What Is Applied Behavior Analysis and Why Is It Important?

Understanding the human psyche and its desires, needs, and other everyday feelings and attitudes has long been the goal of psychologists, sociologists, ethnologists, and other professionals studying human behavior. Among the methods of study is behavioral science, which relies on observing and analyzing human responses to stimuli to figure out why humans act and react the way they do.

What Is ABA?

Behavioral science is a constantly evolving field with numerous applications in such areas as education, sociology, and public health. One method of practicing behavioral science is through the discipline of applied behavior analysis, or ABA. What is ABA? Applied behavior analysts study human behavior and develop approaches to promote behavior change, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)®. Effective ABA methods focus closely on behaviors related to learning and motivation.

ABA involves identifying and improving specific behaviors, such as social interactions, academic performance, and job competencies. Behavior analysts may work in schools, community mental health clinics, private clinics, and many other settings. ABA can help both adults and children manage behaviors that affect many aspects of life, such as interactions with authority figures, peers, and family members. ABA is often used to replacement problematic behaviors with alternative, appropriate behaviors so the individual may experience improved functioning within their environment.

Applied behavior analysis has also played a role in shaping public policy. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing government agencies to utilize behavioral science research or employ behavioral experts in an effort to make public welfare programs more successful and cost-effective, according to the Harvard Business Review. Clearly, the benefits of behavioral science are broad and encompassing.

ABA and Mental Health

ABA-based approaches have been used to treat many mental health disorders and conditions. Most notably, ABA is used to evaluate and assist individuals diagnosed with autism and other intellectual disabilities. Due to the prevalence of ABA use in this field, the BACB has gathered large amounts of data on treatment in these areas.

Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas, a pioneer in ABA research, developed a highly structured approach to the discipline in the 1960s. One of the first ABA training methods was designed for children diagnosed with autism, and it involved one-on-one sessions between a child and therapist. In these sessions, also known as discrete trial training, therapists would reward children with pieces of candy for following basic instructions, such as picking up objects when asked. The therapists would repeat this process many times, reinforcing the behavior through a clearly defined reward system. In the ensuing decades, therapists built upon Lovaas’ work by developing similar methods of using positive reinforcement to help people adopt constructive social behaviors.

ABA Career Paths

As ABA becomes a more popular method for treating children and adults, the demand for educated and well-qualified ABA therapists also grows. The employer demand for certified ABA professionals increased nearly 800 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to a recent study by workforce analytics software firm Burning Glass Technologies.

Aspiring ABA therapists typically earn a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology or education. Many students go on to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in behavior analysis. In addition to completing the educational requirements, graduates must gain clinical experience under the supervision of a BACB-certified supervisor. Once applicants have met the academic and experience requirement, they must pass an exam to earn the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)® certification. Experienced ABA professionals may earn more advanced credentials when they are ready to seek senior-level positions.

Receiving a quality education is instrumental in preparing students to enter the profession and seek career advancement opportunities. By earning a master’s in applied behavior analysis, aspiring ABA practitioners can learn the principles and skills that can set them up for success in their future clinical settings.

Learn More

Designed for students from a wide variety of health science backgrounds, the masters in Applied Behavior Analysis online at Regis College prepares graduates for success in a variety of ABA-related fields. The program blends research and hands-on experience, offering coursework in behavior assessment, treatment evaluation, ethical practices, and other areas.

If you are interested in developing a deeper understanding of human behavior to prepare for your future career or excel in your current one, learn more about the MS ABA degree program at Regis College today.

Recommended Readings

A Look at Child, Family, and School Social Workers

A Look at Substance Abuse Social Workers

Social Work or Human Services: Which Master’s Degree Is for You?


Behavior Analyst Certification Board

Child Mind Institute

Harvard Business Review

National Institutes of Health

Obama White House Archives

Psychology Today