What is a Behavioral Therapist?
Behavioral therapists, or behaviorists, work with patients who have behavior problems such as anorexia, phobias, obesity, and troubled interpersonal relationships. Behaviorists concentrate on the maladaptive behavior and what caused it to help clients learn new, more appropriate behaviors. Earlier work showed that behavior is learned when a certain stimulus is paired with a certain behavior. For instance, learning that smoking cigarettes brings satisfaction during a restful break might be unlearned so that break time can involve healthier habits.
Behavioral therapists communicate with patients on a one to one basis, learning what difficulties patients are having and what led up to those difficulties. Communication continues as the patient and therapist work to alter the patient’s behavior. Therapists steadily maintain documentation of what is being done and how well the patient is responding. Behavioral therapists also attend meetings with other members of the team to discuss the patient’s progress and alter therapy if necessary.
Where Does a Behavioral Therapist Work?
Behavioral therapists work in a variety of environments. Hospitals, schools, juvenile detention facilities, the correctional system, probation offices, and clinics are some of the workplaces where behaviorists can make a difference.
What are the Requirements to Become a Behavioral Therapist?
There are three levels of behaviorists, all of which require a university education. Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) requires a master’s degree. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a doctorate is designated BCBA-D. A Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) requires a bachelor’s degree.
A university bachelor’s degree takes four academic years to complete. A typical program might consist of general education, philosophy, life science, physics or chemistry, math or computer science, basic psychology, and upper division psychology courses in various specialties. Some upper division courses might include abnormal psychology, clinical psychology, and developmental psychology, to name just a few.
Students should check university catalogs to learn which schools offer undergraduate courses in behavioral psychology. The University of California in San Diego, for instance, offers an undergraduate program in the discipline. If the course you want is not listed, many universities may allow independent study under the supervision of a professor with knowledge in your particular interest. Internship courses allow students to acquire supervised experience in clinical settings, schools, and other “real life” facilities.
Related: Becoming a Behavioral Psychologist
Master’s programs prepare students for supervisory roles in behavioral science. Typical programs offer courses that help students to understand the theoretical and practical aspects of behavioral psychology. At East Michigan University, for example, philosophy, science of behavior, and statistics are included, along with electives. Students who are research oriented have the chance to write a thesis if they are so inclined. A practicum gives students the opportunity for supervised interaction with patients. A master’s degree helps students who want to prepare for a supervisory role.
PhD programs also exist, almost exclusively for those who want to teach behavioral therapy or perform research. Some individuals with doctoral degrees also become supervisors of clinics. PhD candidates perform research to add to the body of knowledge in behavioral science and counseling. A new candidate to the program chooses a committee of professors to guide him or her in designing, executing, and communicating a thesis. Students should check graduate school catalogs and speak to faculty to find a schools emphasizing subjects of particular interest. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for instance, offers two research routes. One emphasizes health education and communication while the other emphasizes social and psychological influences on health. Students should start early researching which schools offer the kinds of studies that particularly interest them.
State licensure is required in order to practice as a behavior therapist in a given jurisdiction. Individual state boards of health care have varying requirements for licensure in their jurisdictions. Illinois is one state that requires an exam administered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, as well as verification of education, supervised experience, and a written care plan that the candidate has produced for a patient. Arizona, on the other hand, requires a graduate degree and supervised experience. Students should look up requirements in states where they intend to practice and check periodically for changes.
Beginning in 2015, the Behavior Analyst Certification board exam will cover:
- Measurement in behavioral science
- Experimental design
- Fundamental elements of Behavior change
- Specific behavior change procedures
- Behavior change systems
- Identification of problems
- Implementation, management and supervision
- Client-centered responsibilities
Another credentialing body is the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists (NACBT). Certified Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist and Diplomate in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy are two relevant credentials provided by the NACBT. A graduate degree as well as a number of years of experience in the field are required for either credential.
What Skills are Required for a Behavioral Therapist?
Interpersonal skills and leadership ability are important in the profession. Behavioral therapists need to be able to create a trusting, safe environment where patients feel free to discuss their problems without being judged. They need to listen actively while directing conversation to problem areas in the patient’s life. Analytical skills are important for assessing patients’ problems and needs for intervention. Therapists need to be able to plan intervention, assess how well the process is working, and decide either to stay the course or implement a new plan. Behavior therapists need to work as integral members of a team and show confidence so that the patient will feel assured that his or her treatment will be effective. Business and accounting skills are important for behavior counselors who go into private practice.
What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Behavioral Therapists?
Individual salaries vary according to work settings, states, and patient load. As the need for therapists increases, salaries are also likely to increase. According to Payscale, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on average earns $54,278 per year. Some professionals earn over $90,000 per year (Dec 2014 data).
The outlook for health care professions is good. The Affordable Care Act has made universal health care possible. As the baby boomer generation continues to mature, many patients will need help dealing with with the changes that come with age. Jobs in mental health are expected to grow faster than the general job market at least up until the year 2022 (BLS).
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