A board certified behavior analyst practices applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.

When you look for behavior treatment for a child with autism, you will likely have pediatricians and other specialists recommend this form of therapy.

ABA therapy is an evidence-based treatment approach that has strong oversight from a certification board. All ABA therapists must be certified by the board to practice as behavior analysts. 

What Is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst?

Since the 1950s, applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy has helped people with developmental conditions, especially autism, minimize maladaptive behaviors like isolating, aggression, and self-injury, and develop positive behaviors related to cognition, socializing, and communication.

It is a personalized therapeutic intervention that involves a long-term treatment plan. Each session is divided into objectively measurable steps. Therapy providers track improvements in order to adjust the plan if one approach does not work well for a particular client.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every client. Each treatment plan is tailored to the individual.

ABA therapy is implemented by certified behavior analysts. The guidelines for becoming a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) are managed by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). The board maintains professional qualifications for BCBAs, so they must meet a high standard of education, practice, and qualifications before they can work as an ABA therapist. This is a vital step to ensuring that people on the autism spectrum and those with other developmental disorders are safe and secure.

Behavior analysts implement ABA therapy on a one-on-one basis or as part of a team. Many of BCBAs oversee teams of registered behavior technicians (RBTs) and board certified assistant behavior analysts (BCaBAs), who then work with individual clients to implement the treatment plans devised by the BCBA.

Some behavior analysts work as professors, teaching the next generation of BCBAs. Others work for decades as therapists and focus on children or adults with autism. There are a few subtypes of BCBAs, so if you choose this career, you can pick which path works best for you. 

Paths to Becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst

Until 2022, there are three pathways to becoming a BCBA. After January 2022, the BACB will implement a fourth approach to becoming a behavior analyst.

Currently, the three paths to getting certified as a behavior analyst are: 

1. Behavior-analytic coursework. If you have a graduate degree related to behavior analysis in a field like education or psychology, this first path will work best for you. Once you have completed either a master’s degree or a doctorate from a qualifying institution, you enroll in ABA coursework. This must be:

  • Completed at a qualifying institution, including the one from which you received your graduate degree.
  • Taken for academic credit.
  • Completed with a passing grade.
  • Focused on the BACB’s Task List.
  • Involving the BACB’s coursework requirements of ethical and professional conduct, concepts and principles of this type of therapy, research methods, and other details about current ABA practices.

After completing the required ABA coursework, you then move onto a certain amount of supervised experience. You will apply what you have learned under the supervision of trained ABA therapists. Depending on what type of fieldwork you choose, you may have a different number of required hours.

  • Supervised independent fieldwork, which is the traditional path, requires 1,500 hours total, with two supervisor contacts during the period.
  • Practicum fieldwork is a faster path to completion, requiring 1,000 hours and four supervisor contacts.
  • Intensive practicum fieldwork is the fastest path. It only requires 750 hours, but you need to have eight supervisor contacts during that time.

When you complete the fieldwork, you then apply to the BACB to take the certification test. After taking the exam, you will know immediately if you pass or fail. When you pass, you will receive your certification via email within a week.

You are then a fully certified ABA therapist. You must maintain your qualifications to keep your certification current.  2. Faculty teaching and research: Like the first option, this second approach requires that you complete the necessary graduate degree, but afterward, you need to achieve an appointment as a faculty member teaching behavior analysis.

You must be teaching students full-time at an accredited institution. Your teaching must meet the following requirements:

  • You must teach at least five sections or iterations of behavior-analytic coursework.
  • You must teach at least two behavior-analytic course areas based on the BACB Coursework List.
  • Each class you teach must focus mostly on ABA.
  • Courses must be taught at the graduate level.

University or college faculty members are also required to research and publish in their field. To become certified in ABA therapy, you must publish ABA-relevant papers with at least one experimental evaluation in a high-quality, peer-reviewed journal. You must be one of the leading three authors, but the paper can be published at any point in your career as a faculty member. The BACB requires that you publish at least one article meeting these requirements before you can apply for BCBA certification. You must also meet supervised experience requirements, like those required of the first BCBA path.

3. Postdoctoral experience: Like the other paths to becoming a BCBA, you must have a relevant graduate degree from a BACB-accepted institution. You must have received this degree at least 10 years ago. You must also have at least 10 years of full-time, postdoctoral practical experience, working as a therapist, educator, or clinician in a field related to behavior analysis.

Then, you must complete 500 hours of supervised experience and have a relevant state license or credential to practice. You can have different licenses over the course of your 10 working years. This is because the BACB assumes you will advance in your field and achieve higher qualifications.

When you apply to become a BCBA after January 2022, there will be a new way to achieve this certification and practice as an ABA therapist. This is the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Accredited Program.

Rather than getting a graduate degree from a university or college, you can enroll in an ABAI-accredited program for a master’s or doctorate degree, which ensures you get ABA therapy coursework to eventually receive a certification from the BACB. You must also complete the required supervised experience hours, apply for and pass the BACB’s certification exam, and receive your certification.

With this new program, your graduate degree must have focused on ABA therapy.

Career Paths for Behavior Analysts

BCBAs can oversee teams of RBTs who work with individual clients. BCBAs create and oversee treatment plans for each client, monitoring progress and objective measurements of improvement. They advise their team of changing plans when needed to help clients develop positive behaviors.

BCBAs can also:

  • Work individually with clients who have autism.
  • Teach students about ABA therapy.
  • Research new approaches to helping people with autism.
  • Get further certification to oversee BCBA trainees during their supervised experience.

Maintaining Your BCBA Certification

Regardless of the type of BCBA you receive, you must renew your certification every two years.

When you receive your first certification, you pay $245 for the application; $140 for the ability to retake the exam within two years of your first attempt; and $125 to set up your examination appointment, which will likely be at a nearby test center but could be online. The online option is increasingly becoming the most offered and chosen option.

After passing your certification exam and becoming a BCBA, you must maintain your qualifications. Requirements to keep your certification include:

  • Completing 32 continuing education credits, at least four of which are in ethics. This helps you follow the new approaches to ABA therapy.
  • Abide fully by the BACB ethics and self-reporting guidelines.
  • Meet current supervisory requirements if you supervise other ABA providers and stay current with these requirements when they change.
  • Apply to recertify at least 45 days before your certification expires.
  • Pay all relevant recertification fees.

As of 2020, there are new continuing education requirements. Learning, teaching, and scholarship CEUs are all valid and count toward the 32 credits needed to maintain your certification.

You must also get a license to practice as a therapist in your state. Each state has different licensing requirements for clinicians and educators in various settings. Proper licensure is another crucial component of being an ethical therapist.

Behavior analysts work with vulnerable populations, so it is especially important to meet all requirements to ensure overall safety. Once licensed and registered, you will be listed on state websites along with the BACB website, so potential clients can easily find you. 

Working as a BCBA to Meet a Huge Public Demand

Becoming a BCBA is a great choice for anyone interested in helping people who have developmental disorders, including autism. There is a very high demand specifically for board certified behavior analysts, as more people receive diagnoses on the autism spectrum.

With rates of autism diagnoses rising each year, more parents are seeking ABA therapy for their children. Between 2010 and 2018, there was a 1,942% rise in demand for this type of therapist, with a rise of 127% from 2017 to 2018 alone. 

When you become a board certified behavior analyst, you can work in nearly any environment with people on the autism spectrum and their families. Many ABA therapists visit clients in their homes, especially when the clients are children. This provides a safe, practical environment where children can feel comfortable as they learn.

Behavior analysts also regularly practice in schools, corporate or nonprofit offices, community centers, and clinics or hospitals. They are employed by government entities, nonprofits, or larger companies, or they may be in private practice.

As a behavior analyst, you will make a tangible difference in the lives of people with autism and other developmental disorders. It’s a promising and rewarding career field.