What Does a Behavior Analyst Do?

A behavioral analyst sits with a child on a sofa.

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is an evidence-based behavior therapy. It focuses on skill acquisition and teaching adaptive behaviors, while minimizing challenging behaviors, such as aggression or self-injury. Since ABA is based on the basic principles of behavior, ABA can be effective for both children and adults. It is most commonly practiced as a therapeutic intervention to increase communication for individuals on the autism spectrum. However, ABA has a wide range of applications within clinical, school, and organizational settings. For example, what behavior analysts do is even effective in reducing workplace injuries and improving athletic performance, according to the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA).

Students who are interested in pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program can benefit from understanding what it means to be a behavior analyst.

What Is a Behavior Analyst?

A behavior analyst is a clinician with a masters or doctoral degree. Behavior analysts must have specialized academic training, practical training, and pass a board certification exam to practice independently. Once certified, behavior analysts evaluate, design, and implement individualized protocols  to improve skills. A primary focus of their work is the evaluation of the relationship between a behavior and environmental factors. Behavior analysts apply techniques such as positive reinforcement to assist their clients in developing new behaviors, modifying existing behaviors, and exhibiting behaviors under specific conditions.

In addition to working with clients with diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual and developmental disabilities, or traumatic brain injuries, behavior analysts can also work in fields such as workplace safety, vehicular and pedestrian safety, organizational behavior, sports, and health and fitness.

Where Do Behavior Analysts Work?

Given the variety of clients and fields that behavior analysts work in, it’s not surprising they can be employed in many different settings.

  • Clinics
  • Group homes
  • Higher education institutions
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Schools
  • Workplaces that need assistance with organizational behavior

Behavior Analyst Skills

Behavior analysts demonstrate skills in areas such as:

  • Assessing their clients’ skills and preferences
  • Evaluating environmental variables that contribute to challenging behaviors
  • Developing treatment goals
  • Creating treatment plans to achieve goals
  • Collecting data and measuring clients’ progress
  • Providing caregiver training

Successful behavior analysts also are skilled in demonstrating compassion, exhibiting empathy, and building therapeutic relationships with families.

What Is a Behavior Analyst’s Role in Patient Treatment?

A big part of what behavior analysts do is developing treatment plans based on clients’ individual needs. ABA interventions require monitoring and continuous evaluation from session to session. Behavior analysts evaluate patients’ behaviors to develop treatment plans with the goal of improving communication and behavioral skills over time.

When ABA was first developed in the 1960s, it focused on a highly structured teaching system where desired behaviors were broken down into specific components. The behavior analyst would then lead the patient through an activity designed to teach the component. The behavior analyst rewarded the patient for successfully completing each activity. The patient repeated the process many times for each of the behavior’s components until the patient assembled all components into a whole, modified behavior.

As ABA evolved, the process became less strict. Behavior analysts chose activities based on their patients’ interests and interactions within their environment. This technique still employs the methods of repeating and rewarding desirable behaviors, but in a more fluid and natural way.

The approaches of behavior analysts have evolved based on the specific needs of patients. These approaches can be placed into two categories: discrete trial training and natural environment training.

Discrete Trial Training

Discrete trial training is the more traditional behavior training approach that involves highly structured one-on-one activities. Here, complex behaviors are broken down into specific, or discrete, components and repeated and rewarded in a clinical setting. Once patients learn the components, behavior analysts link them together until patients can complete the entire complex behavioral task.

Natural Environment Training

Natural environment training occurs in natural environments, such as patients’ homes, workplaces, or schools. Behavior analysts do not immediately start training, but rather wait for patients’ natural inclinations and interests to guide the therapy. Once patients express interest in a naturally occurring situation, behavior analysts use graduated reinforcement to elicit desirable responses from them. This approach allows patients to employ the skills they learn in more generalized, everyday situations.

How to Become an Applied Behavior Analyst

Those with a bachelor’s degree in a health science can become a behavior analyst by earning a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis, Education, or Psychology. Upon graduating from the master’s program, prospective behavior analysts must acquire work experience through supervised clinical work in their area of concentration. The next, and sometimes final step, is to pass the national certification exam, which is required to qualify for board certification. Some states also require state licensure.

Many potential career paths are available to those qualified in what behavioral analysts do. These professionals often work in health care, education, mental health clinics, or even with private clients in social settings. They can advance their careers by enrolling in continuing education programs and joining professional organizations. There are also Ph.D. programs for further ABA studies.

Salaries in ABA-related fields vary depending on qualifications, education, and career path. Job seekers with advanced degrees, certifications, and other credentials are more likely to find higher paying work. According to the compensation website PayScale, the median annual salary for a behavior analyst is around $62,100.

As the field of behavioral science continues to develop, behavioral disorders are becoming more widely understood and recognized. Applied behavior analysts are crucial in helping patients develop the critical skills they need to improve their daily lives.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected a 25% increase in employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors between 2019 and 2029. This is significantly higher than the 4% projected job growth across all occupations. Regardless of their chosen career paths, behavior analysts can have financially and emotionally rewarding careers by helping patients overcome behavioral challenges to improve their daily lives.

What Behavior Analysts Do Is Critical in Helping Clients Improve Their Lives

Behavior analysts have the opportunity to do rewarding work that helps people make significant improvements in their lives. Explore the Regis College masters in Applied Behavior Analysis online to learn more about this field of study and where it can lead.

Take a step toward exploring a career in behavior analysis today.

Recommended Readings

Autism Podcasts That Parents Should Follow

Tips for Behavioral Parent Training

ABA Therapy Examples, Definition, & Techniques


Association of Professional Behavior Analysts, About Behavior Analysis

Autism Speaks, A Parent’s Guide to Autism

Autism Speaks, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Behavior Analysis in Practice, “The Training Experiences of Behavior Analysts: Compassionate Care and Therapeutic Relationships with Caregivers”

Child Mind Institute, What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

PayScale, Average Behavior Analyst Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors