Applied behavior analysis
Have you ever tried to break a bad habit? Studies suggest that relying on will power is not an effective strategy. Instead, using strategies to alter the environment within which we make decisions has a far more powerful effect on what we do. Part of the explanation for this is that many of our actions are habitual rather than conscious. That means we do them almost without thinking. Using the thinking brain to change what we do subconsciously is, unsurprisingly, quite difficult.
Social psychologist Wendy Wood used a research technique known as experience sampling to find out what percentage of people’s actions are habitual as opposed to consciously done. Participants recorded their actions over 2 days. Her findings indicated that our actions are habitual 43% of the time.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny.” William James
What is applied behavior analysis?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA), also called behavioral engineering, is a therapeutic technique for modifying human and animal behavior. It is carried out using psychological principles related to learning. ABA can be used to understand behavior and how it is influenced by environment. The most important task of an applied behavior analyst is to increase desirable and helpful behavior and decrease harmful or undesirable behavior.
ABA is mainly known as a treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and is currently the only evidence-based therapy for the treatment of behavioral issues associated with ASD.
ABA is also used for treating:
- eating disorders
- anger management issues
- cognitive impairment
- panic disorders
- substance abuse
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- borderline personality disorder
- consequences of brain injury
Behavior analysts study:
- how reinforcement processes strengthen new behavior
- how we make choices
- where addictions come from
- how impulsivity and self-control work
- how we choose and form new behavior
- what makes us discriminate and generalize
As a form of therapy, ABA:
- can be adapted to suit everyone
- can be provided at home, at school, and in the community
- teaches skills that are useful in everyday life
The primary strategy in ABA is to use positive reinforcement for achieving meaningful behavior change.
Pepperdine UniversityPepperdine University – Master of Science in Behavioral Psychology
Bachelor’s holders can earn an ABAI-verified master’s in applied behavior analysis online in as few as 15 months from Pepperdine, no GRE required. Experience clinical training and take the next step to become a board certified behavior analyst. Learn more.
University of DaytonThe University of Dayton – Master of Applied Behavior Analysis
Bachelor’s holders, prepare to become a BCBA in as few as 21 months with the University of Dayton’s online master’s in ABA without taking the GRE. Through the 42-credit ABAI-verified course sequence, you’ll complete a fieldwork practicum and be prepared to sit for the BCBA® exam and advance your career. Learn more.
Simmons CollegeSimmons University – Master of Science in Behavior Analysis
No GRE is required to apply to Simmons’ respected, ABAI-verified MS in Behavior Analysis. Graduate in 23 months with all required supervised field hours and the knowledge to take the BCBA® exam and assume leadership roles in the growing field of applied behavior analysis.
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What do applied behavior analysts do?
When applied behavior analysts meet a new patient, they:
- perform an assessment to determine which behaviors need intervention
- evaluate environmental, medical, and biological factors
- apply ABA techniques
- measure the effects of intervention
- adjust treatment based on progress
Applied behavior analysts may work with:
- adults and children diagnosed with ASD
- students struggling with behavioral problems at school
- adults and children experiencing social problems
- disabled adults who require help in their everyday life with hygiene, domestic work, punctuality, and work
- people who have suffered traumatic brain injury
- elderly people having problems related to aging
Discrete trial training (DTT) is an ABA technique wherein a therapist breaks a skill down into steps to teach it little by little. The learning process involves the antecedent (something that triggers the action), the behavior (response to the cue), and the conclusion (for example, positive reinforcement).
How to become a behavior analyst
In the U.S., the profession of behavior analysis is becoming increasingly regulated. As of 2022, 33 states have passed legislation to regulate behavior analysts. In addition to specific state requirements, the 2 main credentials available are:
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step towards becoming an ABA therapist, also known as an applied behavior analyst. Majoring in psychology or counseling provides excellent preparation for future studies in this field. Some colleges and universities offer courses or a major in ABA. With a bachelor’s degree in ABA, you can apply for licensure as a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA).
Majoring in ABA
ABA bachelor’s programs usually provide an interdisciplinary approach combining education, special education, psychology, and applied behavior sciences.
Examples of courses you may take as part of a bachelor’s degree in ABA:
- cognitive psychology
- advanced behavior supports
- ABA methods, procedures, and tools
- contemporary social problems and the workplace
- ethical, professional practice in behavior analysis
- psychological assessment
- behavior analysis processes for behavior change
- teaching and positive behavioral support in autism
Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) exam
If you’d like to practice in the field with a bachelor’s degree, look for programs that include fieldwork experience and coursework required to sit the the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) exam.
The BCaBA is an undergraduate-level certification in behavior analysis.
The BCaBA is an undergraduate-level certification in behavior analysis.
BCaBA-level certified behavior analysts can provide behavior analysis under the supervision of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
Look for programs with:
- curriculums from the BACB’s Verified Course Sequence (VCS) list; or
- programs with Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) accreditation
You can qualify to take the BCaBA exam without completing a program that meets these requirements, but it would need to be individually evaluated by the BACB to make sure it meets the board’s standards.
Majoring in other fields
If you choose a different major altogether, the following undergraduate electives may be beneficial for future graduate studies in ABA:
- cognitive psychology
- memory and learning
- psychological assessment
- lifespan development
- professional and ethical standards
- behavior intervention and support
- personality development
Gaining work or volunteer experience in behavior analysis or another helping profession could benefit your application to a master’s program in ABA.
Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) is an ABA technique for teaching children under the age of 5 to build positive behaviors, like social communication, and reduce unwanted behaviors, like tantrums and self-injury.
To become an independent practitioner of ABA, you commonly require a master’s degree in the field. A master’s in ABA may be structured as either a master of arts (M.A.) or a master of science (M.S.). Since both types of programs are aimed at preparing students to complete the required supervised field work and sit for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) examination, there usually aren’t significant curriculum differences between the 2.
A master’s degree in ABA provides a foundation for meeting the proficiencies mandated by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
The curriculum and number of credits required to complete a master’s program vary widely depending on your school and specialization. However, a typical master’s program in ABA includes courses in:
- ethical and professional conduct
- BACB compliance
- concepts and principles of behavior analysis
- experimental design
- philosophical concepts and principles
- identification of the problem and assessment
- behavior assessment
- behavior change procedures and interventions
- measurement, data display, and interpretation
- implementation, management, and supervision
The coursework is usually structured towards students passing the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) examination upon graduation, with an aim towards becoming a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA). In many states, holding the BCBA credential automatically qualifies candidates for state licensure.
Board Certified Behavior Analysts are eligible to supervise the work of Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts and other lower-level professionals in the field.
A practicum involves learning to apply this therapy safely and ethically, under the supervision of a licensed BCBA. Fieldwork may make up almost half of the credits in an ABA master’s program. Some schools provide a practicum location, while others require you to find your own placement. During a practicum, you provide client services just as you would after certification.
Your practicum can take place in various settings, including schools and inpatient or outpatient mental health services. Regardless of the location, you’ll be gaining experience in the responsibilities of an ABA position.
Doctoral training in behavior analysis makes practitioners eligible for Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral (BCBA-D) certification. The BCBA-D designation does not grant any privileges beyond master’s-level BCBA certification.
This program is primarily research-oriented. Students who pursue this path are likely seeking roles as professors, researchers, or clinical directors rather than seeking to advance their clinical expertise in ABA.
Verbal behavior intervention (VBI) is an ABA approach focused on teaching verbal skills to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by connecting words with their purposes.
Financial aid is vital for many students. Eligibility may depend on where your university is located, what you’re studying, how long the program is, how much you can afford yourself, and how many scholarships or grants you’re awarded. Fill in the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) form as soon as possible to find out what you’re eligible for.
It is important to choose an ABA program that is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). If you want to pursue a career in ABA, you should also look out for courses that meet the Verified Course Sequence (VCS) requirement. ABAI awards courses a VCS if they meet the criteria for specific coursework requirements, content hours, and faculty standards.
Programs receive approval in 3 ways:
- as part of the curriculum included in a master’s degree program in education, psychology, or behavior analysis
- as a graduate certificate earned concurrent with a master’s degree in education, psychology, or behavior analysis
- as a stand-alone post-graduate certificate program available to those who already hold a master’s or doctorate in education, psychology or behavior analysis
An institution may offer a VCS embedded within a degree program, as a stand-alone sequence (certificate program), or both. A VCS may offer coursework at the undergraduate or graduate level. Some programs can choose to separate VCS programs by master’s and doctoral-level coursework.
Applied behavior analysis subspecialties
Behavioral treatment of autism and developmental disabilities
Teaches behaviors which are essential to a functioning life at home, school, and in the community; addresses severe behavior problems that endanger the health and safety of the person.
Brain injury rehabilitation
Provides programs to help affected individuals decrease aggression and inappropriate vocalizations and to assist them with socialization and returning to work.
Behavioral sport psychology
Enhances the performance and satisfaction of athletes, teams, and coaches; focuses on encouraging goal setting and self-monitoring, imagery visualization, video feedback, auditory feedback, behavioral skills training, and contingency management.
Behavior analysis in environmental sustainability
Collaborating with experts and policy makers by using targeted feedback, environmental arrangements, group contingencies, and changes to policies and systems to improve sustainable practices.
Organizational behavior analysis
Assesses and works to alter the work environment to achieve meaningful and sustainable behavioral change and improve employee performance, business outcomes, and workplace culture.
Implements non-pharmacological support for seniors to enhance quality of life and care services, decrease challenging behaviors, maintain daily life skills, implement memory and language programs, preserve medication adherence, and prolong independence.
Careers in applied behavior analysis
ABA is now a mandated service covered in most states. Certified analysts are greatly sought after across the nation and the demand is increasing fast. The demand for certified behavior analysts has increased each year since 2010, with an 80% increase from 2018 to 2019.
Careers with a bachelor’s degree
Board certified assistant behavior analyst (BCaBA)Median salary: $46K
Outlook on the job market: 80% yearly increase
As the title suggests, an assistant applied behavior analyst’s role is to assist the applied behavior analysts in gathering data and maintaining records. The assistant is also responsible for the administration of specific assessments. The work consists of counseling patients with a focus on helping them prevent and modify certain actions to maintain positive behaviors, learn new abilities, and improve social interactions.
Social workers help people solve and cope with everyday life problems. They work in mental health clinics, schools, hospitals and private practices to assess needs and support networks.
With patience, compassion and empathy, social workers help clients adjust to change and challenges like illness, divorce or unemployment. They research, refer, and advocate for community resources and respond to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies, and much more.
Substance abuse and mental health counselors
Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors can be found in places like mental health centers, prisons, probation or parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses, detox centers, or in employee assistance programs (EAPs) to look after employees’ mental health.
Mental health counselors treat clients with anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, stress, mental and emotional health issues and relationship problems. Some counselors specialize in crisis intervention and step in when someone is suicidal. Other counselors specialize in non-crisis interventions, to help with addictions and anger management for instance. Non-crisis interventions often are performed at the request of friends and family.
Careers with a master’s degree
Board certified behavior analystMedian salary: $65K
BCBAs are healthcare professionals providing behavior-analytical services. BCBAs make treatment plans based on the patients’ reactions and behavior and supervise, monitor and oversee patient care. They often work with people who have developmental disabilities, brain injuries, or emotional, social or behavioral issues. Some BCBAs specialize in children, people with autism, or the elderly.
Rehabilitation counselors make rehabilitation plans for their clients and record their progress. Some work with students, to help them in the transition from school to work, or with elderly people who have developed a disability from injury or illness.
Rehabilitation counselors can also help military veterans cope with mental traumas. They help clients with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities live an independent life and adjust to their disability. The counselors evaluate clients’ needs and develop treatment plan by consulting doctors, therapists, and psychologists. They assist clients to get the right help and obtain services. They also source tools and resources, like wheelchairs or computer programs. Rehabilitation counselors can also present expert testimony or assessments during personal-injury or workers’ compensation cases.
Careers with a doctoral degree
Psychologists observe, interview and record their patients to understand how they relate to others and their surroundings. They focus on thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behavior to find the underlying issues and improve processes. The behavior or emotional patterns of the patient will help them diagnose disorders and discuss treatments.
Post secondary teachers
Apart from improving students’ knowledge or career skills, a postsecondary teacher is required to stay informed about changes and innovations in their field. They develop syllabi for the courses they teach to make sure they are up to the standards of the department. They also work with colleagues to develop the curriculum for a degree or certificate program involving a series of courses.
Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)
ABAI is the largest ABA membership organization. It promotes and organizes events, advertises jobs, publishes scholarly journals, and offers updates from special interest groups.
Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)
The BACB protect behavior analysis patients by establishing and promoting professional standards of practice and increase the availability of qualified behavior analysts around the world. All BACB requirements and examination content are developed by experts in the discipline.
Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA)
APBA is a nonprofit membership organization that promotes and advances the science-based practice of applied behavior analysis. APBA carries out that mission by informing public policies and providing education and resources for professional practitioners of ABA.