Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), broadly speaking, is the utilization of the science of learning and behavior to aid in functioning. ABA involves working with individuals toward the reduction of maladaptive / problematic behaviors and the reinforcement of adaptive / socially valid behaviors, within the confines of ethical and evidence-based practice applied with fidelity to existing protocols. While ABA is perhaps best known as a set of principles used in the treatment of issues related to neurodevelopmental syndromes including Autism Spectrum Disorder and other disabilities, it is also practiced in a wider array of realms which involve mental health and/or behavioral change. ABA is a therapy which essentially relies on the basic principles of behaviorism, arguing that behavioral patterns are learned phenomena. As the Behavior Analyst Certification Board states, ABA is “based on the premise that attempts to improve the human condition through behavior change (e.g., education, behavioral health treatment) will be most effective if behavior itself is the primary focus.” Similarly, this Autism Speaks page notes that ABA emphasizes positive reinforcement, analysis of antecedents and consequences, and teaching/modeling as key components of the treatment aimed at positive shaping. The intervention targets of ABA treatments tend to include chronic difficulties with social-emotional processing and communication, bolstering interpersonal skills, building routine and structure, and enhancing activities of daily living. However, learners vary widely and the target interventions can address many different issues (e.g., gerontology, sports, organizational management, health/fitness, and other clinical concerns).
ABA professionals are people who are interested in behaviorism and who value the process of seeing others gradually grow and improve. Their overarching philosophy is aligned with the science of learning–an objective, data-based, empirical approach to human issues wherein progress is tracked closely alongside structured intervention plans. The daily work activities of an ABA professional vary widely based on location, clientele, and level of training and experience. For example, an entry-level behavior technician may spend much of their time working one-on-one with clients/learners in monitoring and adjusting target behaviors–meanwhile a more advanced ABA provider may split their time between supervision of technicians, individual treatment planning, parent training, research and teaching, or other forms of professional consultation.
ABA clinicians can be employed in a range of settings. Perhaps the most common work location is outpatient agencies devoted to serving clients with similar presenting concerns (e.g., Autism centers, developmental disability clinics). However, they do also find positions in schools, agencies, research centers / universities, hospitals, businesses, and other places.
There is a wide variety of ways to engage in ABA professionally, with some of the entry-level positions requiring only a High School degree and on-site training, with others requiring a Master’s degree, license, board-certification, and sometimes even more! The appropriate career/training path for you will depend greatly upon your long-term goals and the sorts of typical work tasks you wish to focus upon. With greater levels of training and certification, one is afforded higher pay, more independence, and more autonomy over how they build their career.
Degree: The minimum degree required to work as a Behavior Technician is a High School degree, but some locations may require a Bachelor’s degree. While there do exist Bachelor’s degree programs specifically in Applied Behavior Analysis, they are not particularly common–thus many people will major in college in a subject such as Education, Psychology, Social Work, Communication, or Kinesiology. For those seeking advanced options, there are Master’s degrees specifically in ABA as well as those in topics such as Special Education within which there may be a graduate-level ABA certificate. Finally, the highest level of education is a doctorate in ABA.
Certification: The entry-level / pre-certification status of someone working in ABA would be “Behavior Technician” (BT). Once a BT has passed the certification test and engaged in adequate training/supervision, they can apply to become a “Registered Behavior Technician” (RBT). The next level up in certification would be the “Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst” (BCaBA), which is an undergraduate-level title. At the graduate-level, typically attained alongside a Master’s degree, is the “Board Certified Behavior Analyst” (BCBA) certification. Finally, there exists the “Board Certified Behavior Analyst – Doctoral” (BCBA-D) certification title for those achieving the highest education level in this field. Each certification level (RBT, BCaBA, BCBA, and BCBA-D) has an accompanying set of requirements involving a certification exam, renewal/maintenance requirements, and supervision/training. The handbook of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board details all this.
License: The state of Michigan recognizes two licensing levels in this field. There is the title of “Licensed Assistant Behavior Analyst” (LABA), and the more advanced title of “Licensed Behavior Analyst” (LBA), the latter of which typically requires a minimum of a Master’s degree. See the Michigan LARA page for more information.
Training: As noted above, entry-level positions in ABA may only require on-site training (e.g., BT’s and RBT’s). Training for advanced titles is available at numerous universities in Michigan and elsewhere. For instance, WSU offers an undergraduate minor/certificate, SVSU offers a graduate-level certificate program, MSU offers a Master’s program as well as an online graduate certificate program, and WMU offers a doctoral program in addition to programs at each lower level. As this is a rapidly growing field, there are many training programs available and there will likely be more created in the coming years. As the BACB states, “you only receive your initial training once… don’t pick your training out of convenience, expense, or geography.” Instead, thoroughly research your options and select based on quality and fit to your goals!
ABA’s are often motivated by the rewarding satisfaction of seeing others learn, grow, and improve. For technicians, this obviously applies specifically to the learners with whom they are working on various skills. But for advanced ABAs, this may also refer to seeing the technicians grow in their skills, seeing parents become more adept in communicating with their children, seeing research evidence in this field accumulate, and more broadly seeing the ABA movement flourish. Many aspects of this field are rewarding and the services provided are of crucial social value.
Relevant State-Level Organizations
Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan (BAAM)
Michigan Behavior Analysis Provider Association (MiBAP)
Upper Peninsula Association of Behavior Analysis (UP-ABA)
Relevant National/International Organizations
Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAi)
Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)
Applied Behavior Analysis