behavioral issues, so don’t be surprised if not everything goes according to plan. Each day offers learning opportunities, even if they aren’t the ones you were expecting.

An internship can be a whirlwind of absorbing new ideas, wrapping theoretical understandings around typical practices, and just trying to stay on your feet in a very new environment. But there is also one other key to internship success that you must never lose sight of.

Don’t forget to put patients first during your internship experience!

Although the internship is definitely about training you up as an ABA, never forget that every patient you see has their own needs and hopes that they are bringing in the door each day. Your training and experience goals always need to come in second place compared to getting each patient the best possible care you can offer.

What you will find over the course of your internship is that developing a selfless, patient-first attitude might be the biggest lesson of all in becoming a successful behavioral therapist.