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What does a behavior analyst do and how do you become one?

November 12, 2020 by University of Massachusetts Global


Every teacher recognizes how important it is to help children learn good habits and how to react appropriately to different situations. For instance, an instructor might reinforce positive conduct by awarding a sticker or discourage acting out by revoking computer lab free time. Believe it or not, this general approach to behavior modification can work for individuals of all ages — just so long as a trained behavior analyst is facilitating the process.

As experts who employ techniques and treatments that drive positive outcomes, behavior analysts serve important functions in numerous environments. But while it’s easy to understand how valuable these professionals are, it’s less clear what their day-to-day work entails. What does a behavior analyst do? What exactly is their role?

“We are problem-solvers for things that society needs help with,” says Sharon Noble, former special education teacher, current University of Massachusetts Global instructor and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

From Noble’s perspective, there are a number of specifics anyone considering becoming a behavior analyst should know. Perhaps her insight will help you understand whether this career is right for you.

What does a behavior analyst do? Exploring this professional path

To gain a better sense of what it’s like to be a behavior analyst, it’s worth digging into more than just some typical duties. It’s a more expansive field than you might expect.

What sort of work does a behavior analyst do?

BCBAs are professionals who help solve behavior-related issues in all sorts of environments. Their field, which is called applied behavior analysis (ABA), is most commonly associated with treating children on the autism spectrum. While that’s certainly one use, there are so many others as well. ABA is leveraged in education, human resources and even mobile app development.

“Behavior is shaped through a learning history of consequences that have been applied to the behavior,” Noble explains. “If we get reinforced from swiping across the screen, we’ll swipe again and continue to do it in the future.”

So what does a behavior analyst do, exactly? Specific tasks will vary depending on their area of focus, but there are certain duties that span the entire field. Noble says these general responsibilities, which summarize the much more detailed list of skills and knowledge required to pass the BCBA exam, are common among all behavior analysts:

  • Meeting with families, teachers and other clients to discuss behavior problems that need to be addressed
  • Observing behavior in environments
  • Collecting data related to the frequency, duration and rate of concerning behaviors
  • Generating graphs to track changes
  • Analyzing information to determine appropriate interventions
  • Applying techniques to achieve objectives
  • Adjusting interventions as necessary

There are numerous techniques behavior analysts use to help achieve desired outcomes. For instance, token economy systems award points of some sort that can be redeemed for rewards to help reinforce desired behavior. Another example is discrete trial training, which teaches a new skill or behavior by breaking it down into a series of steps. There’s also an emerging technique called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that can be incredibly useful for treating issues that occur within our own consciousness.

“ACT therapy is really the first tool that we have in ABA to address some of the issues in that private, internal space,” Noble, who led a webinar on the topic, says. “That includes things like depression, anxiety and phobias.”

What are some behavior analyst specialties?

ABA is an incredibly expansive field. As such, there are numerous subspecialty areas focused on different populations that behavior analysts can choose from. It’s worth noting that there are options to further focus your career on a specific sub area, but there are 12 main subspecialties:

  • Behavioral treatment of autism and other developmental disabilities
  • Organizational behavior management
  • Behavior analysis in brain injury rehabilitation
  • Behavioral gerontology
  • Clinical behavior analysis
  • Behavior analysis in education
  • Behavioral sport psychology
  • Prevention and behavioral intervention of child maltreatment
  • Behavioral treatment of substance use disorders
  • Behavior analysis in environmental sustainability
  • Behavior analysis in health and fitness
  • Behavioral pediatrics

Because BCBAs work in so many different disciplines, their professional environments are equally as varied. An education specialist might work in a school or even travel across an entire district. A specialist in behavioral gerontology, conversely, would likely be found at a health care facility or nursing home. Some behavior analysts even work with individuals at their home residences.

Choosing an area of focus can be daunting given the sheer number of options. It’s worth considering how these specialties differ in terms of the people you interact with, the locations where you work and even the corresponding schedules — some roles involve mostly working during evenings and weekends.

“I think you should align with something you’re passionate about,” Noble suggests. “You also have to understand what the commitments are and then make a decision based on how that fits with your life and what you value.”

How can you determine if becoming a behavior analyst is right for you?

As with any career, there are pros and cons to being a behavior analyst that you’ll need to weigh. One downside is there will be days when you might feel stressed or frustrated by a lack of progress. Depending on the specific role, it can simply feel as though there aren’t enough hours in the day. Noble says this is particularly true for behavior analysts who work in education.

“The workload can be daunting,” she states. “Most school districts ask a lot of their BCBAs.”

On the other hand, there are plenty of positive things about becoming a behavior analyst. Obtaining the BCBA credential can increase your earning potential and open up numerous job opportunities. Many behavior analysts also find their work to be incredibly rewarding. For Noble, the satisfaction of helping children on the autism spectrum far outweighed any negatives.

“The problem-solving to make their lives easier and give them new skills that really help them succeed is just wonderful,” she says. “I wouldn’t have done anything else.”

How to become a behavior analyst

Every aspiring behavior analyst needs to graduate with a bachelor’s degree before even thinking about next steps. The good news is you have some freedom to major in whatever subject interests you the most. Common options include psychology, early childhood education or social work.

From there, you can proceed in a few ways. The first option is to obtain a graduate degree in applied behavior analysis from an appropriately accredited program. But starting January 1, 2022, candidates with a master’s degree in any concentration can pursue certification so long as they complete additional coursework as outlined by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). It’s worth noting that some schools, such as University of Massachusetts Global, offer a certificate program that fulfills these additional education requirements. This is a good option for students who want to start preparing for the BCBA exam as soon as possible. 

Upon finishing all education requirements, you’ll then need to complete a supervised fieldwork experience. There are a few potential paths, but most candidates will devote 2,000 hours to this practical training requirement. While you’re free to accumulate experience in a number of settings and with more than one supervisor, Noble says it can be difficult to find multiple placements. Furthermore, it’s probably a better idea to seek continual guidance from someone who already works in the specialty you’re pursuing.

“It should be a mentor-mentee relationship,” Noble advises. “You want your supervisor to be someone who you can really learn from.”

At this point, when you’ve met coursework and supervision requirements, you’ll want to apply to the BACB, submit all required documents and receive your authorization to test. You’ll then register for the exam through Pearson VUE. Results are available right after the test, and your certification becomes effective immediately.

Of course, the learning isn’t done once you pass your exam. The field is constantly evolving as new research emerges. As such, you’ll need to complete continuing education requirements throughout your career to maintain your certification.

Make an impact as a behavior analyst

What does a behavior analyst do? It really depends on the practitioner’s specialty and even the day. But now that you know more about the field and how to become a behavior analyst, you probably have a better understanding of whether this could be your career calling.

If you’re interested in actively working toward this career, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the requisite education. For many aspiring behavior analysts, obtaining a targeted credential is a good option for transitioning into this field.

For additional information about how you can gain the education you need to make your own career move, learn more about University of Massachusetts Global’s Applied Behavior Analysis Certificate.

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