Differences Between a BCBA and Special Education Teacher [2024 Guide]

When considering a career in supporting individuals with special needs, you might find yourself comparing the roles of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and a special education teacher.

At first glance, BCBAs and special education teachers might seem to work towards similar objectives – enhancing the learning and life skills of individuals with special needs. However, their methods, training, and areas of focus reveal significant differences.

Both professionals play crucial roles in the educational and personal development of individuals with disabilities, but they approach their goals from different angles and with different tools. Understanding the differences and overlaps between these two careers can help you make an informed decision about which path aligns best with your interests and skills.

Differences Between a BCBA and Special Education Teacher

BCBA Vs. Special Education Teacher

BCBAs specializes in applying the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to assess and improve behavior in a variety of settings. Special education teachers, on the other hand, teach various subjects to students with disabilities, ensuring that these students receive appropriate educational content according to their needs and abilities.

Differences in the Scope of Work


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 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.

Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers, on the other hand, are dedicated to providing an accessible and inclusive educational experience to students with a wide range of disabilities. Their work involves adapting curriculum, teaching diverse subjects, and developing an environment that supports the holistic development of their students.

For example, a special education teacher might modify reading materials for a student with dyslexia, using texts with larger fonts and incorporating audio books to enhance learning. Furthermore, for a student with intellectual disabilities, the teacher could create an Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that includes goals for both academic skills, like basic math, and life skills, such as personal hygiene.

They may implement inclusive teaching strategies that benefit all students, such as using visual aids for a student with autism, which can also enhance learning for visual learners in the classroom. Special education teachers also manage classroom behaviors through structured routines and positive reinforcement, creating a safe and supportive learning environment for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

For older students, they might focus on transition planning, which includes teaching vocational skills, facilitating job shadowing opportunities, or coordinating with community agencies to ensure students are prepared for life after school.

Special education teachers often leverage technology to enhance learning and accessibility. They might use interactive whiteboards to make lessons more engaging for students with attention deficits or employ speech-to-text software to assist students with writing difficulties.

To promote inclusivity and social skills development, a special education teacher might organize peer tutoring sessions where general education students and students with special needs learn from each other, fostering a sense of community and mutual respect.

Special education teachers are also skilled in recommending and utilizing assistive devices to support students’ learning and independence. This could range from simple tools like pencil grips for students with fine motor challenges to more complex solutions like customized wheelchairs or communication devices for students with physical and communication impairments.

Special education teachers also play a crucial role in supporting not just the student, but the entire family. They might organize workshops for parents on understanding their child’s disability, advocating for their child’s rights, or managing behavior effectively at home.

Differences in Working Environment

The working environments of BCBAs and special education teachers also differ. BCBAs often work in a variety of settings, including schools, private clinics, homes, and community centers. Their work can be more flexible and consultancy-based, allowing them to work with a range of clients across different environments. This flexibility can lead to variability in daily schedules, with BCBAs needing to travel between locations.

Special education teachers typically work in school settings, from public and private schools to specialized institutions for students with disabilities. Their environment is more structured, with a set classroom and a consistent group of students throughout the school year. This setting allows for the development of deep, long-term relationships with students and a stable daily routine, though it may also involve managing larger groups of students with diverse needs.

Differences in Educational Requirements

The educational paths for becoming a BCBA or a special education teacher are also different. To become a BCBA, one must earn a master’s degree in behavior analysis or psychology, complete supervised fieldwork, and pass the BCBA certification exam.

In contrast, becoming a special education teacher typically requires a bachelor’s degree in special education or a related field, along with a teaching certification in special education from the state where one intends to work. Some states may require a master’s degree.

Can a BCBA be a Special Education Teacher?

While a BCBA has specialized training in behavior analysis, becoming a special education teacher requires specific educational credentials and state certification in teaching. However, a BCBA with the appropriate educational background and certifications can also work as a special education teacher, combining their expertise in behavior analysis with teaching skills to support students with special needs.

What is the Difference Between ABA and Special Education?

ABA is a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior, focusing on improving specific behaviors and skills through reinforcement strategies. Special education is a broader field that encompasses teaching a wide range of academic, social, and life skills to students with disabilities, often incorporating ABA principles among other educational strategies.

What is the Role of the BCBA in the IEP?

A BCBA plays a consultative role in the IEP process, providing expertise in behavior analysis to help develop effective strategies for addressing behavioral challenges and learning objectives. They may assist in setting measurable goals, suggesting behavior interventions, and monitoring progress.

A BCBA collaborates with teachers, parents, and other IEP team members to develop specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals for the student. These goals often focus on reducing challenging behaviors that interfere with learning and promoting positive behaviors and skills that support academic and social success. The BCBA’s expertise in behavior analysis enables them to identify and prioritize behaviors that are most impactful on the student’s educational experience.

One of the key contributions of a BCBA to the IEP process is conducting Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs) to identify the underlying causes of challenging behaviors. By understanding what triggers these behaviors and what the student gains from them, the BCBA can develop more effective and individualized strategies for behavior change.

BCBAs rely on data to inform the IEP process. They establish data collection systems to monitor the student’s progress towards IEP goals and the effectiveness of behavioral interventions. This ongoing data analysis allows the BCBA and the IEP team to make informed decisions about modifying goals, strategies, and supports to better meet the student’s needs.

Is it Better to Become a BCBA or a Special Education Teacher?

The decision between becoming a BCBA or a special education teacher depends on your interests, skills, and career goals. If you are drawn to understanding and modifying behavior through scientific principles, a career as a BCBA might be more fulfilling.

If you are passionate about teaching and adapting educational content to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities, a career as a special education teacher could be more rewarding. Both paths offer the opportunity to make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with special needs.

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