Behavioral Counseling Careers and Degree Programs [2024 Guide]

Last Updated: May 22, 2024

What is Behavioral Counseling?

Behavioral counseling (BC) is a modality of counseling and psychotherapy using behavioral theory as the predominant method. These are the theories pioneered by Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura.

BC involves use of classical and operant conditioning to understand and modify undesirable behaviors, extinguish phobias, and manage anxiety or panic attacks. It focuses very much on the here and now, real-time events and solutions.

In BC, the psychodynamic roots of a problem and insight are de-emphasized in favor of a solution, rather than an understanding of the problem. BC emphasizes observable and measurable elements of human behavior.

Classical and Operant conditioning are the primary tools of behavioral psychology. Operant conditioning involves the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement or punishment to produce behavioral change. A desired behavior will be associated with a reward which will increase the probability of the behavior occurring again.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of aversive stimuli to a behavior. Punishment is the application of something aversive to discourage a behavior from reoccurring.

An example of behavioral psychology as a therapeutic method is through systematic desensitization. Phobias are learned behaviors, formed through classical conditioning. Agoraphobia, literally fear of the marketplace, or being in public, can originate if a panic attack occurs in a public place, e.g. the supermarket.

The supermarket becomes a conditioned stimulus. The person quickly learns to associate the supermarket with panic symptoms, and experiences anticipatory anxiety, which can generalize to other markets, and even getting into the car, and eventually leaving the house.

The panic symptoms abate when the person flees or withdraws, which is the mechanism of negative reinforcement. Systematic desensitization reverses this process, by forming new associations.

Through breathing control, distraction, and progressive muscle relaxation, the person learns a new association of relaxation or indifference to the market, through gradual exposure to the feared stimuli. This is a measurable, evidence based, time-tested method of extinguishing phobias. The empirical support of behavioral counseling is one of its greatest assets.

What Does a Behavioral Counselor Do?

Behavioral counselors work with clients to determine negative behavior patterns that prevent the individual from realizing his or her potential. Job duties of a behavioral counselor typically include conducting one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, or various types of support groups.

As a behavioral counselor, you would conduct assessments of your clients to learn more about the client (or clients) you are working with including their backgrounds and their presenting concerns. You would also create a treatment plan that identifies the goals that are to be worked on in therapy.

Oftentimes, these treatments focus on helping a client change the way they think to bring about changes in the manner in which they behave. Behavioral counselors work with clients that have a variety of issues, from depression to substance abuse to marital problems.

For example, a behavioral counselor working with an adolescent that has an anger management problem would first observe the child in his or her natural environment. They may visit the child at school or at home, noting how he or she reacts to certain environmental stimuli.

The counselor would take notes regarding the child’s behavior, including situations, people, or events that trigger his or her angry outbursts. Then, the behavioral counselor would use that information to devise interventions that would help the child gain control of their anger and express their emotions in a more appropriate and healthy manner.

Examples of some goals might include having a child learn anger management skills. The objectives of this goal might be to teach and have the child practice deep breathing exercises, to create a relaxation kit, and to learn feelings identification and healthy expression of emotions.

As a behavioral counselor, you will often help clients to address their stress, identify their coping mechanisms and teach healthier and more adaptive coping strategies. You would also often incorporate cognitive work to help clients address unhelpful ways of thinking. You primarily want to help clients learn new ways of managing their stress and overcoming their troubles.

Where Does a Behavioral Counselor Work?

A behavioral counselor typically works in a mental health center, a treatment facility, a psychiatric hospital, a residential care facility, a substance abuse center or any other mental health setting.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Behavioral Counselor?

In order to become a behavioral counselor, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. A bachelor’s degree can usually be completed in four years of full-time coursework. A master’s degree can be completed in approximately two years.

Your bachelor’s and master’s degrees can be in psychology or social work. Either will qualify you to work as a behavioral counselor or therapist. The main courses you will need to take relate to the history and theories of psychology or social work. You may take certain courses related to developmental, cognitive, behavior, and counseling psychology.

Generally, a master’s degree will be sufficient for working as a behavioral counselor, but, you could obtain a Ph.D.  A Ph.D. can take approximately five to eight years of coursework including a research project (your dissertation) and an exam.

Throughout your education, you will be required to obtain in-field training, such as an internship. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics licensing is mandatory for private practitioners. However, licensing requirements for “outside of private practice differ from state to state” (BLS).

In order to obtain a licensure, you are required to go through a process of fees and testing. Each state varies on the exact costs and requirements. Also, continuing education (a certain amount of training hours) may be required yearly to keep up on current knowledge. Oftentimes, this is around forty hours of training per year.

Additionally, you could obtain a specialization or certificate in an area of interest to you, such as infant mental health, play therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy.

What Skills and Qualities are Needed to be a Behavioral Counselor?

A behavioral counselor has a job that is demanding and multifaceted. The person who chooses this path has to be willing to pursue a significant amount of specialized training, have the ability to work with different populations and have a high degree of flexibility.

Becoming a competent behavioral counselor requires advanced education and specialized skill set. Understanding behavior modification principles and using them to effect behavior change is the cornerstone of behavioral counseling.

Most of the professional opportunities for behavioral counselors require a minimum of a master’s degree and eligibility for licensure. Beyond that, behavioral counselors require specialized training in behavioral psychology and the application of behavior modification principles.

Being able to develop treatment plans and interventions is a significant part of the behavioral counselor’s required skill set.

A behavioral counselor need to have compassion and respect for people, especially for those who are or have gone through some challenging times.

A behavioral counselor may see some of the most challenging of clients. An ability to remain calm and in control is a necessity especially when dealing with potentially volatile situations.

Being able to think and act decisively and in the best interest of the client requires both training in crisis management as well as a high degree of caring and compassion for the clients and their families. This role can be intensely emotional and requires a high level of emotional maturity and self-awareness.

A crucial quality for a behavioral counselor is flexibility. The setting and circumstances of the work can vary greatly depending on the needs of the clients and their families. This is generally not a 9-5 job and long evening hours are often required especially when working with children and families or as part of a crisis team.

Many programs require seeing clients outside of a traditional office setting. Community-based programs and interventions are becoming more common and it is as likely you’ll find a behavioral counselor in the client’s home as it is the client in the counselor’s office.

Overall, though, a behavioral counselor needs to be fully accepting, nonjudgmental, and empathetic toward others. These qualities are what make the best counselors.

What are the Pros of Being a Behavioral Counselor?

People that work as a behavioral counselor reap many benefits from their employment, including:

  • Helping others – The greatest advantage of being a behavioral counselor is having the opportunity to help people change their behavior for the better and deal with their needs and issues in a healthy manner.
  • High income potential – After they have established a career and have the necessary experience, behavioral counselors may make a very good wage. This is especially true for behavioral counselors that have an established private practice and those that specialize in a particular treatment area (such as working with kids with ADHD).
  • Option to work for one’s self – The lure of being one’s own boss is strong, and behavioral counselors have the option of doing so.
  • Potential for work flexibility – Behavioral counselors that establish their own private practice have much more flexibility in terms of when they work than counselors that work for state agencies or non-profits. The possibility of maintaining a schedule that allows for nights and weekends off is a great benefit.
  • Exciting work – Behavioral counselors get to meet with people from all walks of life over the course of the day. Each client is unique with differing needs, which makes for a workday that never gets old or boring.

What are the Cons of Being a Behavioral Counselor?

Although there are plenty of benefits of being a behavioral counselor, it does have some disadvantages.

  • Dealing with clients – As rewarding as it is to help others, dealing with other people’s problems can be difficult to handle day in and day out. It can be a very mentally draining job.
  • Odd hours – Often counselors must work odd hours which only adds to the stress and strain of this occupation. Depending on the employment setting, counselors may have to work nights, weekends, and holidays.
  • etting up a private practice is difficult – To earn more money, behavioral counselors can set up their own private practice, but doing so takes a lot of time and energy. Counselors in private practice must also deal with business issues like finding a suitable office location, billing and collecting payment, working with insurance companies, advertising, and finding new clients.

What Careers are Similar to a Behavioral Counselor?

Because behavioral counseling is such a wide and varied field, there are actually many other careers that are highly similar in terms of training and job duties. Among them are:

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor – Workers in this field specialize in treating clients that have a drug or alcohol addiction or another behavioral issue that negatively impacts their health, like an eating disorder. Like behavioral counselors, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work with clients in one on one, group, and family therapy settings.

Psychologist – Some psychologists work directly with clients in a fashion similar to behavioral counselors, seeking to help the individual change his or her behavior for the better. Other psychologists work in the field of research, and instead of seeing clients, they oversee studies that attempt to determine the causes of particular behaviors.

Mental health counselor – Whereas behavioral counselors tend to focus on a specific problematic behavior, mental health counselors focus less on behavioral issues and more on the underlying mental and emotional disorders that might cause the undesired behavior. Still, workers in this field utilize counseling and therapeutic techniques to help their clients make progress toward a more mentally healthy life.

School counselor – Because school counselors work exclusively with children, they are often tasked with helping students work through behavioral difficulties. School counselors might take an educational approach with their clients, helping children learn social, emotional, and behavioral-related skills that will positively impact their ability to learn and interact with others at school.

Clinical social workerClinical social workers perform many of the same functions as behavioral counselors but do so in a much larger scope. Social workers explore everyday problems and issues with their clients, from employment to housing to family relationships. It is in this global context the clinical social workers often help their clients to identify and address behavioral issues that are causing difficulties in their lives.

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