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What Types of Certifications Are Necessary for an Applied Behavior Analyst?

What is ABA?An image of a therapist and autistic child for our article on what certifications are necessary for ABA

ABA stands for applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is using knowledge of behavior and motivation to help people change behaviors that are not desirable. ABA is known for being helpful for children with autism, but it is also useful for other disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD; post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD; and other behavioral issues. It can even be useful for someone who simply wants to change their habits, which is why behavior analysts sometimes work as life coaches. 

Applied behavior analysts often use the antecedent-behavior-consequence, or ABC, model of behavioral change. The antecedent is what comes before a behavior. The behavior then takes place. What takes place after the behavior is the consequence, and it is the consequence that determines whether the behavior is repeated. For example, one problematic behavior that could benefit from ABA is tantrums. A child might throw a tantrum whenever she wants a snack. In this example, whenever the child throws a tantrum, the parents of the child end up giving the child what she wants. The antecedent is wanting the snack. The behavior is the tantrum. The consequence is that the child gets the snack. This consequence makes the child much more likely to repeat the behavior in the future. However, if a behavior analyst works with the child, the behavior analyst would analyze the behavior, antecedent, and consequence to determine what should be changed in order to change the behavior. The behavior analyst changes the consequence, or what happens after the behavior. Now, the antecedent is wanting the snack. The behavior is throwing a tantrum. The result, however, is now that the child does not get the snack. Since the behavior has been, in the child’s view, unsuccessful, the child is now much less likely to repeat the behavior in the future. 

Applied behavior analysis was first developed in the 1970s by psychologists Ivaar Lovaas and Robert Koegel, according to an article from xcitesteps.com. At first, they used a subset of ABA known as discrete trial training, or DTT. Discrete trial training involves breaking a task into very small steps and teaching only one step at a time to avoid overwhelming the child who is learning. In Lovaas’ time, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement were used almost equally to obtain the desired behavior. Now, there are several different methods used in ABA. Some of these focus on creating a distraction-free environment, while others are more play-based. In addition, the focus has shifted from a mix of positive and negative reinforcement to almost entirely positive reinforcement. 

Certifications for ABAAn image of a woman studying at a computer for our article describing what certifications are needed for ABA

Individuals interested in pursuing an ABA career often ask what kind of certifications are necessary for an applied behavior analyst. An applied behavior analyst is an educational or psychological professional who evaluates individuals with behavioral issues, examines the impact that the environment has on behavior, and employs plans to help improve behaviors. Some states regulate behavior analysts and require BCBA licensure. Technically speaking, licensure is regulated by individual states and certification is regulated by, in this case, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, or BACB. However, in most cases, states rely on certification by the BACB in order to grant BCBA licensure, so it is, in many cases, equally relevant to research BCBA licensure and BCBA certification. The BACB Behavior Analyst Certification Board offers four certification options, some of which relate to BCBA certification and some of which have to do with ABA assistant certification. These certifications are: Registered Behavior Technician, Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and Board Certified Behavior Analyst Doctoral.

Registered Behavior Technician (RBT)

The Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) is a paraprofessional in the field who engages in the direct application of behavior analytic services, making this an ABA assistant certification. They do not design or modify the plans, they only carry out directions under the close supervision of those with higher certifications than the behavior assistant certification. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, have a minimum of a high-school diploma or equivalent, complete at least 40 hours of training, and pass a criminal background check, according to the BACB Behavior Analyst Certification Board. They must then take and pass the RBT Competency Assessment and the RBT examination. An RBT must also complete instruction and evaluation in ethics and professional conduct in order to maintain board behavior analyst certification. 

Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)

The BCaBA is an undergraduate-level certification that enables students to implement behavior analysis interventions. To gain the board behavior analyst certification, according to the BACB Behavior Analyst Certification Board, students must complete at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher learning. They must show proof of related coursework and a clear timeframe of supervised practical experience. Applicants must receive a satisfactory score on the BCaBA examination in order to receive this behavior assistant certification. Individuals who possess the BCaBA certification must work under the direct supervision of professionals who have been certified at the graduate level. To maintain the certification, individuals must complete continuing education, participate in confirmed ongoing supervision, and abide by the ethics requirements.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)

The BCBA is a graduate-level certification that enables professionals to work as independent practitioners in the field. These professionals supervise Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts, Registered Behavior Technicians, and other individuals who apply behavior analysis interventions. The certification requires a graduate degree in the field from an accredited institution of higher learning, advanced training in behavior analysis, a certain amount of time of supervised practical experience or a full-time faculty position in the field, and a satisfactory score on the BCBA examination, according to the BACB Behavior Analyst Certification Board. To maintain the certification, individuals must complete continuing education and abide by the ethics requirements. Those seeking to provide supervision must finish extra training and continuing education requirements.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst Doctoral (BCBA-D)An image of a man taking a test for our article on what certifications are needed for ABA

The BCBA-D a is doctoral-level certification that provides the same level of certification as the BCBA, according to the BACB Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Individuals who gain the BCBA-D credential work in the same capacity as those with the BCBA certification. They supervise the work of Registered Behavior Technicians, Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts, and other professionals who employ behavior analysis modifications. The doctoral designation requires individuals to possess a qualifying doctoral degree and an active BCBA certification in satisfactory standing. To maintain the certification, individuals must re-certify, complete continuing education, and abide by the ethics requirements. Those certified at the BCBA-D level who wish to supervise must complete supplementary training and continuing education requirements. 

What traits make a good behavioral analyst?

BCBA licensure, behavioral analyst certification, and behavioral certification are all important. It’s important to consider, though, that there are more specific traits that are important for people in the applied behavior analysis field. We have listed a few of them below. Keep in mind that this is not a complete list, but it may be helpful as you consider whether this is the right field for you. 

Patience

In addition to obtaining behavioral analyst certification, it is important to be patient. Behavior analysts often work with young children who have behavioral or communication challenges. This means that they will have to deal with potentially unpleasant situations, especially when they first start working with the child. Some children may even attempt to harm the behavior analyst, depending on what behavior challenges they have and what age they are. The therapist must remain in control of themselves and the situation and not take any of these challenges personally. In addition, progress may be slow. A child may do something well one time and appear to have entirely forgotten how to do it the next time. It is important that the behavior therapist be patient with the child and the challenges that may arise in their progress.

Curiosity An image of a behavioral therapist taking notes for our article on what certifications are needed to be a behavior analyst

Due to the nature of applied behavior analysis, professionals in this field, even once they have achieved behavioral certification, must continue learning in order to keep up with the latest techniques and information in ABA. This means that people who want to be applied behavior analysts must have a certain amount of natural curiosity, especially about their field of study. They must also have a sense of fun and be able to play with their young patients, which will lead to a greater understanding of what makes them act the way that they do. Because of this understanding, the behavior analyst will be able to help them change their behavior to be better for themselves and others. 

Big-Picture Thinking

Big-picture thinking is another trait to consider when pursuing behavioral certification. Progress can be slow in ABA. As mentioned above, a child may learn a skill very well during one session, but have forgotten how to do it the next. A child may make progress up to a certain point and then seem to entirely stop making progress. It is important that the therapist be able to see the big picture and understand how each tiny bit of progress adds up to behavior change as a whole. This is why behavior analysts often keep detailed records of progress and plans. Also, big-picture thinking is important for planning ahead. Each skill that the child acquires builds on a previous skill that has been taught, so it is important to plan. The behavior analyst must determine not only what the child needs to learn, but how and when the child needs to learn it.

Compassion

Behavioral certification is important, but so is caring about the people that you are going to end up working with. At its core, ABA is about helping people. It is about understanding what makes people do the things that they do, and helping them to change behavior that is not helpful to them or the people around them. This means that behavior analysts must have a great deal of compassion for the people they are helping. Their patients may have – indeed, they almost certainly will have – different forms of issues or challenges, whether this is with behavior or communication or something else. The behavior analyst must be ready to help with those challenges, putting the patient first. A compassionate behavior analyst will be ready to meet the patient where they are and not judge them unfairly for the behavior problems they experience. 

People Skills

This field involves a great deal of interaction with people. This happens on several levels. One level is the interaction between ABA staff. There is often one or more members of the supervising staff, such as a BCBA or BCBA-D, helped by an RBT and/or a BCaBA. These people must work together as a team. Those who are supervising must be confident and able to make plans and decisions well. Those who are under supervision must accept the decisions of those who are supervising them. Another level on which ABA professionals interact with other people is with their patients. They must be compassionate and patient with these individuals, whose social skills may be very poor to begin with. A third group of people that behavior therapists must interact with is the parents of the children they are working with. Parents may be worried about their children, and the behavior therapist may need to reassure them. In addition, parents play an enormous role in maintaining the new skills their child is learning. In the example described at the beginning of this article, the behavior analyst responded differently than the parents did to an undesirable behavior that the child exhibited. The parents now must respond in this new way as well. The behavior analyst must communicate the importance of this to parents, as well as answering their questions.

In Conclusion: ABA Certification An image of a little boy in ABA therapy for our article on ABA certification

Working in the applied behavior analysis field is ideal for those who want to make a difference in the lives of individuals and groups suffering from various behavioral issues. Understanding what kind of certifications are necessary for an applied behavior analyst is an essential step to entering this rewarding and challenging field.

ABADP Staff

January 2022

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This concludes our article on behavioral analyst certification.