How to Become a Behavioral Therapist – Education, Schooling & Online Degrees

What is a Behavioral Therapist?

A behavioral therapist is a mental health professional who employs techniques derived from various behavioral therapy approaches to help individuals improve their mental well-being and overcome psychological challenges. These therapies primarily focus on understanding and changing potentially harmful or disruptive behaviors through a variety of established therapeutic approaches.

In many cases, behavioral therapists collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers, to provide comprehensive care to individuals.

Behavioral therapists concentrate on the maladaptive behavior and what caused it to help clients learn new, more appropriate behaviors. 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 the 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.

Common approaches and techniques include:

  1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This approach focuses on helping individuals identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to harmful behaviors.
  2. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): Often used in the treatment of autism, this approach involves understanding and modifying behaviors through reinforcement strategies.
  3. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): This therapy combines behavioral therapy techniques with mindfulness and acceptance strategies to help individuals manage their emotions and reduce conflict in relationships.
  4. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT focuses on helping individuals accept their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting against them, promoting psychological flexibility.

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.

Related: How to Become a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist

What are the Requirements to Become a Behavioral Therapist?

Behavioral Therapist Degree

There are three levels of behavioral therapists who practice the ABA technique, 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.

Behavioral Therapist Licensure and Certification

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.

Behavior Analyst Certification board exam typically covers:

  • Measurement in behavioral science
  • Experimental design
  • Fundamental elements of Behavior change
  • Specific behavior change procedures
  • Behavior change systems
  • Identification of problems
  • Assessment
  • Intervention
  • 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.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Behavioral Therapist?

Becoming a behavioral therapist typically requires a combination of education and experience. The exact amount of time it takes to become a behavioral therapist can vary depending on factors such as the type of program you enroll in or the state you live in.

In total, it can take anywhere from 5-7 years to become a licensed behavioral therapist, including the time spent completing a master’s degree, certification and the required supervised work experience.

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.

As of January 2024, according to Payscale, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on average earns $70,914 per year, with experienced professionals making over $85,000 per year.

As of March 2023, BCBAs working in Texas, California and Florida on average earn $77,416, $80,412 and $89,729 per year.

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 2031.

Is Being a Behavior Therapist Stressful?

Being a behavioral therapist can be exciting, rewarding and stressful at the same time.

As a behavioral therapist, you will be working with clients, mostly children or young adults with mental health, behavioral and developmental conditions. Individuals with these conditions generally struggle with many challenges in their life, such as difficulty with communication, social skills and managing their emotions.

Your goal, as a behavioral therapist, will be to help them resolve these issues and learn new skills to improve overall quality of their everyday life.

The work can be challenging, as behavior therapy requires a lot of consistency, patience, and creativity to develop and implement effective treatment plans. Furthermore, since each individual is different, you may need to modify treatment plans for each individual. This requires a significant amount of time spent working closely not only with patients but also their families, which can sometimes be emotionally demanding and taxing.

However, the work can also be extremely rewarding and fulfilling, as you will have the opportunity to make a life-changing impact on someone’s life. Seeing your clients improve their skills and functioning can be incredibly satisfying.

Additionally, the job of a behavioral therapist can also be stressful because there might be tight deadlines to meet, unpredictable events during the sessions, or dealing with challenging behaviors and conditions of clients.

Being a behavioral therapist can be challenging, but can also be a highly rewarding career. It can be demanding, but with proper self-care, support and planning, it can be manageable.

What is the Difference Between a Behavior Technician and a Behavior Therapist?

A behavior technician is a mental health professional who works with individuals, typically adolescents and children, who have behavioral challenges. Through use evidence-based techniques they teach new skills and behaviors and help individuals in reducing negative behaviors. Behavior technicians generally work under the supervision of a licensed therapist, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), a Cognitive Behavior Therapist (CBT) or a licensed clinical psychologist.

On the other hand, a behavior therapist is a mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of behavioral challenges. Like a behavior technician, they also use evidence-based practices to help children with behavioral issues. However, unlike behavior technician, a behavior therapist is generally a licensed mental health professional, such as a BCBA, a CBT or a licensed clinical psychologist, and has the authority to develop treatment plans and provide therapy independently.

In general, a behavior technician works under the supervision of a licensed therapist and is responsible for implementing treatment plans, while a behavior therapist is responsible for developing these treatment plans and providing therapy and counseling independently.

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