Applied Behavior Analyst – Career, Salary & State Licensure

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy can dramatically improve the lives of people living with autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  This treatment, provided by applied behavior analysts, teaches independence, language skills, problem-solving, and social skills.

The focus of the therapy is to pinpoint what the actual problem behavior is, what causes the problem behaviors, and to apply consequences. Over time, patients learn to adjust the problem behavior to receive more desirable consequences. Applied behavior analysts attend years of schooling to learn the special techniques and skills that will motivate and enable patients to make the changes to better adapt to their environment.

Most applied behavior analysts have earned at least a master’s degree in education, applied behavior analysis, or psychology. Licensing or certification is only required in 31 states; however, there are several states that require certification in order to be able to bill insurance. The most common certification earned is the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). There is also a Board Certified Behavior Assistant Analyst (BCaBA) option.

Applied behavior analysts are employed at hospitals, clinics, government agencies, and nonprofits. They work in many different settings including clinics, in patients’ homes, and even at schools.

Continue reading to learn the steps towards becoming an applied behavior analyst, as well as state-specific licensing and certification requirements.

How to Become an Applied Behavior Analyst

Because state licensing and certification requirements vary widely, there are numerous paths to becoming an applied behavior analyst. The most widely accepted and respected path is by obtaining certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). Here are the steps toward becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Graduating from high school or obtaining a GED is the first step towards becoming an applied behavior analyst. Students who wish to pursue this career should focus on classes such as English, psychology, and social sciences. Volunteering in clinics that treat clients with ABA therapy can help students gain valuable experience as well.

Step 2: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

The next step in a career as an applied behavior analyst is earning a bachelor’s degree. Typical majors for this field include applied behavior analysis, psychology, and education. Students should ensure the program they attend is regionally accredited; that is often required to apply for a master’s program. Accreditation from the BACB or the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) is highly recommended (if applicable), as this ensures the program meets the standards for a  path to certification.

Students also should pursue internships, practicums, or supervised work experience to gain experience in ABA therapy and prepare them for further studies.

Step 3: Complete a Master’s or Doctorate Degree (Two to Six Years)

BCBA certification requires applicants to complete a master’s degree, at a minimum. The degree must be in either psychology, education, or behavior analysis. Since BACB certification requires applicants to meet specific coursework requirements, the program should be accredited by the ABAI or have a Verified Course Sequence (VCS).

If the program lacks ABAI accreditation or is a VCS program, applicants may complete an application for coursework evaluation to determine if they are eligible for certification.

Step 4: Complete ABA Experience (One Year or Less)

For BACB certification, applicants must complete one of three experience requirements. They are:

  • A practicum that includes 1,000 hours of experience and a one-month supervision with at least four supervisor contacts
  • An intensive practicum that includes 750 hours of experience and a one-month supervision with at least eight supervisor contacts
  • Supervised independent fieldwork that includes 1,500 hours of experience and a one-month supervision with at least two supervisor contacts

At least 20 hours (but no more than 130 hours) can be accrued each month. Either of the practicums may be completed as part of a graduate degree, but the independent fieldwork must be completed separately.

Step 5: Pass Required Exams (Timelines Vary)

To earn a BCBA certification, candidates must pass the BCBA exam. To apply to take the exam, candidates will need to submit official graduate transcripts and an experience verification form. The cost for the exam is $245.

If the graduate program wasn’t ABAI accredited or requires a VCS, an additional $100 fee is due for coursework evaluation. The test is 150 questions and takes four hours to complete. The two main content areas are basic behavior analytic skills and client-centered responsibilities.

Step 6: Apply for Certificate or Licensure (Timelines Vary)

Only 31 states require licensure or certification to practice as an applied behavior therapist. Not all states that require certification or licensing require applicants to have BACB certification, although BACB certification will generally meet state requirements.

Several states do not have licensure or certification requirements but do have insurance laws that mandate only board-certified ABA therapists can bill insurance. Even in states that don’t require certification, many employers require (or prefer) BACB certification.

Step 7: Maintain Certification and License (Timelines Vary)

Licensed and certified applied behavior analysts must maintain their certification or license. Continuing education requirements can vary by state. To maintain BACB certification, behavior analysts must:

  • Submit a renewal application
  • Pay $215 renewal fee
  • Complete 32 hours of continuing education, four of which must be in ethics

What Do Applied Behavior Analysts Do?

Applied behavior analysts work in hospitals, clinics, government agencies, schools, and even at insurance companies. While responsibilities can vary based on job descriptions, education, and place of employment, typical duties include:

  • Meeting one-on-one with patients and their families
  • Determining what problem behaviors are and what causes them
  • Writing treatment plans that include setting goals 
  • Providing ABA therapy 
  • Educating families on how to apply techniques outside of treatments
  • Evaluating patients’ progress 
  • Maintaining client records
  • Assisting with scheduling and insurance billing

How Much Do Applied Behavior Analysts Make?

Behavior analyst salaries vary based on place of employment, years of experience, and degrees held. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track the salaries of these mental health professionals. That said, here were the salary percentiles of ABAs nationally, according to Salary.com (2020):

  • 10th percentile: $45,333
  • 25th percentile: $51,971
  • 50th percentile (median): $59,261
  • 75th percentile: $64,189
  • 90th percentile: $68,676

Applied Behavior Analyst Professional Associations & Resources

There are numerous associations and resources for applied behavior analysts, including:

  • Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)
  • Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA)
  • Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)
  • Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies
  • The Council of Autism Service Providers (CASP)
  • Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT)
  • The Qualified Applied Behavior Analysis Credentialing Board (QABA)
  • Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE)

Licensing & Certification Requirements By State for Applied Behavior Analysts (ABAs)

State Licensing Authority Eligibility & Details Renewal Requirements
Virginia Virginia Board of Medicine

The Virginia Board of Medicine licenses Board Certified Behavior Analysts and Assistant Behavior Analysts.

Requirements for licensure are:

  • Submit an online application
  • Hold either a BCBA or BCaBA national certification
  • Pay a $130 application fee for a behavior analyst license or a $70 fee for the assistant behavior analyst license
  • Submit a completed Employment Activity Questionnaire

Behavior analyst licenses issued in Virginia must be renewed biennially on odd-numbered years during the license holder’s birth month. Behavior analyst license renewal fees are $135, and assistant behavior analyst license renewal fees are $70.

To renew, applicants must also complete continuing education hours. Thirty-two hours of continuing education are required for behavior analysts and assistant behavior must complete 20. Four of those hours must be in ethics.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.