Arising from Pavlovian conditioning experiments, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) had its beginnings as a field back in the late 1950s. It represents the intersection of mental healthcare, psychology, and counseling; each important fields in their own right that have evolved, along with ABA, significantly over recent decades. Until relatively recently ABA treatments were primarily known for the promise they showed in addressing disorders like OCD, phobias, substance abuse, and anxiety.
That was until the explosion of autism spectrum and developmental disability diagnoses, a crisis which has virtually spawned an entire industry of its own.
In the year 2000 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one out of every 150 children was diagnosed with autism or a developmental disability. By 2004 that number was one in 125, and today the CDC reports that number has alarmingly and dramatically increased nearly three-fold to one out of every 54 children.
Already a tool for addressing mental and behavioral disorders, since the advent of widespread autism ABA has proven to be one of the most effective treatments for children on the spectrum. This class of professional has dramatically increased in parallel with autism diagnosis rates and is continuing to expand in the hopes of eventually catching up with demand, a tall order.
State licensure of ABA professionals, and by extension ABA higher education programs, are also playing catch-up. In 2009 the first licensing requirements came online in two states, and today the number of states with ABA licensing requirements has expanded to well-over half the nation at 33. Additional states are certain to follow this trend.
Why an ABA Graduate Degree is Vital
What previously amounted to a handful of specialized ABA university and college education programs at the turn of the century has transformed into what are today undergraduate and graduate ABA programs found on campuses across the nation.
State licensing regulations have coalesced around the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), recognizing it as the industry standard in the ABA licensing process, and the BACB’s signature credential –the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)– as the professional norm for ABA practitioners. In the year 2000 there were 392 BCBAs; today that number is over 48,000.
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Becoming licensed as a BCBA requires a graduate degree that includes specific ABA subject content and fieldwork, and then passing the BCBA national exam.
In other words, if you want to work in the ABA field, your best option –and perhaps only option depending on state licensing requirements– is to earn a qualifying graduate degree in Applied Behavior Analysis.
ABA Graduate Program Requirements
The BCBA has four pathways you can take to meet the BCBA education requirement. Once you’ve met this you’ll qualify to take the BCBA national examination.
Each pathway requires ABA-focused graduate degree content. Each also requires a segment of between 500 and 2,000 hours of ABA fieldwork as part of your graduate degree program, depending on the pathway you take. The pathways are:
- Pathway One – Earn a master’s or doctoral degree from a program accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI).
- Pathway Two – Earn a graduate degree that covers specific ABA coursework.
- Pathway Three – Earn a graduate degree that’s closely related to ABA and includes specific research and faculty teaching in ABA.
- Pathway Four – Earn a doctoral degree that’s closely related to ABA and gain post-doctoral ABA experience, in addition to ABA fieldwork.
ABA-focused graduate degree content is defined by the BACB as follows. Schools pay close attention to the BACB’s standards to ensure they offer qualifying content as part of their graduate programs. Further, the BACB assigns weight to each of these content areas based on a 315-credit-hour scale. These key topics are what you can expect to study in an ABA graduate program:
- Concepts, principles, and the philosophical foundations of ABA – 90 hours
- Selection, evaluation, and the application of procedures to change behaviors – 60 hours
- Behavior assessment – 45 hours
- Data presentation, data measurement, data interpretation, and experimental design – 45 hours
- Professionalism, BACB ethics, and accountability – 45 credits
- Management and supervision of personnel – 30 hours
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Additional ABA Credentials
In addition to its main BCBA credential, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) offers the following relevant ABA credentials that each also come with their own education requirements:
- Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) – Requires a high school diploma, completion of a 40-hour ABA education program, and close supervision while working.
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) – Requires a bachelor’s degree that includes specific ABA coursework and close supervision while working.
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral (BCBA-D) – Requires a doctoral degree or post-doctoral training and signifies a BCBA who has met additional specific requirements.