What is applied behavior analysis (ABA)?
ABA is based on the principle that behavioral patterns can be changed by positive and negative reinforcement. ABA therapy is often used with children and is widely applied to investigate and manage autism. It’s also implemented in various treatments for disorders ranging from addictive behaviors to traumatic brain injury.
Each treatment is adapted to the individual and therapy sessions can happen anywhere. ABA focuses on teaching life skills such as communication, play, and self care. There are several types of interventions typically used, including the following:
Discrete trial training (DTT)
The 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).
Early start Denver model (ESDM)
This technique uses play activities to help young children develop social, cognitive, and language skills. It’s most often used for children from 12-48 months of age who have autism.
Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI)
The therapist applies an intensive, individualized, and comprehensive approach to teaching young children new skills. Through this strategy, kids can develop social, functional, adaptive, and communication abilities.
Natural environment training
After DTT is completed for a specific skill, a client can begin practicing the ability in natural environments, such as at home, school, or work.
An ABA therapist might use DTT to help a child with autism learn to use the toilet. The antecedent might be sitting the youngster on the potty chair. The behavior would be urinating or defecating in the potty. The child would then receive something they enjoy (verbal praise or a small item like a sticker) if they performed the appropriate behavior.
Would you enjoy a career in ABA?
Applied behavior analysis is based on behavioral psychology. Since it involves learning, it’s related to education. This area of study also interacts with the fields of social work and neuroscience. ABA therapists teach people how to function better in everyday life. If you enjoy working with individuals and helping their families care for them, you may find this career rewarding.
Another exciting aspect of studying ABA is that you learn the skills needed to conduct individual case studies. As an ABA therapist, you must observe and define a behavior before creating a theory to explain it. You’ll then develop a plan of intervention based on the variables you’ve identified. If treatment is successful, you’ll slowly start to see a positive change in your client’s behavior.
Getting into an ABA master’s program
Each institution sets its own admission requirements. There can be significant differences in the documents and prerequisites you’ll need to complete the process. Even so, there are certain requirements that are almost universal.
Typical application requirements
To enter a master’s program in applied behavioral analysis, you usually need the following:
- Application form and fee
- Essay or personal statement
- Updated resume
- Letters of recommendation
- Proof of a bachelor’s degree in a related field from an accredited university
- GRE test scores
- Transcripts from past studies
Deadlines and requirements usually appear on the university’s website, as well as the application for admission.
Most programs prefer that applicants have an undergraduate degree in psychology or behavior analysis. However, you may still be able to enroll if you majored in a related field, like special education. In such cases, you can usually qualify to pursue a master’s in applied behavior analysis by completing a few extra classes.
Have a look at our picks of the best masters in applied behavioral psychology.
Why choose an accredited university program?
International boards, such as the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), analyze each program with rigorous standards in mind. Every program is scrutinized separately, and the one you ultimately attend must be accredited for your degree to be recognized by the ABAI.
Monitoring and regulating coursework for this field is critical. Maintaining high professional standards is essential to providing quality care as this therapy technique can be harmful if not applied properly. Certified universities will mention that they are ABAI accredited. Check the ABAI website to make sure the college or university you’re considering is on their list.
About the program
A master’s in ABA can be structured as either a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.). Many schools require a thesis, while some conclude with a final project rather than a research paper.
Coursework and concentrations
A typical master’s program in ABA includes courses like:
- Principles of behavior analysis – basic information about analyzing and modifying behaviors
- Research methods – how to conduct behavioral research
- Ethics and professionalism – guidelines for working with behavior change in an ethical manner
- Behavior change interventions – specific techniques for changing behaviors
- Functional behavior assessment – how to determine what function a behavior has for the client
- Experimental analysis of behavior – research techniques for analyzing behavior
- Organizational behavior management – behavior within organizations, such as businesses
- Behavioral theory and philosophy – how philosophical principles interact with human behavior
This coursework prepares the graduate to take the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) exam. Candidates who pass the test and meet the requirements for education and practical work hours can become Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBAs). In many locations, professionals who hold this credential automatically qualify for state licensure.
Educators pursuing a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Teaching or Master of Education (M.Ed.) can include an applied behavior analysis concentration, but it’s not the same degree as a master’s in ABA. Before enrolling in a program, make sure you understand whether it includes a verified course sequence from the ABAI for BACB applications. If it doesn’t, you may complete your master’s degree and still not qualify to take the certification exam.
A practicum involves learning to apply this therapy safely and ethically, under the supervision of a licensed BCBA. Fieldwork may make up nearly half of the credits in an ABA master’s program. Some schools provide an appropriate practicum location, while others require you to find your own placement.
During a practicum, you provide client services just as you would after certification. Activities typically include:
- Assessing behavior to determine the type of intervention necessary
- Observing or supervising others who are implementing behavior analysis techniques
- Creating, implementing, and monitoring behavior analysis programs
- Researching behavior interventions and their efficacy
- Attending meetings with clients
- Keeping adequate records and creating reports
- Discussing programs with clients, their caregivers, and health professionals
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.
The supervisor of your practicum will sign a record of practice hours and evaluate your performance in areas like:
- Punctuality – being on time for appointments and meetings
- Interaction with others – how you treat clients, relatives, caregivers, and other healthcare providers
- Professionalism – dressing, speaking, behaving, and communicating as expected for a medical professional
- Skills – level of expertise and how quickly you learn the requested skills
- Self-assessment – how accurately you evaluate your own abilities and whether you request help when necessary
Online and hybrid options
There are some ABA master’s programs that offer all coursework online, but they can be hard to find. Many of them don’t provide everything a student needs to qualify to take the BACB exam. Before considering enrollment in such a program, check that it includes the verified course sequence from the ABAI.
Programs that offer classes online but require in-person practical work are classified as hybrid. In these degree programs, you may be able to complete the necessary verified course sequence plus much of the practical fieldwork required for certification.
The current version of Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid indicates that the yearly cost of a master’s degree can vary significantly. Here are some average prices:
- Public university, off campus – $8,950
- Private institution, off campus – $29,670
- Public university, with room and board – $19,630
- Private institution, including room and board – $42,030
A master’s degree in ABA typically takes between 18 months and 3 years to complete if you study full time. Program length can vary significantly from one school to another. If you go to school part time, you may require approximately 5 years to complete the program. Online courses of study may take less time and thus require a lower total investment.
What can I do with a master’s in ABA?
There are several different career options for individuals who earn a master’s in ABA. Here are a few of them:
There are many state-funded and university specific scholarships for ABA master’s students. To apply for federal student aid, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers special financial assistance to military families, active service members, and veterans.
Graduate students may also be able to find aid from the following sources:
- Federal work-study programs
- Private and employer grants
- Educational tax benefits
- Institutional grants
- State grants
Universities may offer funding to help students pay for their education through a research assistantship (RA) or teaching assistantship (TA). These positions usually result in tuition remission, meaning that you work for the school to get free or reduced tuition. A TA provides teaching services to receive this benefit. RAs work on experimental projects during the course of their studies.
The Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis offers several annual grants to help graduate students pay for schooling. Amounts vary depending on the specific opportunity. Consult the regulations for each offering to see whether you might qualify.
The APF Graduate Student Scholarships program offers 21 graduate research scholarships yearly. The application deadline is June 30, and the amounts range from $2,000 to $5,000.
The APAGS/Psi Chi Junior Scientist Fellowship makes 12 research fellowships of $1,000 available each year. They are awarded to graduate students who are entering their first or second year. To qualify, you should be a member of both APAGS and Psi Chi. The application deadline is July 6.
The APS Society Convention Research Awards recognize outstanding poster presentations at the annual APS Convention. Prizes of $500 go to 2 graduate students who apply by February 1.
Like the previous opportunity, the APA Society Convention Research Awards go to students with excellent performance at the annual APA Convention. The 2 graduate students with the best empirical research poster presentations win $500 each. To be considered for this award, you must apply by April 15 of each year.
Opportunities for further education
You don’t have to stop studying after earning your master’s degree. You can pursue a Psy.D. or Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis. A Psy.D. typically focuses more on clinical work, while a Ph.D. is more research and teaching oriented. After completing a doctorate in ABA, you can pursue a higher level of BACB certification: Board Certified Behavior Analyst – Doctoral (BCBA-D).
With a doctoral degree in ABA, you may choose to become a university professor, preparing the next generation of professionals in this field. Postsecondary teachers create and execute course syllabi. They also guide students in their ABA studies and clinical work. Professors may also perform original research and publish articles or books. These professionals typically earn an annual salary of about $80,000.
Maybe you’re not ready to start a doctoral program but would still like more in-depth study. Post-master’s certificates are an option. These programs may require as few as 12 credit hours, as opposed to the typical minimum of 60 for a doctorate.