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How To Become A Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) Therapist

How To Become A Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) Therapist


Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a booming part of an expanding market for healthcare and mental therapy services. According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), the major industry group that certifies and represents ABA therapists, almost 50,000 individuals are on track to hold certifications in ABA, up from barely more than 8,000 ten years before.

How To Become A Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) Therapist

ABA careers can be both lucrative and satisfying. Certified ABA therapists work in hospitals and nursing homes, in private practice and for big healthcare providers. They see patients ranging from convicted criminals to alcohol abusers to stroke patients. And as the only proven scientifically effective treatment for autism spectrum disorder, you also have the option of completely changing the lives of children and their families affected by that widespread disorder. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy can dramatically improve the lives of people living with autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  This treatment, provided by applied behavior analysts, teaches independence, language skills, problem-solving, and social skills.

Applied Behavior Analysis is a type of therapy used as a treatment option for various disorders, and someone working in this field is an applied behavior analyst or an ABA therapist. The focus of the therapy is to pinpoint what the actual problem behavior is, what causes the problem behaviors, and to apply consequences. Over time, patients learn to adjust the problem behavior to receive more desirable consequences. Applied behavior analysts attend years of schooling to learn the special techniques and skills that will motivate and enable patients to make the changes to better adapt to their environment.

After going through some training with a professional, they can work with the clients on an individualized basis and under the supervision of a licensed therapist. Those interested in creating these programs and working closely with the families of these clients generally need to have more experience and meet some education requirements. The three options are to get a 40 hour training program, an undergraduate-level degree, or a graduate degree. 

Most applied behavior analysts have earned at least a master’s degree in education, applied behavior analysis, or psychology. Licensing or certification is only required in 31 states; however, there are several states that require certification in order to be able to bill insurance. The most common certification earned is the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). There is also a Board Certified Behavior Assistant Analyst (BCaBA) option.

Applied behavior analysts are employed at hospitals, clinics, government agencies, and nonprofits. They work in many different settings including clinics, in patients’ homes, and even at schools.

Continue reading to learn the steps towards becoming an applied behavior analyst, as well as state-specific licensing and certification requirements.

What is an ABA therapist?

An applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist works with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), teaching them basic life skills and various academic strategies to help them function in society. Most of their work focuses on helping the children communicate better and showing them ways to handle various social interactions. Aside from patients with ASD, other categories that benefit from working with ABA therapists are people who suffered traumatic brain injuries or those with major developmental disabilities.

The main role of an ABA therapist is to identify and analyze a patient’s individual behavioral traits in specific contexts, situations and environments. Having identified how these events influence the patient’s behavior, they can discover the exact causes that trigger various behavioral patterns and work with them to develop therapeutic strategies.

The most common activities for an ABA therapist are:

  • Individual discussions with patients
  • Studying and analyzing their behavior and working on an individual rehabilitation strategy
  • Communicating and emphasizing with the patients’ families
  • Performing administrative tasks, such as maintaining detailed records for each therapy session

Important skills for an ABA therapist

The most useful skills for an ABA therapist are:

  • Communication skills: Aba therapists need to actively listen to their patients and pick up both verbal and non-verbal cues. They must also be able to communicate with them and their families.
  • Empathy: A successful ABA therapist is usually an empathetic person and is able to resonate with the patient’s feelings and problems.
  • Critical thinking skills: ABA therapists need to analyze the data and come up with individualized treatment programs for each of their patients.
  • Adaptability: Although ABA therapists receive intensive training, most patient situations are different and unique, with the therapists needing to adapt to each.
  • Creativity: The uniqueness of each case means that ABA therapists often need to be creative in their attempt to understand patients, communicating with them and helping them change the negative patterns in their behavior.

Related job titles

Some of the jobs related to that of an ABA therapist are:

  • Special education teacher: They work with groups or individual students who have special needs, such as those with disabilities, hearing or visual impairments, autism and health issues.
  • Occupational therapist: They work with children who have various physical or mental difficulties and help them perform basic activities.
  • Rehabilitation therapist: They work with patients who have various physical or mental disorders and with those recovering from addiction.
  • Speech-language pathologist: They help children with a developmental delay in their speech and help them develop appropriate speech and listening patterns.
  • Child social worker: They work with children who go through various social, behavioral and emotional challenges.

Differences between BCBA and BCBA-D

A BCBA is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. They typically work in schools, homes, hospitals, private practices and other institutions, helping children with ASD reduce their problematic behaviors by identifying their root cause. A BCBA-D is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who has also earned a Ph.D., whereas a BCAB only has a master’s degree, this being the main difference between the two.

BCBA-Ds have the same functions and responsibilities as BCBAs and must meet the same criteria to work as an independent practitioner. BCBA-Ds can, however, teach college courses and conduct laboratory research.

How to Become an ABA Therapist

To become an ABA therapist, you must meet specific education, practicum, and examination requirements. The BACB maintains strict eligibility requirements to ensure that all ABA therapists are responsibly, ethically, and competently delivering behavior analysis services to all of their clients.

The BACB website outlines clear instructions for how to become a certified behavior therapist. No matter which level of therapist you are striving to become, all certifications require a minimum level of education, a designated number of hours of supervised field experience, and a passing score on the appropriate national certification exam.

In order to become an ABA therapist, start by considering your level of education. Bachelor’s-degree holders can apply to become BCaBAs. Those with a master’s degree can apply to become BCBAs, and doctoral-degree holders can apply to become a board certified behavior analyst – doctoral (BCBA-D).

Board Certified Behavior Analyst

BCBAs are graduate-level certificate holders in the field of behavior analysis. They are independent practitioners who provide behavior analysis services to a range of clients in a variety of settings.

The requirements to become a BCBA are as follows:

  • Complete an acceptable master’s or doctorate degree from a BACB-accredited university.
  • Acceptable graduate-level coursework in behavior analysis must be included in your program or completed separately.
  • Complete the minimum amount of supervised experience or fieldwork.
  • Pass the BCBA certification exam.

An acceptable graduate degree is usually in the field of behavior analysis, education, or psychology, and it includes courses on behavior analysis. If you are unsure if your degree qualifies you for BCBA certification, you can submit a preliminary degree evaluation before applying for certification.

Once you have completed your graduate degree, your next step is to complete the supervised experience requirement. The BCBA experience requirements include the following:

  • Total hours: 1,500 hours of supervised independent fieldwork, 1,000 hours of practicum, or 750 hours of intensive practicum
  • Experience hours per supervisory period: minimum of 20 and a maximum of 130
  • Supervisory period: one calendar month

Additional details about supervision requirements, experience hours, and optional resources can be found in the BCBA/BCaBA Experience Standards handbook.

It is important to note that the eligibility requirements for the BCBA and BCaBA certification will change slightly for anyone applying after January 1, 2022. If you will be applying after this date, consult the BACB website for updated eligibility requirements.

Once you have met all current eligibility requirements, you can apply for certification. The certification application can be completed and submitted online, and you can pay the $245 application fee there as well. All supporting documents can be uploaded to your online BACB account.

When your application is approved, you can register to take the BCBA exam. The exam costs $125 and is offered at Pearson Vue testing centers worldwide. As soon as you pass the exam, you are officially a board certified behavior analyst.

There are many resources available online, both free and to purchase, to help you prepare for the BCBA exam.

Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst

A BCaBA must meet many of the same eligibility requirements to become certified as a BCBA. The primary difference is that a BCaBA has a bachelor’s degree rather than a graduate degree. BCaBAs carry out behavior plans and work on behavior goals as established by their supervising BCBA.

While BCaBAs cannot work independently, they play a vital role in the delivery of behavior analysis services to children and adults in need. BCaBAs can, however, supervise registered behavior technicians (RBTs) who are a part of the ABA team.

The eligibility requirements to apply for BCaBA certification are as follows:

  • Hold an acceptable bachelor’s degree from an accredited university.
  • Complete undergraduate coursework in behavior analysis.
  • Complete the required supervised practical experience hours.

The supervised experienced standards for BCaBAs are the same as for BCBAs. Once you have met all BCaBA eligibility requirements, you can apply for certification. The certification application fee for BCaBAs is $175, plus a $125 examination fee that should be made to Pearson Vue.

Once you pass the national BCaBA exam, you are a certified ABA therapist. It is up to you, however, to make sure you always work under an accredited supervisor and to keep your certification in good standing.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst – Doctoral

The BCBA-D is an additional designation given to individuals who have studied behavior analysis at the doctoral level. It is not a separate certification from the BCBA and does not grant any added privileges, but it does recognize the extra expertise that someone at the doctoral level has.

If you wish to become a BCBA-D, you must be currently certified as a BCBA and meet one of three possible eligibility options.

  • You hold a doctorate degree from a doctoral program accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI).
  • You hold a doctorate degree from a non-ABAI-accredited university and have completed a behavior-analytic dissertation, plus either doctoral-level behavior-analytic coursework, supervision from a BCBA faculty member, or have authored at least two peer-reviewed behavior-analytic journal articles.
  • You hold a doctorate degree from a qualifying institution, have 1,800 hours (after becoming BCBA certified) in applied behavior analysis, and have authored at least two peer-reviewed behavior-analytic journal articles.

If you have met the above eligibility requirements for the BCBA-D designation, you can complete the online BCBA-D application. You must pay the $105 application fee and upload all supplemental documentation to your BACB account.

Registered Behavior Technician

RBT is a paraprofessional designation given to individuals with a high school diploma who wish to work in the field of behavior analysis. RBTs are key members of most ABA teams, and they work closely with BCBAs and BCaBAs to deliver ABA interventions.

How Much Do Applied Behavior Analysts Make?

Behavior analyst salaries vary based on place of employment, years of experience, and degrees held. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track the salaries of these mental health professionals. That said, here were the salary percentiles of ABAs nationally, according to (2020):

  • 10th percentile: $45,333
  • 25th percentile: $51,971
  • 50th percentile (median): $59,261
  • 75th percentile: $64,189
  • 90th percentile: $68,676

What Can One Do With a BACB Certification?

Professionals with a BACB certification have many career opportunities available to them. All levels of behavior analysts commonly work together as treatment teams in a variety of settings. The exact position in each setting varies, such as a supervisory role versus a direct clinical provider. All positions are key to delivering effective evidence-based treatment.

Certified behavior analysts work in many different settings, including:

  • Schools.
  • Hospitals and clinics.
  • Community organizations.
  • Corporate environments.
  • Private practice.
  • Government agencies.

No matter which professional setting you choose to work in and which level of certification you obtain, you will likely always be a part of a multidisciplinary team. Behavior analysts frequently consult with teachers, doctors, parents, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other specialists to ensure that their client’s goals are aligned throughout all facets of their lives.

What Board Certified Behavior Analysts are Qualified to Do

Culminating the steps to earn ABA certification leads to jobs modifying problematic behaviors. Applied behavior analysts are trained to assess the unique needs of clients with diverse disabilities, especially autism. BCBAs use their behavioral training to develop custom treatment plans to correct negative behaviors.

For example, BCBAs apply positive reinforcement to reward children and adults for performing the desired action. Other ABA techniques include peer modeling, functional analysis, discrete trial instruction, and behavior chaining. Prompting clients to exhibit positive behavior and encouraging that behavior to continue is the goal. BCBAs replace abnormal behaviors to improve each client’s emotional and social functioning.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts are often employed by schools, counseling centers, and hospitals. Some ABA therapists work at nursing homes, prisons, colleges, nonprofit organizations, and residential treatment facilities like rehabs.

ABA therapists work with clients to help them better understand how to relate to others and to change their behaviors and actions. They also teach them life skills like how to dress, brush their teeth, and tie their shoes. The educational requirements for an applied behavior analyst include having both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. There are different levels of certification and education, which include registered behavior technician, board certified assistant behavior analyst, and the BCBA and BCBA-D designations we outlined above. Registered behavior technician and board certified assistant behavior analyst require less intensive education than other designations. 

Insights from an ABA Therapist

Being an ABA Therapist is both challenging and rewarding. Many people get into the profession after seeing the effectiveness of ABA therapy first-hand, says Jennifer Godwin, vice president of program and clinical services for the Early Autism Project, Inc. We talked to Goodwin to get more insights about being an ABA Therapist. Here’s what she shared.


Many Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists are initially introduced to the field of ABA therapy by working with, or knowing, a child on the autism spectrum. ABA therapy is widely recognized as the most effective, evidence-based treatment for autism. After seeing the success an ABA program can have in the life of a child with autism and their family, individuals are often motivated to gain additional educational degrees, experience and certifications so they can help children reach their full potential. A common career goal for an ABA Therapist is to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).


Many ABA Therapists have less traditional work hours and even though the work is rewarding, it is also challenging. Individuals considering pursuing a profession in ABA therapy should network with other people in the field and develop a professional support system to share information and best practices. Having a network of friends/colleagues who are ABA therapists is incredibly important in ensuring your professional success and job satisfaction.


Compassionate individuals who truly love children and want to help them succeed are typically ideal candidates for the ABA therapist career path. The work of an ABA Therapist is also a very data driven career so most of us also enjoy science and possess a drive to always learn more.


ABA Therapists need to be caring, creative and fun so they can relate to their young clients during their one-on-one instruction, and they also must be comfortable providing corrective feedback, developing treatment plans and training parents and other therapists. Therapists also need to embrace technology and be proficient using computer programs such as Excel for data tracking and analysis.


The most rewarding aspect of being an ABA therapist is to help children with autism develop the skills to live a happy and productive life and to see the positive impact the therapy has on children and their families. It is also rewarding to work with other therapists who are equally excited by the field and are passionate about making a difference.