How to Become a Behavioral Therapist – Career and Degree Guide

What is a Behavioral Therapist?

Behavioral therapists, or behaviorists, work with patients who have behavior problems such as anorexia, phobias, obesity, and troubled interpersonal relationships.

Behaviorists concentrate on the maladaptive behavior and what caused it to help clients learn new, more appropriate behaviors. Earlier work showed that 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 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.

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 Education

There are three levels of behaviorists, 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.

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. According to Payscale, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on average earns $68,399 per year. Some professionals earn over $90,000 per year (December 2022 data).

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 (BLS).

What Can You Do With a Degree in Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology is a widely varied field in which qualified psychologists can find work of all manner and sorts. Many behavioral psychologists work in research, conducting studies and experiments on crucial psychological questions, such as the nature of behavioral health disorders or the efficacy of behavioral interventions to address such disorders.

Other behavioral psychologists work in school settings. In this capacity, a behavioral psychologist might work with special populations of students, such as those with severe behavioral difficulties, to design and implement treatment and intervention programs to help the pupil be more successful in school and in life in general.

Other behavioral psychologists in the education field might work at colleges or universities to teach undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral-level courses, and to conduct research as well.

Many behavioral psychologists work in private practice. Doing so allows them to use their skills and training in behavioral psychology to help their clients address problems or issues in their life. In this setting, behavioral psychologists often work with clients on a one-on-one basis to develop a treatment program that addresses any number of behavioral issues such as phobias, addictions, or even anxiety or mood disorders.

Another popular career for behavioral psychologists is in medical settings, such as hospitals or clinics. Here, behavioral psychologists would most likely work as a member of a much larger team that includes medical doctors, nurses, and other health specialists to devise and carry out treatments for patients that have both medical and mental health needs.

For example, a behavioral psychologist might work with a patient that has terminal cancer to help them develop effective ways of dealing with the stress and anxiety that results from their medical diagnosis.

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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