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How to Become an ABA Therapist

Image of a therapy session for our FAQ What Education is Required to Become an Applied Behavior Analyst

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. Specialists will need to go to school and do some practical training and fieldwork in order to go into the field of ABA therapy.

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. 

Bachelor’s Degree

Getting a bachelor’s degree is the first step in becoming an ABA therapist. 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. There are more than these three options for people looking for a bachelor’s degree.

College students can look for internships and gain some experience working under the guidance of an ABA therapist as they work with clients. Bachelor’s programs also teach students how to communicate in effective ways, which can help them when working with the families of clients. 

See Also: Important Duties of a Registered Behavioral Technician or Autism Behavior Technician

Master’s Degree

Several colleges in the United States now offer behavioral analysis graduate programs for students who want to work in this field as ABA therapists. These programs usually take two years to finish and have a thesis requirement. Students will need to investigate a topic relating to the ABA field before doing a thesis. They’ll spend the last year of the program doing research and writing the thesis, which they then present at the end of the year. Some of these programs also have a practicum requirement that takes students a third year to finish.


Image of a therapy session for our FAQ What Education is Required to Become an Applied Behavior Analyst

ABA and psychology programs with a practicum requirement are great for students who want to live and work in a state that requires ABA therapists to have a license. To get an ABA therapy license, ABA therapists usually need to complete between 1,000 and 1,500 hours of supervised clinical work. This refers to the work that they do under the supervision of a therapist with a valid license.

Most schools allow students to take all required classes and to their thesis work before beginning a practicum, which allows them to focus solely on that fieldwork and learn the most important skills for this area. Other schools allow students to do some supervised fieldwork each year before doing a practicum.

Board Certification

Board Certification: The BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board)

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) is the organization responsible for granting certification and credentials to ABA therapists, assuring that they have learned the most important skills necessary for ABA. According to the BACB, those hoping to get certified to work as ABA therapists, specifically as Board Certified Behavaior Analysts, must meet one of three requirements. They must have a graduate degree and be a faculty member at an accredited school, have a graduate degree and fieldwork experience, or have a doctoral degree and at least 10 years of experience in the field. Therapists with certification from the BACB have the experience and authority necessary to train college students and others for working with clients who need help.

Founded in 1998, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board sets the qualifications needed for certification in ABA. Becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) requires earning at least a master’s degree. Most BCBAs hold a Master of Science or Master of Education in applied behavior analysis. BCBAs are qualified to practice independently and customize their client interventions.

To apply for certification in ABA, individuals must complete behavior analytic coursework at an accredited U.S. or foreign institution. Aspiring applied behavior analysts must fulfill the BACB’s Task List with courses graded “C” or higher. BCBAs need 1,500 or more hours of supervised independent fieldwork. More than 750 hours of intensive practicum would be equivalent.

Board Certification: Applying for Certification

Applying for applied behavior analysis certification starts with creating an online Behavior Analyst Certification Board account. Individuals hoping to become certified ABA therapists must apply online or by mail to Littleton, Colorado. Each application package must include proof of behavior analysis training. Official transcript papers or electronic copies are needed. Final experience verification forms are downloaded and signed by supervisors. Typically, the BACB processes the $245 certification application in 45 days.

If accepted, applicants register for a certification exam seat at a Pearson VUE center. Aspiring BCBAs answer 160 multiple-choice questions within four allotted hours. Of the 150 graded questions, 114 or more must be right for a passing score above 75. In 2019, the average BCBA exam passing rate was 65 percent. Retaking failed exams incurs a $140 fee each time.

Board Certification: Working as a BCBA

Once passed, BCBAs are cleared to work in any ABA setting. The applied behavior analysis certification process doesn’t end though. Every two years, BCBAs must engage in recertification to keep their ABA therapy practices and skills current. Applied behavior analysts must self-report to the Ethics Department to ensure compliance.

The other step is completing the required continuing education units. Biennially, BCBAs need to meet the 32-unit minimum for recertification. About 25 minutes of active learning equals one half of a CEU. Continuing education units are granted for university classes, workshops, webinars, and even journal article publications. For example, the National Autism Conference awards attendees up to 27 CEUs. BCBAs who oversee Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts specifically need three supervision CEUs too.


Gaining professional graduate-level certification in ABA can happen at two levels: BCBA and BCBA-D. The latter option is available for applied behavior analysts with a doctorate. Therefore, the Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral credential takes at least two to four years longer. Individuals with the BCBA-D title aren’t qualified for any additional job tasks in the field. The BCBA-D level still involves applying behavior analytic techniques to treat disabilities.

Yet people with BCBA-D certification can conduct lab research and teach college courses in academia on the subject of ABA therapy. BCBAs with a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) may apply. Post-graduates must have passed four or more behavior analysis courses or published two relevant peer-reviewed journal articles. Adding the BCBA-D designation comes with another $105 application fee. There aren’t any separate tests beyond the BCBA exam though.

State Requirements for ABA Certification
Image of a person working at a computer for our FAQ What Education is Required to Become an Applied Behavior Analyst

ABA certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board is recognized in all 50 states. Nonetheless, several states have extra licensing requirements for behavior analysts and ABA therapy. Since specific licensure steps vary, contacting a state’s behavior analysis board is always suggested.

For instance, New York requires submitting a Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA) application with a $300 registration fee. Since July 2018, the Connecticut Department of Public Health has required behavior analysis licensure for $350. The Montana Department of Labor & Industry accepts a $600 fee to run background and credential checks for Licensed Behavior Analysts. The North Carolina Psychology Board licenses behavior analysts who pass the $650 EPPP exam and consent to fingerprint cards. Use the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts site to check local licensing protocol.

How to Find a Degree for ABA Certification

College curriculum guidelines for earning ABA certification are very detailed. Choose a Verified Course Sequence (VCS) to double-check that educational requirements are exceeded. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board outlined the VCS coursework to help future BCBAs. Most VCS tracks lead to a master’s degree or post-baccalaureate certificate. Each entails 270+ hours of graduate higher education above the 400-level. Verified Course Sequences are delivered online, face-to-face, or in hybrid blends. Attending 100 percent online programs can aid working adults who need a flexible 24/7 format. Expect in-depth courses, such as Behavioral Assessment, Behavior Change Systems, and Experimental Design Methods. As of June 2020, the United States has 517 VCS options to pick from. Entering a Verified Course Sequence usually requires a bachelor’s degree, an overall GPA of 3.0 or better, and GRE scores.

Headquartered in Portage, Michigan, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) has also accredited 32 programs in America and abroad since 1974. The best ABA certification prep options will be accredited by the ABAI. Accreditation is a voluntary process in which universities prove their compliance with curriculum standards. Pursuing an accredited ABA degree helps students develop an exemplary track record. Some ABAI-accredited programs also have certification exam pass rates of 100 percent. Colleges with accredited master’s include Rollins College, Ohio State University, Simmons University, and the University of North Texas. Accredited doctorates are offered at West Virginia University, the University of Nevada-Reno, the Florida Institute of Technology, and more. If the desired schools aren’t ABAI-accredited, they must be regionally accredited. The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintains a database to check the regional accreditation status.

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.

Related Resource: 10 Best ABA Master’s Degree Programs

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. 

By ABA Staff

February 2022