ABA Therapist and BCBA Meaning-Understanding the difference between an ABA Therapist and a BCBA

Making sense of ABA BCBA and autism behavioral analyst

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in behavior analysis, you might wonder what about different job roles within the field. You’ve likely seen job postings for a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or an applied behavior analyst therapist. In the article below, we’ll explore the roles of these specialized psychology professionals in the therapeutic sphere. We’ll also provide greater clarity on the factors that differentiate them.  You’ll learn the BCBA meaning and what it takes to be an ABA therapist.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis

Autism behavioral analyst

Although behavioral psychology is not a new perspective, applied behavior analysis didn’t appear until the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis was created in 1968.  Around that time, Dr. Ivar Lovaas and his student, Robert Koegel, studied the behavior of children with autism spectrum disorder.  They described what we call ABA, therapists working with children and their families to promote appropriate behavior.

Applied behavior analysis follows 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. Professionals who work with individuals with autism spectrum disorders utilize the approach to reinforce social behaviors and interactive skills. Individuals with behavioral and emotional disorders are able to learn new behaviors.

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ABA practitioners help individuals increase helpful or positive behavior.  This results in a decrease in behaviors that interfere with learning or cause harm.  They use ABA to understand:

  • How behavior works
  • How learning takes place
  • How behavior is influenced by environmental factors

Applied behavior analysis is a flexible treatment that is helpful for a variety of individuals.  Therapists can tailor the program to meet the needs of their clients.  ABA can:

  • Be used across different locations including school and home
  • Teach individuals useful, real-life skills
  • Be adapted to meet the needs of each individual

Insurance Implications

Because applied behavior analysis is now a prescribed form of therapy for individuals, it is often covered by insurance.  All Medicaid plans cover ABA treatment that is deemed medically necessary.  All 50 states have taken government action to require coverage for ABA therapies.  Unfortunately, the type of insurance plan dictates which treatment options are covered and how to advocate for change.  As an ABA therapist or BCBA, you should become familiar with coverage challenges in your state.

State Licensing Requirements

It’s also considered a field in which the government may choose to require additional licensure. The BACB is a non-governmental body.  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.  Supervision of non-licensed practitioners by a license holder is required in many states.

How does Applied Behavior Analysis Work?

The concept behind ABA is pretty simple.  When behavior is rewarded, it’s more likely to be repeated.  These rewards, over time, encourage positive behavior changes.

A therapist works with the individual and/or their family to identify a target behavior.  Each time the individual engages in the behavior they are rewarded.  The reward must be meaningful.  Rewards are highly individualized so they are effective.

It’s important to understand why a behavior is happening.  Understanding antecedents and consequences is another important area of ABA.

  • Antecedent: This is what happened right before the target behavior.  Many different things can make up the antecedent.  The antecedent could be a verbal request.  It could be something in the environment such as a sound or an object.  Sometimes an antecedent is an internal thought or feeling.
  • Behavior: The behavior is how an individual responds (or doesn’t respond) to the antecedent.  The behavior can be verbal, an action, or something else entirely.
  • Consequence: The consequence is what comes after the behavior.  The consequence can be a positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.  It could be verbal praise, a favorite toy, a snack, or even a smile.  The consequence could also be a lack of reaction or response to an undesirable behavior.

ABA could be useful to help a child that has a difficult time transitioning from play time to a meal.  An example of ABA used at home might look like this.  An autism behavioral analyst asks a child to pick up their stuffed animals after play time (Antecedent).  The child might be prompted to ask if they can have additional time with their stuffed animals (behavior).  The teacher could respond by telling them they can have 10 additional minutes (consequence).

Foundational Definitions and Clarification

An ABA therapist and a BCBA both provide a valuable therapeutic treatment approach to their clients.  While the professions are similar, there are some distinct differences that we will explore.

What is the BCBA definition?

Most of the time when an organization or healthcare facility has a job opening for an ABA certified therapist, they are looking for a BCBA.  BCBA stands for board-certified behavior analyst. Board Certified Behavior Analysts have a master’s degree in behavior analysis (or a closely related area.) They’ve completed additional requirements and earned certification through the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB).  The Behavior Analyst Certification Board also offers an assistant level certification. This certification is great choice for professionals with a bachelor’s degree or undergraduate work and experience in ABA.

A BCBA can work in many different settings.  They work in schools, hospitals and social service agencies.  They support ABA therapists who work directly with clients by providing:

  • support
  • guidance
  • resources

What is an ABA Therapist?

An ABA therapist is a professional who specializes in treating behavior problems.  They primarily work with individuals with autism spectrum disorders.  An ABA therapist most often works 1:1 with a child, but they may also work with a small group of children.  They help their clients work on goals related to”

  • Communication
  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Play
  • Motor Skills
  • Learning

An ABA therapist typically works under the supervision of a BCBA.  An ABA therapist needs a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a closely related field.

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 applied branch implements the theoretical frameworks and approaches designed by their colleagues. They provide feedback about efficacy in the field. Both ABA therapists and BCBA’s can work directly with individuals in a therapeutic setting. They provide guidance and structure for those with several disorders including:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Bipolar Depression
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Other emotional complications

An ABA therapist works under the guidance of a supervisor, usually a BCBA therapist. The BCBA designs overarching programs for staff and students or clients. The ABA therapist carries out the programs and provides feedback to the BCBA. Those with board certification work in a variety of therapeutic settings and help many different types of patients.

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However, the core principle 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. An ABA BCBA or therapist works with individuals with 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
  • adults

They also work with individuals who have suffered prolonged abuse. Some applied behavior analysis professionals even work with astronauts! Astronauts benefit from the help of an ABA professional while preparing for space missions. They must change their behavior to maximize benefits and prevent injury or physical degeneration in a zero-gee environment

Certification, the Organization, and Requirements

ABA therapists may have advanced degrees in psychology, education, or other salient fields.  The Behavior Analyst Certification Board outlines specific educational requirements for BCBA certification.  The BACB has created four distinct pathways to become a BCBA.

  • Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Accredited Degree: Graduates have a master’s degree or doctorate from an ABAI accredited program and complete supervised independent fieldwork.
  • Behavior-Analytic Coursework: Candidates must have a master’s degree from a qualifying institution and complete behavior-analytic coursework.  They must complete supervised fieldwork in ABA.
  • Faculty Teaching and Research: Candidates have a master’s or doctorate degree from a qualifying institution.  They have at least three years of cumulative full-time work as a faculty member at a qualifying institution within a five-year period.  They must complete supervised fieldwork in ABA.
  • Postdoctoral Experience: Candidates must have a doctoral degree from a qualifying institution.  They must have 10 years of full-time cumulative experience practicing ABA.  They must complete supervised fieldwork in ABA.
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board

The organizational code of ethics is an integral part of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’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
  • 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.

If you wish to take on a supervisory role as a BCBA, the BACB stipulates that you must complete additional training and education. Once you’ve attained certification, you must update that status every two years.  You should submitting documents requested by the board, pay required fees, and adhere to the board’s ethics code.

BCBA Certification Maintenance Requirements

BCBA’s must maintain their certification to stay active.  They need to:

  • Adhere to the BACB’s ethics and self-reporting requirements
  • Submit a completed recertification application and pay associated fees every two years
  • Obtain 32 continuing education units

Practitioners can earn three types of continuing education units (CEU).  These include:

  • Learning: Practitioners can attend events offered by Authorized Continuing Education (ACE) Providers, complete didactive behavior-analytic graduate courses, or participate in certain BACB certification activities.
  • Teaching: Practitioners can teach ACE events or teach university courses in behavior analysis at a qualifying institution.
  • Scholarship: Practitioners can publish an article on behavior analysis in a peer reviewed journal.  They could also write a review or decision letter on an article in behavior analysis and submit to a peer reviewed journal.

Career Trajectory and Designations

Behavior analysts who choose to practice ABA may choose to work specifically to work with those who register on the autism spectrum.  They may also conduct focused work with victims of trauma, abuse, or natural disasters.  Other behavior analysts work with individuals with mental health challenges.  ABA and BCBA therapists usually work with children, but they may work with individuals of all ages.

An ABA therapist is considered an entry-level role.  They can advance their career by earning a graduate degree and gaining fieldwork experience.  Some may even decide to become BCBAs.  Many colleges and universities offer a doctorate degree related to applied behavior analysis.

The salary of a BCBA is often higher than an ABA therapist.  This is because the BCBA has more qualifications and experience in ABA therapy.  According to Indeed, the average base salary for a BCBA in the US is $73,197/year.   The average salary for an ABA therapist is $50,208/year.

It’s important to remember that not all who utilize the tenets of applied behavioral analysis are required to be certified as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Many individuals with advanced degrees in psychology or special education working with people with emotional disorders or behavioral disabilities consider ABA just one of the several theoretical stances at their avail.

The American Psychological Association (APA), is concerned with maintaining high ethical and educational standards among practitioners.  They offer a post-doctoral certification in behavioral psychology.  This certification parallels the purpose of the BACB’s certification hierarchy.

Related Resource: Top 15 Online Applied Behavior Analysis Bachelor’s Degree and BCaBA Coursework Programs 2021

ABA vs BCBA How to Decide?

Both career paths can be rewarding, so how do you decide?  Here are a couple of tips to help you make this important decision.

  • Talk to industry experts- Research organizations in your area and meet with professionals working in each role.  Find out what they like or dislike about their role.  Learn what their day typically looks like.
  • Consider your level of education- Do you want a masters degree?  Are you satisfied with a bachelor’s degree and just want to get started in your career?  These are important considerations to make.
  • Think long term- Is ABA a stepping-stone toward your ultimate career goals in a different area (maybe special education?)  Consider your long-term career plan and adjust accordingly.

Putting it All Together

Applied behavior analysis offers structured interventions for many types of clients. ABA focuses on core or foundation activities in the simplest form and builds towards complexity.  It’s useful for:

  • athletes
  • astronauts
  • individuals struggling with addiction, behaviors and substances
  • those with emotional and cognitive disorders
  • individuals who fall on the autism spectrum

It’s important to understand the difference between an ABA therapist and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.  This knowledge can help you tailor your own educational and professional trajectory.