Differences Between an LPC and a BCBA [2024 Guide]

Two interesting career options in the helping professions are working as an LPC – a Licensed Professional Counselor – or a BCBA – a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. In either case, you will have an advanced education and extensive training that enables you to help your clients develop skills and abilities that help them improve their lives.

But, the manner in which LPCs and BCBAs work differs greatly. This isn’t the only difference, either. The educational requirements, work settings, and career opportunities are unique to each profession. This guide helps you learn more about LPCs and BCBAs so you can determine which path is more appropriate for your educational and career goals.

Differences Between an LPC and BCBA. BCBA Vs Mental Health Counselor


An LPC focuses on mental health therapy, addressing emotional and mental disorders through counseling. A BCBA specializes in applying behavior analysis principles to modify behaviors, often used for autism and developmental disorders. LPCs require a master’s in counseling, while BCBAs need a master’s in behavior analysis or a related field, plus specific coursework and supervised experience.

The type of clientele LPCs and BCBAs usually work with is also different. As an LPC, you can provide counseling services to a wide range of clients, from individuals to families to groups. Moreover, LPCs help clients with many different mental health needs.

For example, you might see a client at 9:00 am who has generalized anxiety disorder. At 10:00 am, you might work with an older adult client who is struggling with end-of-life issues. At 11:00 am, you might meet with a married couple who are trying to work through poor communication issues that have led to strife in the relationship. In other words, it can be a bit of a mixed bag.

On the other hand, BCBAs most commonly work with children with Autism spectrum disorder. There are varying levels of this disorder, but each has the common feature of deficits in social communication and interaction across time and in varying contexts. BCBAs are highly trained to address these specific issues.

Neither LPCs nor BCBAs are always put into these boxes, though. For example, some LPCs specialize in treating specific types of disorders or working with specific age groups. After completing your graduate studies in counseling and getting your LPC, you might choose to work specifically with children, people with substance abuse issues, or clients with common mental health problems, like anxiety or depression.

As a BCBA, you also have opportunities to specialize in different areas. Though working with children on the autism spectrum is most common, BCBAs also provide services to children with developmental disabilities. Some BCBAs work with clients who have general mental health needs as well.

Still, it’s fair to say that the scope of work for an LPC is wider than a BCBA – the variation of work is greater and the range of clients is bigger. But this isn’t the only difference regarding how these professionals practice.

Given the intense nature of applied behavioral analysis, and given that BCBAs typically work with children, it’s most common for this work to be done in individual sessions. LPCs also frequently work with clients individually, but as noted earlier, they might also work with couples, families, or even groups of clients at the same time.

There are differences in how these professionals interact with their clients, their work environments, and their education, too. Each of these are discussed in detail below.

Differences in Practice

In terms of practice and engagement with clients, LPCs and BCBAs employ very different techniques.

As an LPC, you might use any number of counseling techniques to assist your client. You might use a rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), which is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), to help a depressed client recognize their negative beliefs about themselves and adjust their negative thinking to more positive thinking.

Likewise, you might employ flooding techniques with a client who has an irrational fear, such as flying, public speaking, or spiders. Flooding involves exposing the client to the feared stimulus and helping them associate feelings of calm in that situation. A good example of this is taking a client who’s afraid of flying on an airplane ride.

Then again, you might employ traditional psychotherapy techniques with a client who’s struggling to make connections with their peers. Through the course of talk therapy, you can help them identify the nexus of the problem, work through the issue, and learn new skills that lead to more positive social behaviors and outcomes.

So, as an LPC, you will have a very large toolkit to draw upon when working with clients. Again, this isn’t to say that you can’t specialize. Just like some LPCs specialize in working with certain ages or populations of clients, they can also specialize in using certain therapeutic techniques.

BCBAs, though, use specific Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) techniques with their clients. ABA is rooted in conditioning techniques described by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who discovered classical conditioning by experimenting with dogs. Pavlov would present dogs with dog food (an unconditioned stimulus), thus eliciting a salivary response (an unconditioned response). He would then ring a bell (a neutral stimulus), so the dogs would associate the bell with getting food. After pairing the bell and the food for a while, Pavolv then would only ring the bell – yet the dog’s still salivated (a conditioned response), despite no food being present.

This type of conditioning can be used in humans, too. As a BCBA, you might use classical conditioning techniques with a child with an autism spectrum disorder to diminish a sensory sensitivity (which is common among people with autism). For example, you could use classical conditioning to desensitize a client to loud noises, thus making those noises less uncomfortable and minimizing the client’s stress reaction when loud noises occur.

Another technique used by BCBAs is operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner pioneered research in this field, which involves changing behavior via positive or negative reinforcement.

In his research, Skinner provided test animals with positive reinforcement (e.g., food), when they exhibited desirable behaviors. Then, unwanted behaviors were met with a mild electric shock (negative reinforcement). By rewarding wanted behaviors with food, Skinner was able to get the test animals to exhibit those behaviors more frequently, while the behaviors that led to mild shocks diminished over time.

Used with humans, operant conditioning might look something like this: a child with autism who has difficulty communicating with their peers might receive positive reinforcement after saying hello to their classmates. Over time, the child would associate the reward (which could be verbal praise, playtime privileges, a snack, or so forth) with the act of greeting others, thereby making the greeting behavior more likely.

These are simplistic examples, but you get the point – BCBAs largely rely on conditioning techniques to help their clients modify their behaviors. These techniques can be useful for other types of mental health disorders BCBAs treat, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and depression.

Differences in Work Environment

As an LPC, you are most likely to work in a clinical setting, meeting with clients in your office for individual, couples, family, or group sessions. Your sessions with clients might be as short as 30 minutes or last a few hours, depending on the situation. Some LPCs work outside of office settings, too. For example, LPCs are employed by hospitals, government agencies, and schools.

BCBAs can work in a variety of environments, too. Office and clinical settings are common, but so too is working in schools, residential care facilities, and hospitals. It is more likely for a BCBA to work in a school setting than an LPC. In fact, some school districts have BCBAs on staff (as opposed to contracting with one from an outside clinic). It is much more rare for an LPC to be employed by a school district.

Differences in Education

Both LPCs and BCBAs must have a master’s degree. LPCs must complete an accredited counseling program. Usually, accredited programs require 60 or more credits of coursework and extensive field experiences (usually 1,000 hours or more). After completing a master’s in counseling, you must finish supervised work in counseling. This is usually a two-year probationary period, after which you must pass the National Counselor Exam. At that point, you might be eligible for licensure.

LPC licensure is handled at the state level. Though most states are similar regarding their specific licensure requirements, they can vary. Check with your state’s licensing board before starting the process to ensure you meet all the criteria to be licensed. Also inquire about the requirements for maintaining a current license, as these also vary from one state to the next.

As noted a moment ago, BCBAs must also have a master’s degree, usually in Applied Behavioral Analysis. Be sure the program you enroll in is accredited by either the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) or the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA). These degrees usually require 45 or more credits and 1,500 or more hours of internship experience.

After completing an appropriate graduate program, you can sit for the BCBA exam. Once you pass the exam, you will receive your credential. You must complete continuing education requirements, practice ethically, and renew your credential every two years to maintain your BCBA status.

Can a BCBA Do therapy?

While BCBAs provide treatments for their clients, traditional therapy is not one of them. Remember – BCBAs most often get their graduate degrees in applied behavioral analysis, which does not include therapeutic training like a graduate program in counseling or psychology does. Instead, as a BCBA, you will assess and evaluate your client’s needs, develop a treatment plan, and use conditioning techniques and other modalities to help your clients change their behavior.

Can a BCBA have a Private Practice?

Yes. With a BCBA credential, you can work independently in your own practice without the supervision of another professional.

What Other Certifications Can a BCBA Get?

A doctoral level designation – BCBA-D – is available once you complete an appropriate doctoral education. This is not a separate credential, though – there are no additional privileges granted to you as a doctoral-level BCBA.

Currently, there are no other graduate-level certifications for BCBAs. The organization that confers the BCBA certification offers lower-level certifications, though – Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) for high school graduates and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) for those with an undergraduate education.

Which is Better? An LPC or BCBA?

Evaluating whether an LPC or BCBA is better is a tricky proposition because one profession isn’t inherently better. Instead, the situation determines which one is more appropriate.

For example, if you are an undergraduate student and you’re interested in providing traditional therapy to help clients improve their lives, there is no question that becoming an LPC is the more appropriate choice. Similarly, if you want to have a credential that allows you to work with all ages of clients on a wide variety of mental health issues, an LPC is the best bet.

But, if you are especially interested in childhood disorders and working with children to adjust their behaviors, becoming a BCBA is a better fit. Moreover, if practicing as a therapist isn’t as appealing to you as becoming a skilled behavioral interventionist, a BCBA track is the way to go.

Of course, there are other things to consider when forging your professional path. It usually takes longer to finish the requirements for an LPC. That’s a consideration to make when evaluating how long you are willing to be in school (and how much you’re willing to pay for school, too).

Speaking of money, as of March 2024, LPCs make an average of just under $81,000 per year. BCBAs, though, earn just under $99,000 on average. Money isn’t everything, but that’s not a small difference!

Ultimately, either of these careers provide ample opportunities for growth and development as a professional while also providing an important service to the public. No matter which career you choose, you will have a job in which you can take a lot of pride and have personal fulfillment. The better of the two will simply be the one that more closely aligns with your interests and goals.

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