There’s perhaps nothing more puzzling than human behavior. For people living with autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, addiction, or any number of other behavior-altering circumstances, finding the right person to help is top priority. In many cases, they turn to BCBAs®: Board Certified Behavior Analysts®.
BCBAs® go through years of academic study, internships, and thorough testing to earn their credentials and become experts in applied behavior analysis. In fact, many states require behavior analysts to hold a state-issued license and BCBA® certification to practice.
Whether you’re in the earliest stages of your applied behavior analysis education or looking to advance your career, here’s what you should know about becoming a BCBA® and how to do it in four steps.
What Is BCBA® Certification?
In 1998, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) was created to bring consistency to a relatively new field of study and work: applied behavior analysis. To do this, the Board created the BCBA® credential so the public could find qualified behavior analytics professionals and enjoy a certain amount of confidence in their knowledge and abilities.
The BCBA® credential itself is a graduate-level certificate. This means that professionals who have earned the title have not only met the board’s stringent standards, but also completed at minimum a Master’s level degree program in the appropriate field from an accredited institution.
As of October 2022, the Board has certified:
- Almost 60,000 BCBAs®
- Almost 6,000 BCaBAs® (Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts)
- Over 120,000 RBTs® (Registered Behavior Technicians)
These certification programs are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), an independent agency that has been regulating credentialing organizations since 1989. In many industries, NCCA-accredited programs have become the professional standard. So even in states where BCBA® certification isn’t a government-mandated requirement, employers often require or at least favor certified behavior analysts.
How Do You Qualify to Take the BCBA® Exam?
Ultimately, BCBAs® must pass a national exam administered by the BACB. However, to qualify for the exam, a person must meet certain requirements.
As of December 2022, the BACB handbook lists four paths to qualifying for the exam.
Path 1: Earn a Master’s Degree From an ABAI-Accredited or ABAI-Recognized Program
Students who are on this path must have earned a Master’s or Doctoral degree from an Association for Behavior Analysis International-accredited (ABAI) or a reco gnized program in 2015 or later. The program must have been accredited at the time the degree was earned.
Along with earning a degree, students must also have completed 2,000 hours of supervised fieldwork or 1,500 hours of concentrated supervised fieldwork.
Path 2: Behavior-analytic Coursework
Students on this path must have an acceptable graduate degree from a qualifying institution and complete coursework in specific areas like ethics, behavior assessment, and experimental design. Like the first path, this path requires 2,000 of supervised behavior analysis fieldwork or 1,500 hours of concentrated supervised fieldwork.
Path 3: Faculty Teaching and Research
College faculty who have an acceptable degree from a qualifying institution are eligible for the BCBA® exam if they have been a full-time college faculty member for at least three years over a five year period. The position must have included teaching ABA content, researching ABA principles, and publishing an ABA-focused paper in a peer-reviewed journal.
This path also requires 2,000 of supervised behavior analysis fieldwork or 1,500 hours of concentrated supervised fieldwork.
Path 4: Postdoctoral Experience
On this path, students with a doctoral degree from a qualifying institution are eligible for the BCBA® exam if their postdoctoral experience has included 10 years of cumulative full-time behavior analysis practice. This work must have been completed with a state or national license or professional credential. Teaching does not count towards this experience.
Unlike all other paths, this path only requires 500 hours of supervised fieldwork.
|Earn an Acceptable Graduate Degree
|Complete Experience Requirements
|Pass the BCBA® Examination
|Maintain BCBA® Certification
Step 1. Earn an Acceptable Graduate Degree
No matter which path a potential BCBA® chooses, the first step often includes earning a Master’s degree or higher in an acceptable field of study from a qualifying institution.
Qualifying Fields of Study
The BACB recognizes three acceptable fields of study for graduate-level degree programs:
- Behavior Analysis
It’s important to keep in mind that students must earn at least a C or passing grade in their graduate-level courses to qualify for the BCBA® exam.
Qualifying Graduate Degrees
Choosing the right degree program is just as important as the degree itself. However, this criteria can be a little confusing given the different paths one can take to become a BCBA®.
To become a BCBA® through a Master’s program (like in Path 1), the BACB handbook says students must get their degrees from ABAI-accredited or ABAI-recognized schools. Fairly cut and dry.
However, the standards are a bit different for becoming a BCBA® through behavior-analytic coursework (Path 2). The handbook says that qualifying coursework must be, “graduate level (i.e., master’s or doctoral) and from the qualifying institution at which you were enrolled.”
According to the handbook glossary, qualifying institutions in the US include any program listed in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s directory. But for any coursework to count towards becoming a BCBA®, the courses must be part of a Verified Course Sequence (VCS) as determined by the ABAI.
This basically means that even if an entire program isn’t ABAI-accredited, it may still have a series of classes students can take to count towards BCBA® exam requirements. In many cases, a BCBA-certified VCS Coordinator works with students and schools to ensure they’re taking the right classes and the right number of credit hours.
You may be able to satisfy the BACB’s educational requirements if the program you complete is not ABAI-accredited and does not include a VCS, provided you meet BACB course content allocation requirements and receive approval from the BACB. If you are unsure whether your program meets BACB requirements, you can request a Preliminary Review by completing an application for coursework evaluation.
The review process requires submitting the coursework at least 90 days before you submit your exam application. The cost of this evaluation is $100. All coursework used to qualify for BCBA® certification must be taken for academic credit.
If you don’t seek a preliminary review, your program will be reviewed by the BACB at the time of application.
Step 2. Complete Experience Requirements
Except for the postdoctoral experience path, earning BCBA® certification requires completing up to 2,000 hours of fieldwork in applied behavior analysis. However, there are some other requirements to consider before beginning
First, students may not start fieldwork until they:
- Start their graduate ABA coursework (or have accrued 10 years of postdoctoral experience for applicants on that path).
- Have a qualified supervisor.
- Have signed a contract with all supervisors involved.
The supervisor can be either:
- An active BCBA® in good standing who has held their certification for one year or more.
- A psychologist certified in Behavior and Cognitive Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.
- A certified VCS instructor.
- An active BCBA® who has been certified for less than a year if said supervisor meets with their own qualified supervisor at least once a month.
With all of that in place, BCBA® hopefuls can begin their hands-on education in behavior analysis. Every month (the length of a single supervision period), students must complete no more than 130 and no less than 20 hours of fieldwork. This will be a blend of supervised hours and independent hours. All required fieldwork must be completed within a five-year time frame from beginning to end.
Acceptable Activities and How They’re Broken Down
The BACB handbook lists quite a range of acceptable fieldwork activities to help students have a dynamic and explorative experience. Some of these activities include:
- Conducting assessments related to behavioral interventions (functional assessments, staff performance assessments, stimulus preference assessments, etc.).
- 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.
These activities are generally broken down into restricted activities and unrestricted activities.
Restricted activities are classified by the BACB handbook as, “the delivery of therapeutic or instructional procedures to a client.” In most cases, these client-focused activities can only account for up to 40% of a student’s fieldwork hour total.
Unrestricted activities are often more organizational, analytical, and training-oriented — activities an experienced BCBA is most likely to be carrying out on a day-to-day basis. These should make up at least 60% of most students’ fieldwork hour total.
Concentrated Supervision Hours: A Quicker Path Through Fieldwork
If students wish to shave some time off of their 2,000-hour fieldwork requirement, they can opt to do concentrated supervised fieldwork. With this option, students will have to have more meetings with their supervisor and conduct more fieldwork activities under direct supervision, but they can fulfill their fieldwork requirements in as little as 1,500 hours.
Fortunately, students don’t have to choose one option or the other. In many cases, they can complete some supervision periods at the standard pace and some at the concentrated pace. This will, of course, alter the total fieldwork hour requirement, but that may be helpful for BCBA® hopefuls who need a little more flexibility in their schedules.
Step 3. Pass the BCBA® Examination
With all requirements fulfilled, students are ready to apply for the BCBA® Examination. Applications can be submitted through the BACB website. It can take up to 45 days for the Board to approve an application. Costs for the first attempt at the exam include a $245 certification application fee and $125 appointment fee.
In general, the exam is based on the most recent edition of the BCBA® Task List, a document published by the BACB outlining the knowledge and skills a BCBA® should have. As of December 2022, the BCBA® Task List is in its fifth edition putting the exam at 175 graded multiple-choice questions with an additional 10 unscored questions. Students have four hours to finish it.
To prepare for the exam, the BACB recommends studying three things:
- The Ethics Code for Behavior Analysts
- Any documents from one’s education and fieldwork experiences
- The BCBA® Task List
Those three things cover quite a range of ABA-related topics, but fortunately, the BACB handbook gives an extremely specific breakdown of topics covered on the exam. There are two sections of the exam, each with its own subsections.
Section 1: Foundations
This section comprises 71 questions and makes up about 40% of the total grade. According to the 2022 edition of the BACB handbook, it includes questions about:
- Concepts and Principles (32 questions)
- Measurement, Data Display, and Interpretation (21 questions)
- Experimental Design (12 questions)
- Philosophical Underpinnings (6 questions)
Section 2: Applications
This section is made up of 104 questions and makes up about 60% of the total grade. This competency-based section covers:
- Behavior-change Procedures (35 questions)
- Ethics (18 questions)
- Behavior Assessment (18 questions)
- Personnel Supervision and Management (17 questions)
- Selecting and Implementing Interventions (16 questions)
Exam results are available immediately after the exam and on-site, though the BACB will confirm scores through email usually within 24 hours.
Retake the BCBA® Exam
In the event that a student doesn’t pass the exam, a retake application is available within 48 hours after the initial attempt. However, students have to wait at least 30 days after the exam to retake it.
Students may take the exam a total of 8 times within a two-year timespan. After that, they must restart the exam application process.
For every attempt, students must pay a $125 appointment fee and a $140 retake application fee.
Step 4. Maintain BCBA® Certification
In keeping with their goal to bring consistent standards to the field of applied behavior analysis, the BACB enforces some certification maintenance rules for all BCBAs®.
These rules revolve around three areas:
- Continuing Education. The BACB recognizes that most new BCBAs® have entry-level knowledge. Continuing education requirements encourage behavior analysts to continually improve and stay up-to-date on the most current ABA research.
- BACB Ethics. Adhering to BACB ethical standards means staying current with Board by-laws, following them, and self-reporting any violations.
- Biennial Recertification. Every two years, BCBAs® must submit a recertification application. This includes a $215 fee and information about continuing education credits.
Continuing Education Requirements for BCBA® Certification
Within every 2 year period following certification, BCBAs® must complete 32 continuing education units (CEUs). 4 CEUs must revolve around ethics. BCBAs® in supervision roles must also complete 3 CEUs in supervision.
Outside of that, BCBAs® are free to earn their CEUs through three types of activities:
- Certified behavior analysts can earn CEUs by teaching behavior analysis classes at qualifying institutions or at a BACB-approved ACE (Authorized Continuing Education) event.
- Having an article published in a peer-reviewed journal or writing a review for an ABA-centered article both count for CEUs.
- BCBAs® can attend ACE events or complete graduate-level didactic behavior-analytic classes. Analysts must either pass the class or get a C or higher for it to count.
Currently, the BACB doesn’t dictate how many of each type must be completed so certified behavior analysts are free to mix and match as they see fit.
Frequently Asked Questions: BCBA® Certification and Requirements
While this step-by-step guide is fairly comprehensive, BCBA® certification is a very thorough process. If you still have questions, this FAQ and your BCBA® supervisor can hopefully clarify certain aspects of your journey into ABA practitioner certification.
How long does it take to get a BCBA® certification?
It can take anywhere from 6 to 10 years to become a Board-certified Behavior Analyst. This takes all higher education and relevant work experience into account.
How much is a BCBA® certification?
The bulk of the costs required to become a BCBA® will most likely come from educational costs like tuition. However, specific costs often mandated by the BACB include the:
- $245 certification application fee
- $125 examination appointment fee
- $215 recertification application fee (paid every two years)
Students who are pursuing certification via behavior-analytic coursework in a VCS can pay $100 to have the BACB evaluate their coursework, but this is entirely optional. There are also fees associated with retaking the certification exam or canceling an exam appointment.
How many CEUs are needed for BCBA® certification?
Biennial certification requires the completion of at least 32 units of acceptable continuing education units (CEUs), 4 hours of which must be in ethics content.
What can you do with a BCBA® certification?
Though BCBAs® often have successful careers serving children with autism, many other industries also employ talented behavior analysis professionals. In many cases, BCBAs® work in supervisory, administrative, or policy-guiding roles such as:
- Human Resource director or manager
- Marketing consultant
- Criminal profiler
- Insurance care advocate
- Substance abuse program coordinator
- Clinical researcher
- Advisor and behavior analyst for schools that serve children with learning or developmental disorders
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a government body that monitors all employment-related things , doesn’t track behavior analysts specifically, but many of the industries they work in are expected to grow much faster than the 5% growth expected for most sectors of the economy.
As of December 2022, the BLS expects the substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counseling sector to grow by 22% through 2031. Social and human services, another sector BCBAs® frequently enjoy careers in, is expected to grow by 12% through the same time period.
Take Your Career Further with BCBA® Certification
Whether you live in a state that requires BCBA® certification or not, earning it can open more doors in a field that’s expanding into everything from organizational management to mental health administration. As long as there’s a world for humans to interact with, applied behavior analysis could prove to be the key to understanding it on a personal and interpersonal level.
If you’d like to find out how to start a career as a behavior analyst, start by exploring the world of hands-on applied behavior analysis Master’s programs available today. There’s never been a better time for inquisitive, empathetic students to turn their passion for helping others into a science-based, always-evolving, and always-exciting career.