You became an applied behavior analyst professional because you wanted to help people. But what could you do to help yourself so you can help your clients even more effectively?

If you're asking this question, you're not alone. Most professionals who care about their work look continually for opportunities to improve.

In this guide, we'll tap into resources you can use to improve your education, tackle common problems, and connect with colleagues. If you're interested in opening your own ABA practice, we'll tell you how to do that too.

What Do ABA Therapists Do?

Before we dig into self-improvement tips, it makes sense to define our terminology. If you're not an ABA professional now but you're looking into joining the industry, this section could be very helpful for you.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a form of treatment based on the concept of behavioral change. Practitioners believe that improving the way people act could also boost the way they feel. Every intervention is made to deliver concrete change.

ABA is used in plenty of fields, but it's most prominent application involves autism. As experts explain, ABA has been proven especially helpful in boosting communication, behavior, and cognitive ability in people with autism. The therapy is generally considered fun by children, so few resist their therapy sessions.

Anyone who uses this form of therapy could be considered an ABA professional, but typically, the work is done by people with specialized degrees. ABA providers may be a:

  • Board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). Students obtain a master's degree, complete a practicum, and pass a qualification exam.
  • Board certified behavior analyst – doctoral (BCBA-D). Students hold doctoral degrees, but they move through the same process to start work.
  • Certified autism specialist (CAS). Students obtain a master's degree, work in the field for at least two years, and complete continuing education credits every two years.

Board certified assistant behavior analysts (BCaBA) also deliver ABA therapy to clients, but they must practice under the supervision of a BCBA. Registered behavior technicians (RBT) may deliver therapy to clients in sessions, but they don’t design treatment plans. RBTs are supervised by BCBAs, BCBA-Ds, or BCaBAs.

In some states, professionals must go through extra steps to start work. You might need to apply for a state license, for example, and you might need to submit to a background check.

Improve Your Education

Hold some types of ABA certifications, and you're required to learn about autism and therapy regularly. Even if learning isn't mandated, it's a smart idea for people who want to improve their practice.

Autism studies are ongoing, and every month, researchers learn more about how the disorder develops and what support people need to live their best life. If you don't participate in ongoing education efforts, you won't know about the latest data that could help your clients.

Many educational opportunities exist, such as:

  • Behavior webinars. This organization offers continuing education courses for BCBAs. Earn credits you can apply for continuing education units (CEUs). Take classes at home at your own pace.
  • ABA Technologies. This organization partners with Florida Tech to offer continuing education courses for BCBAs. Earn CEUs for the classes you take.
  • AATBS. Approved classes earn you CEUs, and you can take courses online. Teachers are live, so you must keep up with their pace. The work is interactive and entertaining. Learn from other behavior analysts.

Credentialing boards will know you've taken courses. Apply your skills, and your clients may also see a change. But you won't add anything to your title or business card to help improve your reputation. Only an additional certification can do that.

Some parents put great stock in credentials. The more proof of study you can demonstrate, the more likely they'll trust you and listen to your advice. But some families are unmoved by your study, and the time you spend in class can detract from available therapy time.

If you choose to pursue additional certifications and plan to work with autistic clients, consider the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. Enroll in programs to gain a certification in autism care, and prove that you understand the disorder completely.

Connect With Colleagues

Your peers are a wealth of information about autism, ABA, and practice management. Chances are, they're either grappling with the questions you have, or they've answered them already. The more you can learn from them, the better.

Include peers from other disciplines in your circle of experts. Researchers say ABA professionals can have a combative stance when dealing with other disciplines, and that can impede communication. You may want everyone to use your techniques, but when you enter a conversation with an open mind, you learn even more.

Talk with your colleagues when you consult on cases. Make lunch dates and coffee dates to swap stories and best practices. Ask questions via email when they arise.

Join an association to connect with peers. Try these options:

Attend an annual meeting to connect with hundreds (or thousands) of professionals at the same time. Or use your membership to access resources, such as white papers or journal articles.

Open Your Own Practice

For some professionals, the struggle involves the workplace. They know their work, and they understand what their clients need, but the place where they work doesn't support growth. For some, it's a signal that private practice is best.

If you choose to open up shop under your own name, proceed with caution. Make smart hiring decisions involving:

  • Billing. ABA codes are notoriously complex, and if you send the wrong documentation to the insurance company, you won't get paid. Make sure your accounting department can handle this job properly. Ensure that you're kept abreast of your company's financial health. Don't spend more than you earn.
  • Employees. Can you handle your caseload alone? Or would another professional ensure you can serve your community properly? Maybe you need to hire other therapists, RBTs, or support staff. Reach out to your college or university, and explain that you're recruiting for the right staff member. You could get the referral you need.
  • Marketing. You must adhere to professional standards of ethics to keep your BCBA certification, and many of those regulations involve public statements. Publish the wrong marketing messages, and you could put your business at risk.

It's not always easy to make a smart hire. People fudge their credentials on applications, and they smooth over bumps in formal interviews. Hold a few informal talks, experts recommend, so you can see how they act in more casual situations.

Study Tough Issues

You spend your day helping others, and you spend some weekends and vacations learning about your industry. Your plate may seem very full, but chances are, you have a few spare moments tucked away during an average workweek. Fill that time with focused study about your industry.

Purchasing a book or investing in a journal encourages you to learn on your own time, at a pace that's right for you. Bookmarking a website helps you make the most of your downtime during the workday.

Options to consider include:

  • Behavior Analysis in Practice. This peer-reviewed journal publishes science-based information made for people who deliver behavior therapies. In a recent issue, authors discussed autism assessment best practices. They concluded the article with the factors they consider when building programs for elementary students. This is just an example of the kind of article you'll read in this journal.
  • Behavioral Science in the 21st Century. This interactive website publishes articles about all types of behavioral therapy. In a recent post, authors discussed techniques to entice young clients to pay attention to their therapists during ABA sessions. Practical information like this could help you serve your clients even more effectively.
  • On Becoming a Better Therapist. This book from the American Psychological Association was written with all therapists in mind, so it's not specific to ABA therapy. It includes general information and tips you can apply in your practice.
  • The Psychologist. This journal from the British Psychological Society contains news digests, contests, and first-person accounts written by professionals from all over the world. Sign up for the print version, or read the articles online. In a recent edition, professionals discussed attributes of exceptional psychologists, and everyone seemed to have a different definition.

This is just a sampling of the educational resources available to professionals and lifelong students of applied behavior analysis techniques. Find one that’s right for you, and make a commitment to learning.

Take Care of Yourself

You're committed to helping your clients and improving your practice. These are noble goals, but don't forget that you must help yourself before you can truly help others.

Take time to indulge in the things you love that have nothing to do with work. Self-care is important. Ride your bike, cook with your children, go for a long walk, or curl up with a good novel. Feed your soul, so you're ready to help your clients do the same.

References

Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

ABA, BCBA, and CAS: What Does It All Mean? (August 2014). International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.

Home. Behavior Webinars.

On-Demand Continuing Education Courses. ABA Technologies.

Live CEs With BAs in Mind. AATBS.

Healthcare Professionals. International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.

Maintaining Professional Relationships in an Interdisciplinary Setting: Strategies for Navigating Nonbehavioral Treatment Recommendations for Individuals With Autism. (May 2015). Behavior Analysis in Practice.

Home. Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

Home. Association for Behavior Analysis International.

Home. Four Corners ABA.

About BABAT. Berkshire Association for Behavior Analysis and Therapy.

Entrepreneurial Hustle: 5 Tips for Starting (and Running) a Business in ABA Therapy. (August 2016). Behavioral Science in the 21st Century.

Reflections on Applied Behavior Analysis. (September 2019). Psych Central.

How Do You Deal With Difficult Clients? (June 2018). ABA Journal.

Three Important Things to Consider When Starting Intervention for a Child Diagnosed with Autism. (Fall 2010). Behavior Analysis in Practice.

How to Get Your Client to Listen to You. (December 2015). Behavioral Science in the 21st Century.

On Becoming a Better Therapist, Second Edition. American Psychological Association.

What Makes a Psychologist? (January 2020). The Psychologist.