If you are interested in mental health and are looking for a career that will allow you to help people lead happier lives, becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) is one option that you may want to consider.

Below, we’ll cover what exactly a BCBA is, what they do, and cover the critical steps you need to take in order to have a successful career in behavioral health.

What is a BCBA?

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s® website, the “Board Certified Behavior Analyst is a graduate-level certification in behavior analysis. Professionals certified at the BCBA level are independent practitioners who provide behavior-analytic services.”

Once you have become a BCBA, in addition to directly providing behavioral health services, you will be able to supervise the work of Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts® (BCaBAs®), Registered Behavior Technicians® (RBTs®), and other professionals who implement behavior-analytic interventions.

In short, a BCBA is a professional who studies the behavior of children and adults—including those with developmental disabilities, brain injuries, and/or emotional or social issues—and creates plans to improve or change problematic behavior.

Steps to Becoming a BCBA

1. Earn a Relevant Bachelor’s Degree.

Ultimately, because you will need to earn a graduate degree in order to become a BCBA, you’ll need to complete an undergraduate degree first. This means you will need to earn a relevant undergraduate degree at an accredited institution prior to enrolling in a graduate program.

To start, consider earning an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in psychology, education, or applied behavior analysis, as these are the most common degrees earned by BCBAs.

Keep in mind that earning an undergraduate degree geared more toward human behavior is useful but not necessarily a requirement to apply for a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis.

2. Complete Required Behavior-Analytic Graduate Coursework.

In order to earn your certification, you must earn a graduate degree that meets certain coursework requirements set by the BACB®.

According to the BACB, students have two potential pathways to meeting this requirement:

Pathway One: ABAI-Accredited Graduate Program

Behavior-analytic graduate degree programs that have been accredited by ABAI have met ABAI’s Accreditation Standards, which include standards for the curriculum, faculty, and resources, among other areas.

This pathway requires applicants to successfully complete 270 classroom hours of graduate-level classes in specific concentrations. Generally, the coursework includes concepts on ethical and professional conduct and research methods, principles, and concepts in behavior analysis.

Pathway Two: Verified Course Sequence

This option requires you to complete behavior-analytic coursework through a Verified Course Sequence. Although some Verified Course Sequences are embedded in an ABAI-accredited graduate program, many are not. Verified Course Sequence status merely indicates that the content-hour requirements for certain behavior-analytic courses have been reviewed.

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3. Complete Required Supervised Fieldwork.

As a part of your graduate coursework, you’ll also need to complete supervised fieldwork in applied behavior analysis.

First, it’s important to understand BACB’s supervisor requirements. Your supervisor must have one of the following certifications:

  • An active BCBA without current disciplinary sanctions who has been certified for at least one year and meets an ongoing supervision CEU requirement;
  • An active BCBA without current disciplinary sanctions who has been certified for less than one year and is receiving consultation on a monthly basis from a qualified consulting supervisor;
  • A licensed or registered psychologist certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology who was tested in applied behavior analysis; or
  • An authorized Verified Course Sequence Instructor.

Once you have your supervisor, you’ll complete your field requirements. What exactly are they? Below is a breakdown.

Fieldwork Hour Requirements

Depending on the type of fieldwork hours you accrue, you’ll need to complete either 2,000 Supervised Fieldwork hours or 1,500 Concentrated Supervised Fieldwork hours to meet your requirement.

But before you get started, know that you can’t start accumulating fieldwork hours until you have first secured a qualified supervisor. And, depending on the pathway you’re taking, you’ll need the following:

  • If you’re applying under Pathway One or Two, you must have started qualifying graduate-level behavior-analytic coursework (you may begin accruing hours after attending the first class meeting) OR
  • For fieldwork to be counted, a passing grade of “C” or higher in a graded course or “pass” in a pass/fail system must be earned in the qualifying behavior-analytic course.

There are some restrictions to keep in mind as you accrue your fieldwork hours.

For example, you must accrue a minimum of 20 but no more than 130 hours of fieldwork per month, and they include independent hours (supervisor not present) and supervised hours (supervisor present). Also, the duration of your fieldwork may not exceed five continuous years.

Client Requirements

As far as clients you work with during your fieldwork, anyone (or group of people) for whom behavior-analytic services are appropriate may be a client. However, you may not be related to the client, be the client’s primary caregiver, or be related to the client’s primary caregiver.

During your hours, you must work with, be observed by, and receive feedback from your supervisor for multiple clients during the experience. This requirement is applicable for the duration of the fieldwork (i.e., not per supervisory period).

Fieldwork Activities

While completing your fieldwork, your focus is on acquiring the skills necessary to demonstrate competence in behavior analysis and to interact effectively with consumers, supervisors, families, and others.

Your supervisor will help you determine which activities qualify for field hours, but you should expect to have several experiences in different settings and with different populations.

According to BACB, fieldwork consists of the following:

  • Conducting assessments related to the need for behavior intervention (e.g., stimulus preference assessment, functional assessment, staff performance assessment) or for evaluating behavior interventions;
  • Designing, implementing, and systematically monitoring skill-acquisition and behavior reduction programs;
  • Writing behavior plans, progress summaries, clinical notes, transition summaries, and professional correspondence;
  • Overseeing the implementation of behavior-analytic programs by others;
  • training others, designing behavior systems, and performance management;
  • Communicating and collaborating effectively with caregivers and other professionals; and
  • Other activities that are normally performed by a behavior analyst, such as attending planning meetings regarding the behavior-analytic program and researching the information that is relevant to a current client’s programming.

4. Apply for, Take, and Pass the BCBA Exam.

Once you’ve completed both your course- and fieldwork, it’s time to take the BCBA exam. You’ll need to apply (and pay application costs) to take the exam first, then pass it, all through Pearson Vue.

The exam tests the knowledge you’ve gained and skills to become a BCBA, such as basic behavior analytic skills, experimental design, and behavior-change procedures, and consists of 160 questions. Candidates have four hours to complete it.

As with most standardized tests, you can study with third-party practice materials to help prepare for the exam.

5. Apply for State Licensure

The final step to becoming a certified BCBA is to apply for state licensure in the state you wish to practice, should there be a license requirement. You will also need to maintain your license and certification by meeting requirements related to ethics and continuing education.

Advancing Your Career

If you’re considering becoming a BCBA, it’s critical to ensure your education—specifically, your graduate education—sets you up for success. In evaluating master’s level programs, one factor you should consider is the university’s pass rate.

You can find information about university pass rates on the BACB website. For example, the on-campus Applied Behavior Analysis program at Regis college is 89 percent.

Why does pass rate matter so much? Because the higher a university’s pass rate, the more likely it is that that program will prepare you to pass the BCBA exam—and ultimately lead a successful career.

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