To practice ABA therapy as a BCBA, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in psychology, education, and/or social work. Next, a master’s degree (with a thesis and practicum) will complete the academic requirements.
Applicants will need to then apply to the BCBA for certification. They’ll also have to complete requirements for their state of residence and practice as well as ongoing continuing education.
The Beginnings of ABA Practice
Professionals who practice applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy need a combination of practical and theoretical training and fieldwork. After some time observing a more experienced practitioner, an ABA specialist can start working with their clients on a one-on-one basis while still being supervised.
What is needed to practice ABA therapy as a BCBA? The first step is to start with a bachelor’s degree in psychology because this is the first introduction to courses in mental health and wellness as well as emotional disorders. Sociology and social work will also be useful for a career in ABA therapy.
Students can look for internships and get experience observing or working under a licensed ABA therapist, watching how they work with children and families. Elective subjects taken during a bachelor’s degree can also help students learn how to be better communicators and round out the other skills necessary to be an effective ABA therapist.
Thesis & Practicum Requirements
A number of colleges offer graduate programs in applied behavior analysis for students who want to pursue a career in autism therapy. A master’s degree usually takes two years to complete, with a thesis requirement, where the student has to investigate a topic in ABA and autism therapy.
In addition to the usual coursework of a master’s degree, the student will spend their final year researching and working on their thesis, with a presentation at the conclusion of the year. Some programs require students to take a practicum, which adds another year to the length of their degree.
The practicum requirement will help students who want to live and work in a state that requires ABA therapists have a license to practice. Students need between 1,000 and 1,500 hours of recorded, supervised clinical work in order to qualify for a license.
Some schools will let students take all their normal classes and complete their thesis before beginning their practicum, to better help students focus on the practicum. However, this is not standard. Other schools have supervised fieldwork programs every year before the practicum.
After completing the academic requirements, the student has to be board certified before they can start practicing ABA therapy. Certifications and credentials are issued by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
There are two primary requirements for students who want to get approved by the BACB:
- They must have a graduate degree and be a faculty member at an accredited school.
- They must have experience in fieldwork.
Most people who become board-certified analysts have a Master of Science or a Master of Education in applied behavior analysis. Receiving the certification gives the student the license (literal and figurative) to become an independent practitioner of applied behavior analysis, free to customize their client interventions the way they see fit.
Costs & Timeframes
To apply for ABA certification, students have to create an online account with the BACB. The application packet requires that students submit proof of applied behavior analysis training, starting with electronic copies of official transcripts. Forms attesting to final experience verification will need to be downloaded, signed by supervisors, and then scanned and submitted through the online portal.
It normally takes about 45 days to process the application, and there is a fee of $245. If the application is approved, applicants have to register for a certification exam, consisting of 160 multiple-choice questions that must be answered in a four-hour session. In 2019, 63% of applicants passed the BCBA exam on the first try. If the applicant fails, it costs $140 to retake the exam.
When the applicant passes the exam, they will receive their BCBA license, and they are free to work in any applied behavior analysis setting. However, the certification process continues. Every two years, a BCBA has to demonstrate that their practices and skills are updated, a process known as recertification. Recertification is done through the BCBA Ethics Department, which ensures compliance with BCBA standards for all current behavior analysts.
Additionally, there is continuing education. Approximately 25 minutes of active learning is equivalent to half of one continuing unit. Every other year, BCBAs must have the 32-unit minimum recertification in order to remain in good standing.
Workshops, university classes, webinars, and getting published in journals are some ways that practitioners can receive their continuing education units. As an example, attending the National Autism Conference awards ceremony can give a student as many as 27 continuing education units.
While certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board is recognized in every state, some states have their own licensing requirements for people wishing to practice applied behavior analysis.
New York, for example, requires its own licensed behavior analyst application along with a $300 registration fee. In Connecticut, the Department Public Health has a licensure fee of $350. Applicants in Montana will have to pay $600 to the Department of Labor & Industry to conduct criminal and background checks for its own licensed behavior analysts program. The North Carolina Psychology Board requires fingerprints as part of its process.
Every applicant should check with the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts to see what their state of residence (and desired practice) wants.
Notwithstanding the many different ways states require people to apply for ABA licensing, there are some standards when it comes to the requirements to practice applied behavior analysis. These standards have to be followed whether the person wants to practice ABA therapy at a clinic or school, or to practice independently:
- A master’s degree or higher in behavior analysis, psychology, social work, or education (or some combination)
- Supervised practicum or fieldwork for real-world experience
- Qualifying for the BCBA credential by passing the national certification exam
- Following state guidelines for additional certification, if necessary
In all cases, insurance and licensing laws call for practitioners to be board-certified or to meet similar education criteria (no less than a master’s degree). As a result, the basic requirement to practice applied behavior analysis as a BCBA is a master’s degree in a requisite field of study.
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How to Become an ABA Therapist. (February 2021). Indeed.
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board and the Profession of Behavior Analysis. (Spring 2008). Behavior Analysis in Practice.
BCBA Examination Pass Rates for Verified Course Sequences. Behavior Analyst Certification Board.
Licensure and Other Regulation of ABA Practitioners. Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.