Difference Between a BCBA and an Occupational Therapist [2024 Guide]

Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and occupational therapists both play crucial roles in improving individual capabilities and overall quality of life. However, their approaches and areas of expertise are different, meeting diverse needs and challenges.

Understanding these differences is important for students considering a career in either field or professionals thinking about transitioning. In this article, we will examine the key differences between these two professions, focusing on their educational requirements, typical work environments, and the types of interventions they perform.

BCBA Vs. Occupational Therapist

BCBA focuses on assessing and improving problematic behaviors using behavior modification techniques. Occupational therapists, on the other hand, help people develop or regain daily living and work skills through therapeutic interventions. BCBAs often work with behavioral issues, while occupational therapists, address physical, cognitive, and sensory skills

Differences in the Scope of Work

Occupational Therapist

The scope of work for an occupational therapist broadly involves helping individuals across all ages to develop, recover, improve, as well as maintain the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapists are trained to assist people who have physical, mental, developmental, or emotional impairments. Their scope of work is versatile, tailored to the specific needs of their clients, and can be seen across various environments such as hospitals, private practices, schools, and homes.

Occupational therapists help individuals recover and enhance their skills after injuries or surgeries. For instance, after a stroke, an occupational therapists might work with a patient to regain basic motor functions and cognitive abilities, such as dressing, cooking, and managing personal care independently. They use a variety of therapeutic techniques, exercises, and adaptive equipment to facilitate recovery and promote independence.

In educational settings, occupational therapists play a critical role in helping children with disabilities. They assess children’s physical, cognitive, and social needs and then design activities that promote skills such as fine motor skills required for writing, or sensory processing skills that help children manage interactions within their environment. For example, an occupational therapists might work with a child with autism to develop skills necessary for interacting with others in social settings.

Occupational therapists also assist elderly clients to cope with physical and cognitive changes that come with aging. This could involve helping seniors maintain their independence by teaching them how to safely perform daily tasks, modifying their home environment to better suit their physical limitations, and implementing strategies to combat memory loss or cognitive decline. This may also include advising on the use of assistive devices that aid in mobility, like walkers or wheelchairs.


For BCBAs, their work often involves conducting detailed behavioral assessments, developing behavior intervention plans, and using data to inform treatment. They work closely with caregivers, teachers, and other professionals to implement and adjust these plans, aiming to improve specific behaviors and skills. For example, a BCBA might work on reducing instances of aggressive behavior in a child, teaching a non-verbal child to communicate through sign language or a communication device, or helping an adult with autism develop skills for independent living.

A BCBA might conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) for a child who exhibits challenging behaviors in the classroom, such as aggression or self-injury. Based on the assessment’s findings, the BCBA develops a tailored Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) that employs specific strategies like positive reinforcement to reduce these behaviors.

A BCBA might also design an early intervention program for toddlers showing signs of developmental delays. This program could include intensive, play-based Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy aimed at improving communication, social skills, and basic self-care abilities, laying a foundation for lifelong learning and adaptation.

For an adult with autism struggling with social interactions, BCBAs could design a program that systematically teaches social skills, such as initiating conversations or understanding body language, using role-play and reinforcement techniques. BCBAs might also design vocational training programs for adults with disabilities, focusing on skills necessary for employment, such as following instructions, completing tasks efficiently, and interacting appropriately with coworkers.

BCBAs may also work with school staff to implement school-wide positive behavior support systems. This could involve training teachers on how to use token economies effectively to increase on-task behavior among students with ADHD.

In situations where an individual with severe behavioral issues poses a risk to themselves or others, a BCBA is often called upon to assess the situation and implement immediate, effective strategies to de-escalate the crisis, ensuring the safety of all involved.

Additionally, BCBAs often provide training to parents and caregivers on how to consistently apply ABA principles at home. For instance, they might teach strategies for managing bedtime resistance or improving mealtime behaviors in children with developmental disabilities.

Furthemore, BCBAs frequently conduct workshops and training sessions for educators, healthcare providers, and other professionals on how to apply ABA principles in their work. For example, they might train nursing home staff on strategies to improve the quality of life for residents with dementia, focusing on reducing agitation and increasing engagement in activities.

Differences in Working Environment

BCBAs typically work in settings that are centered around behavioral intervention and management. This includes:

  • Educational Settings: BCBAs are commonly found in schools where they collaborate with educators and parents to implement behavior modification plans for students, particularly those with behavioral challenges and special education needs.
  • Clinical Settings: Many BCBAs work in clinics or private practice, providing therapy for behavioral issues, including ABA therapy sessions for individuals with autism.
  • Community Settings: BCBAs may also work in community-based programs that support children and adults with developmental disabilities, helping to integrate them into community activities and improve their social interactions.

Occupational therapists are often found in a broader range of healthcare and social settings, which include:

  • Hospitals and Rehabilitation Centers: Occupational therapists help patients recover and enhance their skills after injuries or medical events like strokes. They focus on physical rehabilitation and the re-acquisition of daily living skills.
  • Schools: Similar to BCBAs, occupational therapists also work in educational settings but focus more on enabling students to perform school-related activities by improving their motor, cognitive, and sensory skills.
  • Home Health Settings: Occupational therapists frequently provide services in patients’ homes, especially for the elderly or those with significant physical limitations, aiming to adapt the living space to the patient’s needs and enhance their ability to perform everyday tasks independently.

Differences in Educational Requirements


  • Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree in psychology, education, or a related field is typically required as a foundation.
  • Master’s Degree: Most commonly, BCBAs need a master’s degree in behavior analysis, psychology, or a closely related field.
  • Certification: Post-master’s, candidates must pass the BCBA certification exam administered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). This also includes completing 1500-2000 supervised hours of practical experience.
  • Continuing Education: BCBAs are required to complete continuing education courses regularly to maintain their certification.

Occupational Therapist

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Prospective occupational therapists generally start with a bachelor’s degree in biology, psychology, sociology, or a related field.
  • Master’s Degree or Doctorate: Entry into the field requires a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in occupational therapy from an accredited program.
  • Licensure: After completing their degree, occupational therapists must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to practice.
  • Fieldwork: Occupational therapist programs also require at least 24 weeks of fieldwork, providing hands-on experience under supervision in various settings.
  • Continuing Education: Like BCBAs, occupational therapists must pursue continuing education to maintain their licensure

Can an Occupational Therapist Become a BCBA?

Yes, an occupational therapist can become a BCBA. However, it requires additional education and training specific to behavior analysis. Here’s a general pathway an OT might follow to become a BCBA:

Education Requirement

If the occupational therapist already has a master’s degree, they must ensure that their degree or additional coursework includes the necessary content in behavior analysis as outlined by the BACB.

If their existing master’s degree does not cover these areas, they may need to take additional graduate-level coursework in behavior analysis through a verified course sequence approved by the BACB.

Supervised Experience

The occupational therapist must complete supervised practical experience in behavior analysis. This involves working under the supervision of a BCBA and can vary in duration depending on the type of supervision and hours accumulated per week.

Certification Exam

After fulfilling the educational and supervised experience requirements, the occupational therapist must pass the BCBA certification examination, which tests knowledge and skills in ABA.

Which is Better? A BCBA or an Occupational Therapist?

Deciding whether a career as a BCBA or an occupational therapist is better depends on personal career aspirations, interests, and what one finds professionally fulfilling. Both roles offer significant contributions to healthcare and education, though their focuses and methods differ considerably.

Interest in specific areas of intervention is crucial for making this decision. If one is particularly interested in behavior modification and enjoys working with individuals to alter specific behaviors, a career as a BCBA may be more appealing. BCBAs frequently work with individuals with autism and other developmental disorders, focusing on improving social interactions, communication skills, and behavior management through targeted interventions.

Conversely, if one is drawn to aiding people in enhancing their ability to perform daily activities, particularly those who are recovering from injuries or dealing with developmental issues, a career in occupational therapy might be more suitable. Occupational therapists work to improve clients’ quality of life by assisting in the development and recovery of day-to-day functional abilities.

The preferred work environment also plays a significant role in this decision. As mentioned above, BCBAs often find their professional settings in schools, private clinics, or as consultants, where they concentrate on behavioral assessments and interventions. On the other hand, occupational therapists have the opportunity to work in a broader array of settings such as hospitals, patients’ homes, schools, and rehabilitation centers, addressing a wide spectrum of physical, cognitive, and sensory challenges.

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