If you’re interested in pursuing a career in behavior analysis, you might wonder what difference there is between an applied behavior analyst (ABA) and a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). The simple answer is a question of degree, but there’s more to the story. In the article below, we’ll explore the roles of these specialized psychology professionals in the therapeutic sphere and provide greater clarity on the factors that differentiate them.
Foundational Definitions and Clarification
Many different psychology professionals or special education teachers with the appropriate background can work with the tenets of applied behavior analysis because it is a pedagogical and therapeutic approach. This suite of theories is founded on the belief that behavior is learned and hence can be taught through interventions, even to those individuals with behavioral and emotional disorders.
Professionals who work with individuals with autism spectrum disorders often utilize the approach to reinforce social behaviors and interactive skills. However, ABA is not an autism-specific approach, as other therapeutic stances are. Those who do not possess a master’s or doctoral degree and have not been board certified are commonly known as applied behavior analysis therapists. That doesn’t mean that these therapists lack credentials in their own right. Rather, it helps to clarify matters in the search for employment.
Often, when an institution, school or healthcare facility advertises job openings for an applied behavior analyst, what they want is a board-certified behavior analyst. This designation requires an individual to have a master’s degree in the particular field of behavior analysis and certification, which is provided by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). They also provide an assistant level certification for individuals who have completed undergraduate work in the area but have not yet attained a graduate degree, and a doctoral level certification.
Applied Behavior Analysis and Its Contexts
This field has two main branches—experimental and applied. The former provides theoretical frameworks based upon focused observation and controlled experimentation. The latter implements the theoretical frameworks and approaches designed by their colleagues and provides feedback about efficacy in the field. Both ABA therapists and BCBA’s can work directly with individuals in a therapeutic setting, providing guidance and structure for those with several disorders, from Autism Spectrum Disorders to people with antisocial personality disorder, bipolar depression, and other emotional complications.
The difference is that an ABA therapist works under the guidance of a supervisor, usually a BCBA, who designs overarching programs for staff and students or clients. Those with board certification may work in a variety of therapeutic settings and help many different types of patients. However, the core principal of applied behavior analysis remains constant—small or simple actions form the foundation for larger and more complex behavioral hierarchies.
Both BCBAs and ABA therapists can work with many different types of people. While particular attention is given to their endeavors with those who have autism spectrum disorders, these specialists are often called upon to assist in any context that requires skill acquisition or changing a behavioral hierarchy via therapeutic intervention. They may work with children, teens, and adults who have suffered prolonged abuse and modified their behaviors to their situations. These therapists may also work with astronauts, who must change every behavior to maximize benefit and prevent injury or physical degeneration in a zero-gee environment.
Certification, the Organization, and Requirements
Although ABA therapists may have other advanced degrees in psychology, education, or other salient fields, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board outlines specific requirements for credentialed BCBAs. First is that the individual must have a graduate degree in a specified discipline—either behavioral analysis, education, or a range of courses delineated by the BACB.
The organizational code of ethics is an integral part of this organization’s efficacy. Those wishing to retain or re-certify must abide by these professional ethical guidelines at all times. This body of ethics regulates how behavior analysts will accept clients, design treatment programs, provide consultation, and even interact with other analysts in a professional capacity. In essence, it allows the discipline to police itself and maintains a high degree of integrity and client trust.
Even as a board certified behavior analyst, if you wish to take on a supervisory role, the BACB stipulates that you must complete additional training and education. Once you’ve attained certification, you must update that status every two years by submitting documents requested by the board, paying required fees, and adhering to the board’s ethics code.
Continuing education may be in the form of additional academic coursework or certificate programs related to the field. Up to 25 percent of credits may be in the form of workshops, publication, or other informal educational events. You must complete four continuing education units (CEU) every two years to maintain your certification.
Career Trajectory and Designations
It’s important to remember that not all who utilize the tenets of applied behavioral analysis are required to be certified as BCBAs. Many individuals with advanced degrees in psychology or special education who work with people with emotional disorders and behavioral disabilities may consider it one of the several theoretical stances at their avail.
They may be certified specifically to work with those who register on the autism spectrum, or they may conduct focused social work with victims of trauma, abuse, or natural disasters. The American Psychological Association (APA), which is also concerned with maintaining high ethical and educational standards among practitioners, offers a post-doctoral certification in behavioral psychology, which parallels the purpose of the BACB’s certification hierarchy.
Because applied behavior analysis is now a prescribed form of therapy for individuals, it is often covered by insurance and also considered a field in which the government may choose to require additional licensure. The BACB is a non-governmental body, and the certification is largely a matter of prestige and reputation among fellows and clientele. Government licenses are often required to conduct ABA therapy in a private practice forum, and supervision of non-licensed practitioners by a license holder is required in many states.
Applied behavior analysis offers structured interventions and rational action plans for many types of clients. It focuses on core or foundation activities in the simplest form and builds towards complexity, making it useful for athletes, astronauts, individuals struggling with addiction to behaviors and substances, those who have emotional and cognitive disorders, and those who fall on the autism spectrum. However, knowing the difference between an applied behavior analyst or therapist and a board-certified behavior analyst can help you to tailor your own educational and professional trajectory.