Applied behavior analysis – degrees, programs and careers

HomeApplied behavior analysis overview

Introduction to applied behavior analysis

It’s a complicated description of something quite simple – applied behavior analysis (ABA) is how we change behavior in humans or animals. It’s done by using the psychological principles of learning, in a way that alters the way we act. By using the magnifying glass of applied behavior analysis, we can understand how behavior works and is influenced by the surrounding environment. The most important task of an applied behavior analyst is to increase helpful behavior and decrease behavior that is harmful or that affects learning.

According to the American Psychology Association (APA) behavior analysis is a natural science that studies topics like:

  • 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

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) writes that behavior analysis is the science of behavior. It’s based on the concept of behaviorism, that we can improve the human condition through behavior change, like education and behavioral health treatment.

The organization Autism Speaks writes about how applied behavior analysis is a flexible treatment which:

  • 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 main strategy in applied behavior analysis (ABA) is to use positive reinforcement. By building skills based on this we can achieve a meaningful change in behavior. ABA was first applied to the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities and autism. This practice area has the largest evidence base and is most recognized. The developed ABA techniques for analyzing and changing behavior can also improve the lives of many other people. ABAs have been empirically shown to be effective in things like parent training, substance abuse treatment, dementia management, brain injury rehabilitation, occupational safety intervention.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists some examples of applied behavior analysis:

Discrete trial training (DTT)

This is a type of teaching that breaks the journey towards the desired response into small steps, where each step uses rewards to correct answers and behavior.

Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI)

It teaches children under 5 to build positive behaviors, like social communication, and reduces unwanted behaviors, like tantrums and self-injury. 

Early start Denver model (ESDM)

Shows 1-2-year-old children how to advance their social, language, and cognitive skills by using play and joint activities.

Pivotal response training (PRT)

Seeks to increase a child’s motivation to learn, monitor behavior and initiate communication with others. 

Verbal behavior intervention (VBI)

This approach focuses on teaching verbal skills to encourage people with autism to learn language by connecting words with their purposes.

What do applied behavior analysts do?

Would you like an evidence-based job with proven techniques that makes a real difference to others? If you want to be in high demand with a rewarding and flexible job, then ABA can offer a great opportunity. Most applied behavior analysts work in healthcare or education. But some find ABA work in very different fields, like insurance agencies or local government entities.

When applied behavior analysts meet a new patient, they perform an assessment to determine which behaviors need intervention. Next, the analysts look into environmental, medical and biological factors. By using positive reinforcements, the patient’s behavior can change and be improved. The effects of the intervention are measured, and based on the progress, the treatment is adjusted.

Applied behavior analysts may work with:

  • Adults and children diagnosed with autism
  • 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

Have a look at what a day as a behavior analyst can be like. According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) some ABA subspecialities are:

Behavioral treatment of autism and developmental disabilities

To teach behaviors which are essential to a functioning life at home, school, and in the community. It addresses severe behavior problems that endanger the health and safety of the person.

Brain injuries rehabilitation

To provide programs to help affected individuals decrease aggression and inappropriate vocalizations and to assist them with socialization and returning to work.

Behavioral sport psychology

To enhance the performance and satisfaction of athletes, teams and coaches. It 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

To collaborate with experts and policy makers by using targeted feedback, environmental arrangements, group contingencies, and changes to policies and systems to improve sustainable practices.

Clinical behavior analysis

To treat conditions like depression, anxiety, stress, relationship discord, inattention, substance misuse, impulsivity, chronic pain, disruptive behavior, tic disorders and sleep disturbance.

Organizational behavior management (OBM)

To assess and change the work environment to achieve meaningful and sustainable behavioral change, improve employee performance, business outcomes and workplace culture.

Behavioral gerontology

To implement non-pharmacological supports 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.

What are the requirements to study applied behavior analysis?

Undergraduate study requirements

It’s not necessary to get a major in psychology unless you plan to work in a psychological ABA profession. ABA is a practical as well as academical education. To work in the field of applied behavior analysis, you need to complete a lot of fieldwork. When you study at college you can look for internships and gain some experience working under the guidance of an ABA therapist as they work with clients. Through classes and in-person experiences, you will learn fundamental intervention skills and how to adapt them to find personalized solutions for your clients.

A lot of universities don’t require GRE scores, but your GPA should be around 3.0.  Bachelor programs for ABA’s can either be a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in psychology. Getting a bachelor’s degree is the first step in becoming an ABA therapist. It consists of 120 credits, which typically takes 4 years of study. The undergraduate program will introduce you to the exciting field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) or you can choose to branch out into similar careers. The program provides high-quality ABA training in designing, delivering, and evaluating behavioral interventions. The coursework, along with appropriate practicum experience, will prepare you to sit for the board certified assistant behavior analyst (BCaBA) examination.

Postgraduate requirements

Many students choose to major in psychology because they can take courses on developmental disorders that teach them more about mental conditions and emotional disorders. Other students major in one of the other social sciences like sociology or social work.

Master’s programs, offersted by several colleges, usually take 2 years to finish. You are required to investigate a topic relating to the ABA field before doing a thesis. The last year of the program consists of doing research and writing a thesis, presented at the end of the year. Some programs have a practicum requirement.

For many areas of psychology, a Ph.D. is mandatory, but not within ABA. A lot of students still carry on studying as it’s part of attaining a board certifiudyation in this field. The BACB offers 3 different paths to become a BCBA, only one option, BCBA-D, requires a doctorate. The ABAI accredits doctoral degree programs and a Ph.D. consists of 60 semester hours of coursework, research and dissertation credits. It can take about 3 years to complete.

Choose to study on campus or online

Online

You can study in your own time online and combine it with your day job, or live and breathe student life on campus. There are many different programs to choose from, and the prices of the individual courses vary considerably. Take your time to go through your options to find the right course. Shop around to find budget alternatives to the most prestigious universities. Apply for grants and scholarships and loans you’ll be able to pay back on time.

If you want a career within ABA, a degree is a real investment for the future. Make sure it pays off by checking that the course you opt for is credited by the American Psychological Association (APA) and that it meets the Verified Course Sequence requirement; see below for more information about accredited courses.

Bear in mind that few online ABA programs exist for Ph.D. programs and that for most ABA jobs a Ph.D. is not necessary. But a Ph.D. in your title will, of course, provide you with a certain gravitas.

So how much does it cost to study applied behavior analysis? Online and in-state options are cheaper than on-campus programs. Typically the most expensive programs are for out-of-state students at the most prestigious universities. According to APA you can expect to pay about this amount for your education:

  • Bachelor’s degree – $31,110-36,360
  • Master’s degree – $11,116 – $34,995
  • Doctorate – $6,592 – $48,390

Due to the large variation in course fees, accommodation, travel, campus fees, and library charges, it is best to check the websites of the universities on your shortlist for the full breakdown of costs. Sometimes you can get an easy overview, sometimes you have to request more info.

Financial aid

Financial aid is vital for most students. You can receive it depending on where your university is located, what you’re studying, how long the course is, how much you can afford yourself and how many scholarships/grants you’re awarded.

Start your search early as some states and schools have limited funds. Fill in the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form as soon as possible to find out what you’re eligible for. To get the right aid, you must provide a number of documents, covering yourself and your parents, like your social security information, drivers’ licenses, income info and tax documentation.

Accredited courses

As a first step it is important to check that the course you settle for 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. At the moment there are 476 BACB and 119 BCaBA VCS verified courses available nationwide. To look into them closer, use this really useful directory that covers all of the ABA university courses in the country.

The courses receive approval in 3 ways:
1) As part of the curriculum included in a master’s degree program in education, psychology, or behavior analysis
2) As a graduate certificate earned concurrent with a master’s degree in education, psychology, or behavior analysis
3) 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 masters- and doctoral-level coursework.

What will you study?

Applied behavior analysis is a field offered at every degree level, each with different career possibilities.

Undergraduate study

The undergraduate course typically covers:

  • Health science essentials
  • Problem identification
  • Functional assessment
  • Methodology
  • Functional applications
  • Ethical considerations
  • Accelerated topics

Postgraduate study

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
  • Systems: professionalism
  • BACB compliance code and disciplinary
  • Concepts and principles of behavior analysis
  • Experimental design
  • Philosophical concepts and principles
  • Identification of the problem and assessment
  • Behavior assessment
  • Behavior change
  • Behavior – change procedures and interventions
  • Measurement, data display, and interpretation
  • Implementation, management and supervision
  • Personnel supervision and management

Ph.D. in applied behavior analysis programs prepare students with advanced knowledge and skills to conduct behavioral research and design treatment plans to address behavior related problems. Graduates of ABA Ph.D. programs are prepared to take the Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification exam. Once certification is received, individuals may practice ABA.

Accreditations and licenses for applied behavior analysis

Certification forces analysts to stay up to date in their field. It’s a higher level of service to individuals and should be seen as such. If you find it difficult to determine which certificate is right for you, take IBCCES test to find out which one to go for. To maintain BCBA certification you must complete continuing education, live by the ethical requirements and submit an application with fees for recertification every other year.

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) the behavior analysis profession is becoming more and more regulated with licensure in the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Continuing education helps BCBAs stay current and relevant with behavior analysis developments. BCBAs can obtain continuing education credits through ABA graduate courses or by participating in ABA conferences, seminars and workshops. State behavior analyst licenses also require renewal every 2 years. To remain certified, you must pay a renewal fee to the BACB every year and get recertified every 3 years.

Career options for an applied behavior analyst

ABA is now a mandated service covered in most states, according to National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), so investing in an education for a career in this field is a pretty sure bet. The number of people living with autism is increasing, the field is growing, and the applicable skillsets are in demand in many different areas.

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. The highest demand is seen in California, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, and Florida, accounting for nearly half (48%) of the total demand.

Employment in community and social service occupations is projected to grow 12% annually from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 348,600 jobs. Counselors and social workers are expected to be most in demand.

Remember to take experience into consideration, the more experience you have, the better you earn. Entry-level positions range from $32,000 to $43,000 annually, while those 5 to 10 years of experience can earn $45,000 to $55,000. ABAs working for more than 10 years earned from $50,000 to $65,000 or more. Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA®) earned $75,000 to $145,000, or more.

Careers with a bachelor’s degree

Average annual salary according to PayScale is: $48,730 

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. 

Average annual salary reported by BLS is: $50,470 
Outlook on the job market: 13% yearly increase

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.

According to BLS the average annual salary is: $46,240 
Outlook on the job market: 25% yearly increase

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 noncrisis interventions, to help with addictions and anger management for instance. Noncrisis interventions often are performed at the request of friends and family.

Careers with a master’s degree

Average annual salary according to PayScale is: $68,374 (up to 9 years of experience) – $67,252 (10 years of experience or more)
Outlook on the job market: 14% yearly increase

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.

Average annual salary according to BLS is: $35,950
Outlook on the job market: 10% yearly increase

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. Others 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

Average annual salary recorded by BLS is: $80,370 
Outlook on the job market: 3% yearly increase

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.

BLS average annual salary is: $79,540
Outlook on the job market: 9% yearly increase

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 biggest membership organization if you’re into philosophy, science and teaching of behavior analysis. It promotes and organizes events, advertises jobs, publishes scholarly journals and updates from special interest groups (SIGs).

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.

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