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How to Become an ABA Therapist

Drexel University School of Education

Building a career in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is an opportunity to make a life-changing difference in the lives of those with behavioral, developmental, or intellectual issues. ABA therapy can be very challenging but is also rewarding work that can improve behaviors and daily skills of those in need of intervention, work that is meaningful to the individuals receiving the supports as well as their parents. Pursuing advanced education in ABA therapy is critical, as it provides the rigorous coursework, practical training, and certification requirements necessary for a successful and effective career in the field.

What is ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a category of therapy that employs evidence-based tools and practices to treat individuals diagnosed with behavioral and developmental disorders. While ABA therapy is most commonly associated with the treatment of children with autism, other applications of ABA therapy include ADHD, traumatic brain injury, dementia, and other developmental issues. Treatment strategies within ABA therapy use positive reinforcement practices to improve the social, learning, communication, life-management, and other functional skills of individuals with behavioral disorders. Research demonstrates that consistent participation in ABA therapy is an effective means to address these needs.

What Does an ABA Therapist Do?

ABA therapists assess their individuals ‘behavioral issues, or behavior reduction. Then they will work on skill acquisition. One way a therapist may approach skill acquisition will be to break down targeted behaviors into smaller steps and reward patients for improving a targeted behavior or skill. ABA therapists also monitor progress, document the effectiveness of treatment strategies, and work with parents, teachers, clinicians, and other stakeholders on strategies for maintaining desired behaviors. The goal of the ABA therapist is to help the individual develop the behavioral and practical skills for independence in their personal and professional lives.

ABA therapists practice across a range of settings, but education and healthcare are the most common industries for the profession. In school and classroom settings, ABA therapists collaborate with teachers and administrators to develop individualized and school-wide positive behavior support plans for addressing student behavior challenges. Working with students diagnosed with autism is common in this setting. ABA therapists serve an important role in healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and private practices, where they may work with patients with significant behavioral challenges, addiction issues, or those recovering from a traumatic brain injury or living with dementia, who need to improve specific behaviors and skills to enhance functions within daily life. Across professional settings, ABA therapists typically work under the supervision of a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), who has obtained higher levels of training and certification.

ABA Therapy Education Requirements

Those interested in becoming an independent practicing ABA therapist must earn a bachelor’s degree, and in most cases a master’s degree. At the undergraduate level, a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology, education, or other behavioral science most closely aligns with the skills required of an ABA therapist. While a bachelor’s degree may provide the qualifications for some assistant-level positions, most careers in ABA therapy require a master’s degree and BCBA certification.

5 Steps to Become an ABA Therapist: Qualifications and Education Requirements

Below are the five main requirements for becoming a licensed and board-certified ABA therapist.

1. Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step in becoming an ABA therapist. Many of those interested in pursuing a career in ABA therapy will earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or special education, as the field explores issues of human behavior, developmental disorders, and mental health conditions that directly apply to the practice of ABA therapy. Undergraduate degrees in education are also common. We encourage you to visit the School of Education’s undergraduate degrees webpage to learn more about our academic offerings.

2. Obtain a Graduate Degree

Graduate-level coursework provides the skills and training necessary for most professional positions in the field of ABA therapy, and a master’s degree is required for board certification. A behavior analyst degree, like Drexel’s MS in Applied Behavior Analysis, provides the course sequence necessary to the take the Board Certified Behavior Analyst® examination. ABAI-verified graduate programs provide critical supervision by experienced ABA therapists that help students meet the requirements for the profession.

3. Gain Relevant Experience

The BACB requires 1,500-2,000 hours of experience in the field as part of the requirements to become a licensed board certified behavior analyst and practice ABA therapy. A majority of states in the U.S. also have strict requirements regarding field experience. Many states require 1,000+ hours of hands-on clinical experience, supervised by a qualified BCBA or instructor who has also completed the requirements outlined by their state for the licensed practice of ABA therapy. Not all states adhere to the same fieldwork requirements, so individuals should consult with their state’s licensing board. Students in Drexel's MS in Applied Behavior Analysis program complete field experience hours as part of the program.

4. Become Licensed and Certified

License and certification requirements will vary from state to state. Some states do not require a license, some require BCBA certification for licensure, and many employers require a license and BCBA certification, even if the employer’s state does not. Individuals should visit the APBA Licensure and Other Regulation of ABA Practitioners page to learn about the requirements of their state and work closely with their state’s licensing board when they reach this stage. Generally, aspiring ABA therapists who meet the standards set by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) and who obtain BCBA certification will fulfill most of the qualifications for a license to practice in the field. Drexel’s MS in Applied Behavior Analysis and Applied Behavior Analysis certificate program provide students with the coursework needed for the BCBA certification exam.

5. Maintain Licensure

A BACB license for the practice of ABA therapy must be renewed every two years. License renewal requirements vary from state to state but include several steps in common, including continuing education coursework, adherence to the BACB code of ethics, and other self-reported requirements. Individuals should consult with their state’s licensing board to learn more about the requirements and application process for license renewal.

How Long Does It Take to Become an ABA Therapist?

Aspiring ABA therapists should expect to devote a minimum of six years to education and practical training. Typically, four years is spent earning a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and two years earning a master’s degree and becoming certified. Students in Drexel’s two-year MS in Applied Behavior Analysis program complete the required coursework during the course of the program. For those with master’s degrees, Drexel offers a 12-to-21-month ABA certificate program that provides the necessary coursework for BACB certification.

Skills Needed to be an ABA Therapist

Individuals with behavioral issues and disorders are all unique, so the methodologies of ABA therapy are not one-size-fits all. Successful ABA therapists possess the skills and exhibit the qualities that lead to individualized, compassionate, and holistic care for the individuals they treat.

  • Active listening and observation: In order to develop an effective treatment plan, ABA therapists must carefully observe patient behaviors, actively listen to input from parents, teachers and other caregivers, and pay close attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • Critical and creative thinking: Because the needs of every patient are different, an ABA therapist must be able to evaluate each case to determine a customized plan of treatment. ABA therapists often have to think creatively and outside-of-the-box to develop effective interventions and ways of communicating with their patients.
  • Adaptability: Patient circumstances are all unique, and treatment plans may need to change over time, so ABA therapists must be able to adapt and be flexible to meet patients’ evolving needs.
  • Communication: ABA therapists use communications skills not only to interact personally with patients, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders, but also to effectively explain intervention strategies and deliver treatment updates on a regular basis.
  • Empathy: Successful ABA therapists exhibit empathy and compassion in their work with patients and the individuals in their patients’ lives. Developing this critical skill is key to helping patients feel respected and understood.
  • Detail-oriented work ethic: Following the protocols of the profession and documenting behavioral assessments, treatment plans, and patient outcomes require that an ABA therapist exercise a detail-oriented work ethic.

What is the Expected Salary for an ABA Therapist?

The average salary for an ABA therapist in the U.S. is $42,088 per year, according to Glassdoor. Salaries may vary based on education level, regional location, years of experience, and industry. ABA therapists hold a wide range of professional roles – from behavior analysis consultants to program coordinators to clinical directors. Because ABA therapists can build a career in so many different fields, there is an equally wide range of earnings potential.

Becoming an ABA Therapist with the Help of Drexel University’s School of Education

A master’s degree is required to become a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA).

For those without a master’s degree, Drexel’s Master of Science (MS) in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) equips students with the skills and knowledge they need for a successful career in the ABA profession. Within the master’s program, students take the required courses before they take the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) exam. For those with a master’s degree not in ABA, Drexel offers a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis that provides the ABAI-verified coursework necessary for taking the BACB exam.

Interested in becoming an ABA Therapist? Take the first step by applying or requesting more information about our ABA programs.