Online Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis

In 1989, the movie Rain Main starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman swept the Oscars and introduced the world to the phrase “autistic savant.” Up until then, autism was not a household term, but the portrayal of this highly-intelligent, routine-oriented man with unique abilities and limited social skills brought autism into the limelight.

Ten years later, the term “neurodivergent” was coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer to reframe autism and similar neurological disorders in terms of social barriers rather than pathological limitations. More than 30 years after the release of Rain Man, the field of applied behavior analysis has risen as one of the fastest-growing mental health careers to help people on the spectrum of autism live more independent lives.

To support the needs of people who are neurodivergent and diagnosed with conditions such as autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), applied behavior analysts (or ABAs) teach essential skills with the aim of changing dysfunctional behaviors. ABAs help patients navigate life’s challenges using special techniques to determine problematic behavior and make plans to create new behaviors to support social, communicative, and problem-solving needs. Graduates with a degree in applied behavior analysis work as behavioral health specialists, mental health workers, counselors, and educators.

Several universities offer fully online programs in applied behavior analysis, generally comprising 30 to 37 credits. These programs provide students with a strong foundation in behavior assessment, mental health, and behavioral intervention. Additionally, students develop essential skills such as research, communication, and an understanding of ethics and policies governing mental health.

On completion of a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis, students will be able to conduct crisis intervention, provide effective counseling, assess different types of behavior, and measure behavioral change. They can take up roles such as counselors, consultants, and therapists and find work in schools, government institutions, and federal agencies.

The following guide details three noteworthy online master’s programs in applied behavior analysis, and three top faculty members teaching them.

Admissions to Online Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

Admission into an online master’s in applied behavior analysis program depends on two factors: the institution offering the program and the competitiveness of the program itself. Online students can expect the same instructions and degree that on-campus students receive. Hence, the admission requirements for both are similar too.

Here are some common admission requirements for students wishing to apply for an online master’s program in applied behavior analysis in the United States:

  • A bachelor’s degree from a regionally-accredited institution
  • A minimum undergraduate GPA of 2.0 to 3.0, depending on the program
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Official transcripts
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • GRE (optional for most programs, but can help strengthen an application)

Courses in Online Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Below is a list of common courses offered in online masters in applied behavior analysis programs that students can expect to take:

  • Advanced Psych Assessment Theory
  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Basic Principles of Behavior Analysis Justice
  • The Basis for Behavior Change
  • Behavioral Analysis and Crime Prevention
  • Behavioral Analysis Ethics
  • Behavioral Development
  • Behavior Analysis Consulting
  • Clinical Behavior Analysis
  • Concepts and Principles in Behavior Analysis
  • Cultural Competence in Professional Practice
  • How to Compile Data for Behavioral Analysis
  • Introduction to Forensic Psychology
  • Measurement and Design in Behavior Analysis
  • Mental Health Law
  • Observational Methods
  • Professional Ethics and Issues
  • Research Design and Analysis
  • Seminars (in special topics related to psychology)
  • Statistical Applications in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Working Knowledge of Behavioral Analysis Guidelines

Supervised Clinical Hour Requirements & Internships – Online Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Curriculula for online master’s programs in applied behavior analysis may or may not include supervised clinical or internship hours. In lieu of this requirement, many programs require students to complete a capstone or final research project as part of the degree completion requirements. This project serves as a cumulative assessment and typically asks students to select a real-world problem and propose solutions. Through this project, students demonstrate their comprehensive knowledge of the field and critical thinking abilities to solve problems relevant to their future careers in applied behavior analysis.

It’s important to note that graduates from ABA programs seeking the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board (BCBA®) credential must earn supervised fieldwork hours and should seek out programs with supervised practicum hours.

Beginning January 1, 2022, applicants for the BCBA credential must earn 2,000 hours of supervised fieldwork or 1,500 concentrated supervised fieldwork hours. No fewer than 20 and no more than 130 hours can be accrued in one month. ABAs seeking this credential have a five-year window to earn their hours.

For detailed information about state licensing and certification requirements, please see our guide to Applied Behavior Analyst – Career, Salary & State Licensure.

Program Accreditation & State Authorization for Online Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Accreditation and state authorization are factors that are often overlooked but are as important as all the other factors.

Accreditation

Accreditation is a mark of quality and honor for any institution. While it is voluntary, accreditation from a reputable body ensures students that the course and the institute have been thoroughly vetted by professionals and meet certain quality standards. Since accreditation is provided selectively, based on merit, it is an important criterion for students to look out for.

Colleges and programs are accredited by national, regional, and programmatic agencies, including professional, intrastate, and discipline-targeted organizations. Because there is no single authoritative body that accredits online applied behavioral analysis programs, students are encouraged to seek programs accredited by one of the regional agencies listed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA); any additional organizations should be recognized by CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education. One can typically review an accrediting agency’s criteria online.

Apart from accrediting agencies, another important mark of approval students can look out for is credentialing by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. This is a non-profit organization that conducts professional credentialing exams such as Registered Behavior Technician (RBT®), Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA®), and the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®). These certification programs have been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), a body that has rigorous standards to ensure the quality of programs.

Here is a list of accrediting agencies for programs in applied behavior analysis:

  • Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Accreditation Board
  • Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE)

State Authorization

State authorization status determines whether a student is eligible to enroll in a program. States have regulations that determine whether or not a school is allowed to operate within its boundaries, and what criteria it must meet to enroll its students. This is done mainly to protect students. This could mean that students in a state can enroll in a specific online master’s in applied behavior analysis program, while those in another state cannot.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) has established a universal set of standards for all states to ascribe to. This means that schools approved by SARA can enroll students from any participating state. The NC-SARA has a list of SARA-aligned states and schools for students to refer to online. Also, a number of institutes list their authorization status for affected states online.

Featured MS in Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology has a fully online master’s program in psychology with a concentration in applied behavior analysis. Students get an opportunity to learn the various behavior analysis theories as well as procedures while learning from experienced faculty.

Admission requirements for the program include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, a completed online application, and an essay focusing on the specialization, among others. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required, however, will be considered if submitted.

The program consists of 36 credits. Some of the courses students will study are as follows: concepts and principles in behavior analysis, observation and measurement, and professional ethics and issues. Students are provided with a primer to the principles of respondent conditioning and the evaluation of techniques and data. They are also taught to read guidelines focused on ethics and dilemmas related to behavioral analysis.

On successful completion of the program, students can take up jobs in counseling, education, government agencies, social work, nonprofit, mental health, and treatment centers. A seven course-sequence in this program is approved by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) as a verified course sequence (VCS) and students who complete this coursework requirement are eligible to take the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) exam).

  • Location: Chicago, Illinois
  • Accreditation: The Commission on Accreditation of the American Psychological Association
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 months full-time; 24 months part-time
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,198 per credit

Pepperdine University

Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education & Psychology offers a master’s of science in applied behavioral analysis. Students can choose to attend classes on-campus in the evenings or earn their degree completely online in as few as 15 months. This 37-credit program prepares students to become board-certified behavior analysts and earn the BCBA credential. Graduates from this program are prepared to work with people living with conditions such as autism spectrum disorders as well as developmental disorders and traumatic brain injuries.

To be considered for admission, applicants must submit an application for admission, official transcripts, provide two professional recommendations that can speak to an applicant’s character, and a two- to five-page statement of purpose. Applicants with GPAs lower than 3.0 or seeking an exception to the TOEFL academic English proficiency test can fill out an exception request form.

Pepperdine’s ABA program course sequence is BCBA-verified and features a mix of theoretical and practical courses to prepare graduates to become board-certified behavioral analysts. Courses offered in this program include concepts and principles of applied behavior analysis; selecting and implementing ABA-based interventions, industrial/organizational psychology, and practicum in ABA.

Upon completing this program, graduates are prepared to identify sources of behavioral problems and develop plans to correct the behavior for the benefit of the patient and every one the patient interacts with on a daily basis. Students in this program can begin accruing fieldwork hours in the first semester of the program and placement assistance is available to students once they complete their first semester of foundational coursework.

The MS in ABA program at Pepperdine University can be started fall, spring, or summer semester. A four-term or five-term sequence is offered to help students complete the program in two years or fewer. Online students learn from the same faculty who teach in the on-campus program and are given complimentary access to co-working spaces through the United States and more than 30 countries.

  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 18 to 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,320 per credit

Saint Joseph’s University

Saint Joseph’s University offers a completely online master of science degree in criminal justice with a concentration in behavior analysis. This program is geared towards applying ABA principles to criminal justice and is ideal for aspiring ABAs who want to specialize in advocating for the needs of neurodivergent people. This program prepares professionals who wish to work in any ABA career in mobile therapy, educational consulting, social work, pathology, and school counseling.

Admission requirements include an undergraduate degree from regionally accredited colleges or universities, a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0, and TOEFL test scores for international students. Students are also required to have a minimum of one year of working experience in applied behavior analysis.

The 36-credit program provides students with working knowledge of clinical behavior analysis. Some of the core courses included in the curriculum are research methods and analysis, ethics and criminal justice, criminological theory, and professional writing for law enforcement. Courses in the behavior analysis concentration include concepts and principles of behavior analysis, measuring and evaluating behavior, behavior change procedures, and behavior assessment.

Through the program, students learn how to use behavior analysis to effectively assess functional behavior, evaluate programs, and conduct behavioral interventions. While students are not trained to investigate crime scenes, they do develop skills to gather data for behavioral analysis, crime prevention, and learn the ethics of behavioral analysis.

At the end of the program, graduates can pursue roles in high-level positions in local or state law enforcement and federal agencies, as well as social services, criminology, and counseling.

  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Accreditation: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $905 per credit

Professors to Know in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Programs

Adel Najdowski, PhD

Pepperdine University

Dr. Adel Najdowski, BCBA-D is an associate professor and director of the MS in Applied Behavior Analysis program at Pepperdine University. Her research interests include evaluating methods for teaching higher-order thinking perspective-taking and executive function skills to individuals with autism. She has published more than 40 publications and two books: Flexible and Focused! Teaching Executive Function Skills to Individuals with Autism and Attention Disorders and A Workbook of Ethical Case Scenarios in Applied Behavior Analysis. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and is on the board of directors for the California Association for Behavior Analysis (CalABA).

Dr. Najdowski speaks frequently at professional conferences as well as radio and web-based news media outlets such as podcasts. She completed her PhD, MA, and BA degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Julie Brandt, PhD

Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Dr. Julie A. Ackerlund Brandt serves as an assistant professor at the online campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She teaches courses such as assessment and intervention, science and human behavior, advanced applied behavior analysis, and advanced professional development. An active member of professional organizations such as the Association for Behavior Analysis International, Mid-American Association for Behavior Analysis, and American Psychological Association, she has been published in coveted journals such as the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, The Behavior Analyst, and Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

She has won numerous awards such as the Presentation Travel Award from the University of Kansas and the Psychology Student Scholarship. She completed her PhD from the University of Kansas, MS from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and BS from the University of Wisconsin.

Kathryn Kalafut, PhD

Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Dr. Kathryn Kalafut is an assistant professor of behavior analysis at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Among the classes she teaches is an introduction to behavior analysis, behavior and learning, developmental psychology, animal behavior, and biopsychology.

Prior to teaching at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, she worked at various other institutions such as Antioch College, Dickinson College, Brown University, and the University of North Texas. She is also a member of professional organizations such as the Association for Behavior Analysis International and the National Association of Animal Behaviorists. Her research has appeared in respected journals such as the Journal of Experimental Psychology and Behavioral Processes.

She has won laurels such as Sharing the Knowledge Award for Behavior Research by the Animal Behavior Management Alliance and the Marian Breland-Bailey Exceptional Research Award. She completed her PhD from Brown University, MS from the University of North Texas, and BA from Indiana University.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

The need for ABA specialists is at an all-time high. Research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that 17 percent of children aged 3-17 years old were diagnosed with a developmental disability including autism in 2016. To help the needs of children and adults living with neurodivergent conditions, applied behavior analysts can find employment in many public and private sectors. Here are three possible careers.

School Counselors

School counselors provide students with academic, developmental, and emotional support in educational institutions. If a student’s behavior is reported as problematic by multiple teachers, a school counselor with an applied behavior analysis degree can identify student behaviors, determine if testing is needed, and create alternative behavioral plans that support the student, parents, and administrators.

A school counselor can be employed in all levels of K-12 education and higher education in academic advising roles. While a master’s degree is not always required for school counselor positions, some positions require certification and having BCBA certification and educator licensure can position an ABA to negotiate higher salaries and pursue specialized professional opportunities at public and private schools. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020) shows that school and career counselor positions are growing and estimates that 26,800 new positions will be created between 2019 and 2029.

Social Workers

Social workers diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues according to the BLS. At the master’s level, clinical social workers who complete two years of supervised work are positioned to help children, adults, and families who are affected by neurodivergent behaviors in government and non-profit organizations. Social workers may see clients in an office setting or make home visits to clients and their families.

Social workers with applied behavioral analysis backgrounds help the members of their community with a strong foundation in communication, emotional, and problem-solving skills. The BLS (2020) shows that the field of social work is projected to increase by 13 percent between 2019 and 2029, a rate that is much faster than the national average (4 percent).

Special Education Teachers

Applied behavior analysis is the primary focus of special education teachers. These specially-trained educators work with children who have learning, mental, emotional, or physical disabilities. Special education teachers are highly-skilled at assessing students’ behaviors, teaching lessons adapted to students’ needs, and creating Individualized Education Programs (known as IEPs) for students with parental and administrative support.

In all states, public school teachers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree and must have state-specific teaching certification or license. Some states require teachers to have a master’s degree in special education or a related field such as applied behavioral analysis. Private schools typically require a bachelor’s degree and don’t require a teaching license, positioning those with ABA master’s degrees to be well-qualified for these positions. The BLS (2020) shows that the demand for special education teachers remains steady at 3 percent, which is about as fast as the national average for all occupations (4 percent).

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond

Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).