How to Become a Behavior Support Specialist

Becoming a behavior support specialist puts you at the coal face of implementing behavior strategies in schools and other settings. While other behavior specialists prioritize observation and experimentation, your role as a behavior support specialist will give you the hands-on mission of assisting teachers and students directly using evidence-based behavioral supports to keep students on-task and focused on learning.

It’s a vital and rewarding role that will give you a chance to positively impact the lives of hundreds of kids of every different ability level and dozens of distinctive disabilities.

What is a Behavior Support Specialists

Behavior support specialists working in schools are fundamental to achieving the federally-mandated goal of having developmentally delayed or disadvantaged students learn in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). By providing behavioral support directly during lessons and other activities, you will assist those students in maintaining the focus and attention needed to absorb the same knowledge and skills as their fellow students.

Using behavioral techniques such as establishing routines, delivering silent signals, and using other reinforcements, you’ll help individual students mold their behavior and focus their attention on their studies.

Part of this includes working directly with teachers to modify lesson plans where possible or necessary to accommodate students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)—a written document outlining the agreed-upon supports and services necessary for a complete and appropriate education.

Behavior support specialists get a lot of face-time with their clients. You may work with only a handful of individuals on a regular basis, but typically just one at a time, scheduling several one-on-one sessions on any given day.

Specialists also have a lot of interaction with other medical and psychological professionals as well as with teachers and school administrative staff. As part of a multidisciplinary IEP team, you may be asked to assist in conducting Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs) and you will certainly be asked to record your observations and the outcome of your sessions with students.

That collaboration will likely extend to offering input into developing IEPs for students you are working with in concert with their teachers, special education teachers, behavioral intervention specialists, doctors, and others involved in the care and education process.

In many districts, frequent travel between schools is a fact of life for behavior support specialists, although somewhat less so than for other behavioral roles.

Providing Role Modeling Is an Important Aspect of Behavioral Support

Behavioral support is often as much about mentoring as it is about assistance. Forming a bond and connection with the kids you are working with can be as important to their long-term development and success as simply going through the motions of behavioral therapeutics.

You’ll have to be able to make that connection while also maintaining a highly professional detachment, however. A new school year will mean new clients, and a successful behavior support specialist will learn to adapt and adjust to the new demands and fresh faces that need your assistance.

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Behavior Support Specialist Education

Behavior support specialist roles exist across a range of ability and education levels, but most require at least a bachelor’s degree in a field that is related to social work or behavioral analysis. Those can include:

  • Human services
  • Social work
  • Psychology
  • Education
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Bachelor’s degrees in those fields will give you both a broad-spectrum liberal arts education with strong communication, analytic, and reasoning skills, along with niche-specific education in behavioral therapies, observation, ethics, and law as it applies to the field. It also meets the requirements for the BCaBA (Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst), the most respected bachelor’s-level credential in the field.

A master’s degree in those areas may rarely be required for some behavior support specialist positions, but it is the minimum requirement for BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) certification, which is one of the strongest credentials available in the field. A master’s degree will add more in-depth training in subject-specific areas, along with additional communication skills, research and observation instruction, and typically hands-on, supervised practice with real clients.

If you’re planning to earn a bachelor’s and achieve BCaBA certification or a master’s for the BCBA certification, your degree can be in ABA specifically, or in education or psychology with an ABA concentration. Whatever the degree is in, it’s key to choose a school that implements the Verified Course Sequence designed by the BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board) in order to meet the requirements for the certification exam.

For entry-level positions that don’t require a bachelor’s or higher degree and that will involve working under close and ongoing supervision, the entry-level certification may suffice: Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) certification from the BACB. This certification requires that you be at least 18 years old, hold a high school diploma or equivalent, and undergo 40 hours of specialized training. Although BACB does not provide the training itself, some colleges offer dedicated BACB-aligned RBT certificate courses, and individual employers or agencies can provide the training directly.

If you’re not necessarily interested in ABA-specific certification, but considering a degree in psychology, you should look for a school with specialty accreditation from the American Psychological Association (APA—although it only accredits doctoral programs, a school that has been accredited for its PhD is also a good bet for master and bachelor programs, since many of the same instructors and content will be in play).

Earning a License or Becoming Certified as a Behavior Support Specialist

You may also need to become registered or licensed with your particular state of service depending on where you are working. The actual credential and requirement vary from state to state, and may be explicitly education related or more general in nature; in Illinois, for example, you may need to obtain a paraprofessional license from the Illinois State Board of Education, but in Washington state, you may need to have a Washington State Counselor Registration from the state Department of Health.

Each of these licenses may have their own educational or experience requirements… you’ll need to consult the rules in your area and for the specific position you are interested in to determine eligibility requirements.

Some employers who bill Medicaid for behavior support specialist services will also require that you be at least 21 years of age and hold a high school diploma. And because of the degree of involvement you will have with patients, many employers require that you pass a background check and sometimes undergo tuberculosis screening prior to beginning work.

Earning a Solid Salary as a Behavior Support Specialist

Behavior support specialists command a wide range of salaries depending on their specific qualifications, employer, and job tasks. Salary can also vary considerably simply based on geographic location; a behavior support specialist working in the heart of New York City is likely to make more than one working in rural Texas, for instance.

While some behavior support specialists are employed directly by school districts, with the traditional advantages of public sector jobs in terms of benefits and stability, an increasing trend is for districts to contract out their behavior support specialist needs to private agencies. These agencies may offer higher salaries, but offer fewer benefits and less stability. On the other hand, they frequently also offer opportunities outside of school environments, which can give you a kind of flexibility that you might enjoy in your assignments.

Many Behavior Support Specialists also fall into the Bureau of Labor Statistics category of Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors. According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Behavior Support Specialists earned a median salary of $48,520 annually.

  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile: $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Behavior Support Specialists earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • Utah: $66,190
  • Alaska: $65,090
  • District of Columbia: $64,920
  • Rhode Island: $64,640
  • New Jersey: $63,430

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Behavior Support Specialists, according to mean salary, were:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $74,560
  • Carson City, NV: $73,200
  • Reno, NV: $71,690
  • George, UT: $70,630
  • Salt Lake City, UT: $68,370

Thousands of similar positions are available across the country, just waiting for someone with the right qualifications and the right heart to step up to the plate.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.