There are different paths to becoming a BCBA. You will need several years of higher education and work experience before you can certify as a BCBA. The timeline ranges depending on one’s course of study, but including the time it takes to complete an undergraduate degree and graduate degree, it can take a total of 6 to 10 years to become a BCBA.
It generally takes about four years to get a bachelor’s degree, two years to get a master’s degree, and then, candidates must complete 1,500 hours of supervised fieldwork in applied behavior analysis. The supervised fieldwork hours can be completed in about a year, though it takes many people longer than that, depending on their pace.
Starting the Process
If you want to become a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and practice applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to help people on the autism spectrum, there are several qualifications you must meet. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) oversees the regulations that define this important clinical role, to maintain high standards of safety and ethics.
The BACB has several listed requirements to become a BCBA. Some of these requirements involve previous education and work experience.
The Foundation to Become an ABA Therapist
A BCBA typically requires a master’s degree in a related field, like education, psychology, or medicine. Before getting a master’s, you must complete a bachelor’s degree, which takes four years on average. Master’s degrees take two years, on average, to complete in the United States.
If you have completed a bachelor’s degree and know you want to become a BCBA, you can search for master’s programs that provide training that is certified or accredited toward the BACB’s requirements. These programs may be in these fields, among others:
- Behavior analysis
- Special education
- Early childhood education
- Nursing or medicine
Coursework focused on ABA therapy must include minimum hours studying certain topics.
- 45 hours of ethical and professional conduct
- 45 hours of concepts and principles of behavior analysis
- 45 hours of fundamental elements of behavior change and specific behavior change principles
- 30 hours of discretionary behavior-analytic content, depending on your preference and the school’s course
- 30 hours of identification and assessment of client needs
- 20 hours of experimental design
- 10 hours each of intervention and behavior change considerations; behavior change systems; and implementation, management, and supervision
If you have a master’s degree already and want to switch careers to become a BCBA, you will need to find a graduate certificate or professional development program that can supply the necessary training. You might also pursue a postdoctoral (PhD) program that specializes in ABA therapy. It is also possible to meet the requirements if you teach psychology, behavioral therapy, or special education at a university level and begin teaching ABA therapy for at least three years as a full-time faculty member.
Supervised Fieldwork With an ABA Therapist
As you complete the required coursework, either through an accredited college or university program, or a different verified course sequence, you must also complete a specific amount of supervised experience with clients. This may take the form of:
- 1,500 hours of supervised fieldwork. This is the baseline requirement for practical experience while you complete ABA therapy coursework. There are no restrictions on where this can be completed; it can be done in a school, medical office, clinic, or private ABA therapy practice. Your supervisor must be an active BCBA who meets the ongoing supervision requirements.
- 1,000 hours of practicum work. This is one of the two more intensive training tracks provided through verified course sequences that are outside of university or college settings. Like the standard fieldwork component, your supervisor must be a qualified BCBA who meets the board’s supervision requirements.
- 750 hours of intensive practicum work. The other track taught through the verified course sequence, this practicum allows you to focus in-depth for a much shorter period of time.
- 500 hours of intensive practicum work. This supervised experience track is only available to students in PhD programs who already have about 10 years of experience working in a therapy, educational, or medical setting.
Once you have completed the study and practical requirements for ABA therapy certification, you can apply for the board examination.
Board Certification Examination to Become an ABA Therapist
After you set up an account with the BACB, you can complete an application to take the board certification exam online. This requires having all necessary paperwork, including supervisor reports, course grades, and any professional information, ready to submit.
You must also sign the Eligibility Affidavit at the end of the application, stating that you have read and are in compliance with the BACB requirements. In addition, you must report any conditions, investigations, or situations that might impact your ability to complete the exam in a timely fashion or practice as an ABA therapist.
After you submit your application, you have 90 days to submit your payment for it to be processed. You will then be notified if you qualify to take the exam and asked to schedule an exam date.
It Takes Time to Become an ABA Therapist
The BACB lists three basic methods for becoming an ABA therapist: coursework, faculty teaching and research, or postdoctoral experience. Each of these tracks requires a significant amount of education — at least a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, with the potential for supplementary graduate certification, professional certification, or training provided by an employer — along with a significant amount of training in a practical setting.
It is helpful to work in a related field for at least a few years, as many degree programs, faculty positions, clinics, special education institutions, and other jobs will look for practical work experience when hiring candidates. The total amount of time it takes for you to become a certified ABA therapist can vary, but it could be between 6 and 10 years total.
Completing the education, training, and experience for this therapist position means you can work safely, ethically, and thoroughly with children or adults on the autism spectrum who need your support. Once you complete the education and training requirements, and you are certified, you can begin helping people.
Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Behavior Analyst Certification Board.
Board Certified Behavior Analyst Handbook. (2020). Behavior Analyst Certification Board.