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What Does a Behavior Analyst Do in the Mental Health Field?

02 Jun
Young Boy Talking With Behavior Analyst

Behavior analysis is the century-old science of behavior. It’s guided by the philosophy of behaviorism, which posits that attempts to improve the human condition through behavior change, such as education or behavioral health treatment, will be most effective if behavior itself is the central focus.1

This post will touch on applied behavior analysis and explore behavior analysts’ therapeutic work, certification credentialing and supervision and training opportunities.

A Look at Applied Behavior Analysis

Often used to help patients with autism, phobias, addictions and other mental health issues, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an evidence-based type of therapy. It strives to improve socially significant behaviors through methodical interventions and techniques. It relies on such tactics as positive reinforcement to encourage positive behaviors and to discourage negative ones. ABA techniques can be used in one-on-one consultations or in group settings, such as school classrooms.2

There are three scientific theories at the heart of ABA:3

Classical Conditioning

Think of the Russian neurologist Ivan Pavlov and his dogs. When fed, the dogs would salivate. Dr. Pavlov began ringing a bell when feeding them, and then ringing the bell without feeding them. Over time, the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell alone. The bell was a conditioned stimulus, which caused the conditioned response of salivation.

Operant Conditioning

Notably explored by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning uses positive and negative reinforcement to change the frequency of certain behaviors. Working with animals, Dr. Skinner rewarded some of their behaviors with food and others with mild electric shocks. The animals came to repeat the actions that resulted in food more frequently; those that led to shock, less so.

Three-Term Contingency

Dr. Skinner found this to be the foundation of operant conditioning. It’s the process of how behavior is changed by environmental factors, as follows:

AntecedentA condition or stimulus that occurs before a behaviorA manager creates a daily schedule for an employee to increase productivity.
BehaviorThe actionThe employee follows the schedule.
ConsequenceA stimulus or event after the behavior occursThe manager emails the employee, acknowledging improved performance.

What is a behavior analyst?

A behavior analyst is a clinician who holds a master’s degree or a doctorate, and whose work typically involves:1

  • Teaching people more effective ways of behaving
  • Striving to change the social consequences of existing behavior

Behavior analysts can work in schools, classrooms, clinics, hospitals and nonprofit organizations; many specialize in areas such as developmental disabilities, autism or mental health issues.4

To practice independently, each behavior analyst is required to complete specialized academic and practical training and earn board certification. That done, and working within the frameworks of ABA, behavior analysts evaluate, design and implement personalized protocols to help their patients improve their skills.

Behavior Analyst Certification

A Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) is a behavior analyst who has earned certification in ABA through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), which is the first certifying body in behavior analysis and has been certifying behavior analysts for over 20 years. The many benefits of earning BCBA certification include these:5

  • It is the leading behavior analyst credential and is required by many funders and licensure boards
  • It shows that a practitioner has met certain requirements that are critical in providing and overseeing behavior-analytic services
  • It provides increased consumer protection; each BCBA must meet certain eligibility and maintenance requirements to obtain and maintain certification
  • It helps employers, funders and consumers, among others, verify that a BCBA has certain knowledge, skills and abilities and is not under any disciplinary sanctions

To maintain certification, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst must complete ongoing continuing education, adhere to the BACB’s requirements surrounding ethics and self-reporting, and submit a completed recertification application and associated fees every two years.5

BCBA designation is not the only credential offered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Others include:

Board Certified Behavior Analyst–Doctoral® (BCBA-D®)
BCBAs with doctoral or postdoctoral training in behavior analysis may apply for the designation of Board Certified Behavior Analyst–Doctoral. This is not a separate certification; it does not grant any privileges beyond BCBA certification.6

Florida Certified Behavior Analyst® (FL-CBA®)
The BACB maintains the certification issued to a small number of FL-CBAs, who were originally certified by the Florida Department of Children and Families.7

Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst® (BCaBA®)
This is an undergraduate-level professional in behavior analysis who practices under the supervision of a BCBA or FL-CBA.8

Registered Behavior Technician® (RBT®)
This paraprofessional in behavior analysis practices under the close, ongoing supervision of a BCBA, BCaBA, or FL-CBA.8

What does a Board Certified Behavior Analyst do?

According to the national employment site Glassdoor, the median annual salary for a BCBA in this country is $112,000.10

Board Certified Behavior Analysts may supervise the work of BCaBAs, RBTs and other professionals who implement behavior-analytic interventions.9 Many of them supervise, train, assess and/or oversee those who are working toward BACB certification or providing behavior-analytic services. This oversight occurs in three primary roles:11

  • Supervisors oversee trainees who are accruing fieldwork hours to become certified and/or individuals, such as RBTs and BCaBAs, who are providing behavior-analytic services
  • Assessors conduct and/or oversee assessments of individuals who are pursuing or maintaining RBT certification to determine whether they are competent in specific tasks commonly conducted by behavior technicians
  • Trainers develop and/or provide the RBT 40-hour training and/or oversee those who provide it

ABA Psychological Services in Williston Park, NY, notes that Board Certified Behavior Analysts “are specialists in behavior management who advocate for their clients and make sure that everyone on the [care] team is up to date with a patient’s treatment.” Their website includes these responsibilities in a BCBA’s day:12

  • Spending time with patients to observe whether treatment is yielding the hoped-for results
  • Offering support and guidance to behavior therapists, perhaps through addressing model programs and interventions
  • Updating care team members and, in the cases of patients who are legal minors, patients’ parents on treatment and expected next steps
  • Facilitating training for parents and therapists; empowering caregivers to become ABA experts for their own children

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