Behavioral Therapist Job Description

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Seated ABA therapist meeting with a patient in a well-lit office

A behavioral therapist job description often encompasses working with clients to diagnose and change their behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists specifically work with patients whose behavioral, communication, or physical challenges impede their quality of life. But while counseling is still a professional option for an individual with an advanced degree, the rising health care needs of the U.S. have created many new careers and opportunities.
Earning an advanced ABA degree can provide students with the skills and knowledge to help patients deal with addiction, mental health issues, and autism spectrum disorder. It can also prepare graduates for careers in organizational behavior management, sports performance, health service management, and more.

What Does an ABA Therapist Do?

Therapists generally attend to the mental health needs of their patients and are found throughout the medical field. Some therapists specialize in treating patients with anxiety, depression, addiction, or other life challenges. Though many different concentrations of therapy focus on behavioral changes, ABA therapists specialize in helping patients develop behavioral strategies.

So, what does an ABA therapist do? A therapist who specializes in applied behavior analysis has a deep understanding of how human behavior works. They use their knowledge to help individual patients overcome behavioral challenges.

For example, many ABA therapists work with children diagnosed with autism. Therapy typically begins with an evaluation, including reports from caregivers and observation by the therapist. Based on the results of the evaluation, the therapist will create or follow a “Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)” developed by the supervising Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA). BIPs allow ABA therapists to engage with the patient through the use of various techniques, such as positive reinforcement, redirecting behavior, and shaping positive behavioral outcomes.

ABA therapists may also work with geriatric patients who are losing their mobility or ability to communicate. These therapists use individualized BIPs to help their patients overcome life challenges. For example, geriatric patients suffering from memory loss can work with an ABA therapist who has developed strategies to increase focus and prompt short-term memory.

ABA therapists can work in a variety of settings, such as schools, community centers, nursing homes, or private clinics. They also have the capacity to treat a variety of challenges that extend outside of behavioral issues. They can help individuals with learning disabilities retain what they absorb in the classroom or in a book. In other cases, ABA therapists can treat patients who need help maintaining self-care routines, such as bathing or using the toilet.
The behavioral therapist job description may seem daunting at first. However, with the proper education and experience, a professional pursuing a career in the field can choose an ABA job that fits their goals and aspirations.

How to Become a Behavioral Therapist

Learning how to become a behavioral therapist could be the first step in the journey to a rewarding career. Below are the four steps typically taken to achieve a career as an ABA therapist.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to a career as an ABA therapist requires earning a bachelor’s degree. Though there are no specific course requirements to pursue the career, students should consider taking courses in behavioral psychology or related subjects.

Step 2: Gain Relevant Work Experience

Upon graduation from a bachelor’s program, prospective ABA therapists should consider gaining relevant work experience in the field through internships or entry-level work. This will strengthen the candidate’s skill set for the graduate application process. It will also show the student has the initiative necessary to enter and excel in a graduate program.

Step 3: Earn an Advanced Degree

Typically, professionals who earn an advanced degree in applied behavior analysis enroll in two-year programs. The time frame can fluctuate depending on the student’s workload and the program’s flexibility. Some students who work full-time may consider taking courses part-time.

Step 4: Gain Work Experience and Get Certified

Behavior analysts may pursue credentialed practice in ABA through certification and/or state-level licensure. Though requirements vary by state, state licensure boards throughout the U.S. require prospective ABA therapists to work under the supervision of a certified ABA therapist before licensure. For certification, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board® (BACB) requires between 1,500 and 2,000 hours of supervised work to qualify for board examination.

ABA Therapist Jobs

While applied behavior analysts are typically tasked with analyzing the behavior of patients and creating treatment plans, the overarching behavioral therapist job description varies greatly according to the career choice. Some behavior therapists assume an administrative role in hospitals or clinics, while others work directly with clients.

Below are several examples of ABA therapist jobs that applied behavior analysts may pursue.

Board-Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA)

A Board-Certified Behavior Aanalyst® (BCBA) holds a certification from the BACB. A behavioral therapist with this certification has a variety of potential jobs from which to choose. Some individuals use their experience as a behavior therapist or Registered Behavior Technician® (RBT) as a stepping-stone to the BCBA.

A BCBA’s job description and duties may vary depending on their field. BCBA researchers, for example, conduct studies, measure data and create actionable strategies to address behavioral problems. Other individuals with this certification may work directly with clients who demonstrate behavior concerns, such as individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, addiction, and substance abuse issues.

These therapists diagnose their client’s challenging behaviors and create plans to manage their progress. They may work in private practice, with a school, government agency, hospital, or other organization.

A BCBA certification requires at least a graduate degree from an accredited university, supervised practical experience, and the ability to pass an examination.

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a board-certified behavior analyst is $67,000 (2021).

BCBA Key Skills

Essential skills are as follows:

Data Analysis and Behavioral Definition: A BCBA assesses, collects, measures, plots, and interprets behavioral data, often directly from clients. Behaviors must be defined in objective, actionable terms.

Strategy and Behavioral Support Plans: A BCBA creates and effectively implements treatment plans based on recorded data, modifying their plan as necessary. Often, a BCBA must create a longer-term maintenance plan once the behavior has been successfully altered.

Supervision and Staff Training: A BCBA may have to train others regarding the implementation of the behavior support plan.

Clinical Supervisor

Clinical supervisors are health care administrators who are themselves licensed/certified practitioners in fields such as behavior analysis, counseling, psychology, or social work. They lead a team of licensed/certified practitioners in a clinical setting. They review client records, assess treatment plans, and evaluate, supervise, and manage their team.

On the road to becoming a clinical supervisor, the first step is to become a licensed/certified practitioner with a master’s degree in the appropriate clinical field (e.g. ABA, psychology, social work). The next step involves either passing a certification program or completing a continuing education program, which varies from state to state and field-to-field.

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a clinical supervisor is $59,0584 (2021).

Clinical Supervisor Key Skills

Management and Leadership Ability: A clinical supervisor must support, advise, and assist their health care team, making adjustments as necessary to ensure optimal patient care.

Creating and Assessing Plans and Protocol: From individual treatment plans to broad clinical protocol, a clinical supervisor must be able to assess all aspects of a health care program, and modify as necessary.

Monitoring for Legal and Ethical Issues: A clinical supervisor must have knowledge of all pertinent issues within a patient/practitioner relationship.

Clinical Manager

The clinical manager is an administrative position in a health care clinic, facility, or doctor’s office. This administrative behavioral therapist job description involves managing other staff; establishing and implementing goals, protocols, and objectives; delegating tasks and organizing the budget; and developing inter-office systems for legal accountability and patient care.

Clinical managers typically must have at least a bachelor’s degree with an education in health care law, ethics, finance, or case management. Additionally, they often have experience in many areas of the health care system such as insurance, legal and regulatory compliance, and organizational accountability. Most states also require health care managers to apply for a health care administrator license.

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a clinical manager is $71,876 (2021).

Clinical Manager Key Skills

Administrative Skills: Communication, human resources, and delegation skills are critical for a clinical manager. They should be able to solve problems within their team of practitioners, nurses, and administrative staff.

Leadership: A clinical manager must generally promote a healthy, safe clinical environment. This includes enforcing legal and ethical standards, problem-solving within interpersonal relationships, and assessing and altering clinical protocol as necessary.

Information Analysis: A clinical manager must be able to collate and analyze information, from budgeting to patient data, and create spreadsheets and statistical and analytical reports as necessary.

Behavioral Health Director

Behavioral health directors are a type of clinical director who functions within a mental health clinic, research organization, medical center, or academic institution. As leaders in health care administration, they must supervise all clinical staff, including managers and other administrators. They develop operational strategic plans that address broad goals, budgets, performance, and patient care, and solve problems to ensure these goals are met.

Behavioral health directors often have a master’s degree in health administration and extensive experience in the mental health field. Many facilities also require a certification in health care administration. Additionally, most states require health care managers to apply for a health care administrator license.

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a behavioral health director is $84,949 (2021).

Key Skills

Administration Skills: A behavioral health director must have a broad spectrum of administrative experience to solve both large- and small-scale issues within the clinic. They must supervise a health care staff and communicate and implement clinic-wide goals.

Budgeting and Organization: A behavioral health director must understand how to set and maintain budgetary goals. They must also have organizational skills regarding patient and practitioner recordkeeping, scheduling, and beyond.

Creating Strategic Programs: By working with a team of health care professionals, a behavioral health director will help design mental health programs to improve the quality of care for the clinic’s patients.

Building a Career in Behavior Analysis

A career as an ABA therapist can provide professionals with the opportunity to help patients from all walks of life and different backgrounds. Above are just some of the behavioral therapist job descriptions that an applied behavior analyst may pursue.

Mental health care is a burgeoning field, with a tremendous amount of growth and variety. The masters in Behavior Analysis online can provide prospective students the opportunity to broaden their knowledge in the field, and develop the skill set to meet the demands of this growing field of therapy.


Recommended Readings:

Helping People Make Changes: Applied Behavior Analysis Examples in Action

How Behavior Therapists Analyze Social Behavior

Where Do Behavior Therapists Work? Providing Support Services in Many Settings


Autism Speaks, “What is Applied Behavior Analysis?”

Behavior Analysis Certification Board, About

Behavior Analysis Certification Board Task List

Leaf Wing Center, “What ABA Therapists Do?

Payscale, Clinical Supervisor Salary

Payscale, Clinical Manager

Payscale, Behavioral Health Director

Payscale, Board Certified Behavior Analyst

Payscale, Salary for Certification: BACB Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)

Psychology Today, Applied Behavioral Analysis

Trumpet Behavioral Health, What Makes a Good ABA Therapist