Ethics for Behavior Analysts

Written by Jack Levinson

As trained mental health professionals, behavior analysts are frequently called upon to help people through volatile and vulnerable circumstances. These sensitive situations require great qualities of discernment and care, as behavior analysts can be asked to take on a great deal of responsibility at critical moments in their patients’ lives. To help behavior analysts approach complex situations with good judgment – as well as to protect patients seeking care – board certified behavior analysts are required to study the BACB Code of Ethics, which lays out the ground rules by which they can do their jobs most carefully and effectively.

man at therapy

Though studying and memorizing a code of conduct may seem daunting in addition to the additional schooling required to become a behavior analyst, many ABA therapists appreciate the structure and clarity that the BACB Code of Ethics provides to help them carry out their jobs responsibly.

About ABA Therapy

Behavior analysts are trained professionals who help individuals struggling with learning and emotional issues, with a particular focus on people living on the autism spectrum.

Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy, known as ABA Therapy and sometimes called Behavioral Intervention Therapy, is the oldest and best-studied therapeutic modality for people with autism.

ABA therapy has been shown to be of tremendous help to patients who are struggling, giving them the tools to meet standard social expectations with confidence and even enthusiasm. It can also provide a great deal of help to those who struggle with learning issues, helping to learn their coursework and build stronger learning skills over time. Indeed, beyond helping patients in the short term, ABA therapy is designed to help them in the long term. If you are thinking of pursuing a career in behavioral analysis, you are certain to make a positive change in the lives of many.

Background: Applied Behavioral Analysis

Developed in the late 1960s to help patients build skills ranging from improved learning faculties to more confident socializing, ABA therapy has subsequently evolved into a large variety of techniques over the years, the most famous of which include Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and Pivotal Response Training (PRT), among many others. These have evolved in step with changing approaches to mental health practices, which over the years have become less rigid in discipline. Across these techniques, the focus of ABA Therapy is to help determine the environmental factors that might provoke, distract, or agitate a patient so that they can learn coping mechanisms that help moderate their behavior moving forward.

Today, ABA Therapy is the only treatment modality for autism that has been deemed evidence-based. While there are now many other non-ABA options for those on the autism spectrum, it remains the most popular form of treatment.

In addition to patients on the autism spectrum, ABA therapy is also used to help patients struggling with PTSD, substance abuse issues, anxiety and related compulsions, as well as several other conditions.

smiling therapist working with child

What Does an ABA Therapist Do?

So what is the role of an ABA therapist? A behavioral therapist provides educational exercises that are individually designed for each patient. These individualized lessons are known as a behavior intervention plan, which is devised by an ABA practitioner. Current approaches to behavior analysis frequently draw in multiple ABA techniques with the understanding that a variety of approaches may help target different needs.

The focus of each lesson, meanwhile, can range from foundational academic subjects (such as colors and the alphabet for children) or broader social skills (such as initiating a conversation or answering questions fully). Behavior analysts then study the behavior of their patients in relation to their environment to help further tailor their sessions to meet their patient’s needs.

Though there is a wide range of behavior analysis techniques that are in use today and numerous environments where ABA therapists can work, there are some responsibilities that remain consistent no matter where the job is:

  • Assessing patients to determine the best possible intervention plan
  • Designing an intervention plan and implementing it through regular sessions
  • Collecting data to monitor a client’s progress over time and make the information digestible to them
  • Reviewing data and making adjustments to intervention plans as needed
  • Working alongside parents and family members of the client to ensure that they are receiving supervision and encouragement outside of sessions

For over half a century, ABA interventions have been helping a growing number of patients build up the emotional resources needed to live up to their full potentials. As different forms of ABA have come into the fore, specific specializations have been further developed to accommodate the unique needs of individual patients. The right behavior intervention plan can be a powerful tool in addressing each patient’s individual needs.

The BACB Ethics Code

Because ABA practitioners spend significant time with patients, often seeing them through highly vulnerable moments, it is crucial that there be a code of ethics for behavior analysts. This is why the BACB Ethics Code, administered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, is in effect. In many states it is required to receive one’s BCBA certification in order to practice as a behavior analyst. Once one is working in the field, these ethics standards are mandatory for behavior analysts to study and follow, at risk of losing their licensing.

The guidelines laid out by the BACB Ethics Code protect patients and practitioners alike as they navigate the sometimes murky waters of behavior intervention sessions.

During stressful or challenging experiences with patients, it is extremely useful for behavior analysts to have recourse to a prescribed code of conduct that sets guidelines for how to handle the situation ethically and compassionately. This is part of why it’s so important that there be a code of ethics for behavior analysts.

Having a code of ethics for behavior analysts also helps protect the field of ABA as an evolving, research-based practice whose practitioners regularly contribute to its academic growth. The code of ethics ensures that all behavior analysts are following a uniform approach to their practice, creating a more controlled environment for observation and study.

therapist with open notebook in session

Key Values of the BACB Ethics Code

The BACB Ethics Code is framed around four core principles that deeply consider the role of ABA practitioners in order to lay out responsible ethics for behavior analysts. They call for ABA professionals to:

  • Benefit others. This means keeping the needs of patients foregrounded, protecting client welfare, and managing any conflicts of interest that might come up with care and sensitivity. It also includes personal upkeep and self-preservation, as it is crucial for behavior analysts to stay healthy and stable in order to help others. Above all else, this principle is oriented around avoiding harm.
  • Treat others with compassion, dignity, and respect. While many might think this should go without saying, formally it means that behavior analysts are committed to working supportively with patients of all backgrounds, respecting privacy and confidentiality, and providing clients with extensive information about all services so that they can make informed choices for themselves or their family members.
  • Behave with integrity. Integrity here not only applies to interpersonal conduct but also to the expectations that behavior analysts contribute to ongoing scientific and professional research in the field of ABA. Integrity here means behaving in an honest and trustworthy manner, as well as holding themselves accountable not only for their own work but for the work of anyone they supervise. Finally, it also entails holding colleagues and trainees to the BACB Ethics Code.
  • Ensure your own competence. This means following best practices as well as staying up to date on advances in ABA practitioner methods. Expanding the scope of one’s cultural awareness is also a mark of competence, allowing an ABA therapist to work with clients across backgrounds.

These core principles are the basis for the more specific guidelines outlined for behavior analysts. These guidelines are subject to revisions and amendments, and the code of ethics for behavior analysts was last updated at the beginning of 2022.

Upholding the BACB Ethics Code

The code of ethics for behavior analysts is enforced by the BACB, as outlined in their Code-Enforcement Procedures. Enforcement can include disciplinary measures, ranging from, at the most extreme, certification revocation, which often forbids the party in question from reapplying for ABA certification for ten years, to mandatory disciplinary supervision, which is carried out by an approved representative of the BACB.

Though the rules of the BACB may seem rigid, it’s important to remember that by upholding this code of ethics and enforcing its disciplinary proceedings, the organization is ensuring the safest and most supportive environment possible for patients. Behavior analysts can feel good about staying true to their code of ethics as it has been rigorously designed to support the needs of the individuals who need it most.

Other Important BACB Concepts

In addition to the four core principles of the BACB, there are many other important concepts that serve as guidelines for behavior analysis practitioners. Here are a few of the most well known of these concepts:

Clients’ Rights

Any client undergoing behavioral management therapy has a right to the most effective treatment possible. In a famous 1988 study for the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, researchers argued that those in behavioral analysis are entitled the following:

  • A standard therapeutic environment that offers a safe space for treatment
  • Comprehensive services whose overriding objective is the client’s personal welfare
  • Treatment by a competent behavior analyst with up to date certification and full knowledge of all ABA procedures
  • Programs that meet BACB standards of efficacy to teach functional social and learning skills
  • Thorough behavioral assessment, ongoing evaluation, and regular updates on progress and next steps
  • The most effective and up to date treatment procedures available

Though this may seem like a given, it’s important to remember that behavioral analysis is a large field, offering clients who are very much in need what might be an intimidating number of support options. It is crucial that clients, especially those who are completely new to behavioral analysis, feel confident that their rights will be protected and that their ABA therapist is committed to their best interests through and through.

Informed Consent and Digital Content

Informed consent is a crucial topic in all therapy modalities, requiring that Applied Behavioral Analysis practitioners educate their patients as well as their families or supervisors of what their work will involve.

Informed consent is a concept that comes up in day to day practices, especially when an ABA counselor is just beginning to work with a client. This can include explaining the purposes behind certain support services or research methods, the benefits and potential adverse effects of treatment, giving timelines of expected time commitment the ABA therapy sessions will require, limits to confidentiality, names of supportive contacts and other resources clients might need, and more.

There is also a dimension of informed consent that applies specifically to digital content. This refers to all forms of media that are able to be circulated on the Internet, including text documents, photos, video, audio files, applications, and more. In the same way that ABA therapists must walk their patients and patients’ families through the different things they might expect, they must also make clear that similar ground rules apply to interactions and exchanges that occur virtually.

When someone is unable to provide consent, they will have a legally authorized representative who will serve to sign off on receiving services or participate in any field research. This person is usually a family member or guardian.

Multiple Relationship

It’s easy to understand why ABA counselors might become close with their clients and their families, as they play such a pivotal and up-close role in their day to day lives. However, it’s very important to maintain professional boundaries with clients. When an ABA therapist maintains a social relationship with a client or their family at the same time that they are working together, this is called a multiple relationship, and it is considered unethical by the BACB.

There are some actions that are forbidden by the BACB because they tend to create the complications that can lead to multiple relationships. One example is gift giving. Though giving gifts can be a lovely gesture, in the context of a behavioral analyst and client relationship, this is likely to blur the professional boundary, to a detrimental effect in the long run. For this reason, ABA practitioners warn clients at the onset of working together that they will neither give nor can they accept any gifts. Though there might be situations where it will be hard, it is important to refuse any gifts you might be offered from clients, though it can help to remind them that it is part of your formal code of ethics.

It should not come as a surprise that for this reason, romantic or sexual relationships between therapists and clients or their families are strictly forbidden, as they will create a significant conflict of interest that can deeply threaten the dynamic for the patient. The same is true, perhaps needless to say, of coercive or exploitative relationships, which have the potential to cause deep trauma to the client.

Personal Bias

There are many factors that can greatly inform one’s experience of the world, affecting the types of opportunities they get (or are not offered), how they are treated by others, the norms and values of their particular community, and more. These can include:

  • Gender identity differences
  • Racial and ethnic differences
  • Sexual orientation differences
  • Socioeconomic differences
  • Religious differences

In addition to cultural factors outlined above, there are also many circumstantial factors that can have a tremendous influence on one’s point of view. As an ABA therapist, it’s important to reflect on how such factors could determine your own approach to the world. This can help you identify your own perspective, and refine your ability to understand others.

Indeed, ABA therapists are likely to work with patients from a wide variety of walks of life, meaning it’s imperative for mental health professionals to reflect on the factors that inform your own perspective, making yourself aware that the outlook you bring to the table might have built in biases or judgments that have no place in a therapeutic setting.

Scope of Competence

As mentioned above, ABA therapists must work within their scope of competence, meaning that they can only provide services that are encompassed by their formal training and education. This is to ensure that ABA therapists do not bring in techniques or methodologies that they are not formally authorized to practice, as each approach has its own unique set of guidelines and best practices that one may not be equipped to take on if it is outside of their wheelhouse.

ABA therapists are always able to continue their education and gain additional certifications in order to expand their service offerings. This is also an exciting way for ABA practitioners to continue to learn about the evolving discipline of behavioral analysis.

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Becoming a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst

There are many career paths for those holding ABA degrees. Beyond sessions with private clients, there are ABA therapists in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, as well as several other public and private contexts.

ABA practitioners can be instrumentally supportive to people of all backgrounds, helping them deal with conditions that include autism spectrum disorder but also extend to other circumstances such as recovery after brain injury and overcoming addiction.

Behavior analysts can make powerful differences in the lives of those with emotional and behavioral needs.

If you feel called to become an ABA practitioner, your journey starts by receiving a graduate degree in education, psychology, or a focused program on behavior analysis. For those considering next steps in their career as a behavior analyst, take a look at our list of the best online ABA programs. For those who hold an advanced degree and seek to specialize in ABA, take a look at our guide to meeting BCBA certification requirements.