What Is An Applied Behavior Analyst, And What Do They Do?

By Margaret Wack

Updated December 06, 2019

Reviewer Stephanie Beebe, MSW, LISW-S

What Is An Applied Behavior Analyst?

As the name implies, applied behavior analysts study behavior. Applied behavior analysts can study a wide variety of behaviors, situations, and environments, depending on their particular interests and specialties. Applied behavior analysts often focus on the practical applications of psychological research, and work with patients to analyze and change potentially harmful behaviors.

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Applied behavior analysts often work directly with individuals to struggle to control their behavior. They can come up with treatment strategies, help patients to form new behavioral patterns, and uncover the reasons behind unwanted behaviors to change them. In particular, applied behavior analysts may work with patients who need help navigating behavior differences caused by autism, developmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, emotional disturbances, and mental health issues.

What Is Behavior Analysis?

Behavior analysis largely developed from behaviorism, a school of psychological thought that developed over the twentieth century. Behaviorism focuses on human behavior and theorizes that to enact behavioral changes, particularly about mental health, it is necessary to focus on the behaviors themselves, rather than on any other psychological or environmental causes.

Behavioral analysis works to study and uncover the laws that govern human behavior. While human behavior might at first seem random or inexplicable, there are, in fact, often simple changes of cause and effect that influence behavior. Once the causes of particular behaviors have been discovered, behavior analysts can work to change or correct that behavior. Until the causal mechanism behind behavior itself is fully understood, behavior analysis posits that theories about psychology or mental health are missing crucial information.

In practice, behavior analysis focuses on helping individuals change their behavior. Applied behavior analysis, also called ABA, can take the form of behavioral therapy, and may also include giving guidance to supportive figures such as parents, guardians, and other authority figures. Applied behavior analysis is a type of therapy that focuses particularly on behaviors, with a special focus on social skills, motor skills, academics, daily tasks and responsibilities, and more. Applied behavior analysis can be an effective way to change and improve certain behaviors, and to instill new, beneficial habits in patients who are struggling with specific activities in their day to day lives.

What Do Applied Behavior Analysts Do?

Applied behavior analysts work with patients to steer them towards healthy behaviors and away from harmful ones. Applied behavior analysts may work with patients with a variety of differences and intellectual and emotional issues, including autism, mental illness, emotional distress, learning, and developmental disabilities, and more.

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Work Directly With Patients

Applied behavior analysts work directly with patients to correctly diagnose and treat their behavioral issues. These may include trouble focusing, inappropriate outbursts, trouble completing assignments for work or school, and other issues. Most patients require individualized treatment, and the appropriate treatment can vary from individual to individual depending on their particular issues, the severity of their symptoms, and their response to different potential approaches.

Applied behavior analysts develop individualized treatment plans for each patient, working with the patient as well as with any parents, guardians, and other associated individuals to come up with treatment plans and strategies that will help them achieve their behavioral goals. Applied behavior analysts also spend time observing and studying each patient, to determine their behavioral challenges, and to come up with solutions that work for each particular situation.

Work With Other Medical Professionals

While an applied behavior analyst most often works closely with the patient themselves, there are also a variety of other medical professionals that work with the patient who is under their supervision. This supervision can be direct or indirect and usually involves implementing a particular treatment plan across a wide variety of professions, including doctors, therapists, nurses, assistants, and other analysts.

Applied behavior analysts are usually involved in everything that goes on in a particular patient's behavioral treatment, and are often in charge of implementing a particular treatment plan across several different spheres of treatment. They also ensure that the patient receives the proper care even when they are not working directly with them.

Communication And Oversight

Another primary responsibility of an applied behavior analyst is to communicate with everyone who is involved in a patient's treatment, from other medical professionals to the patients themselves, to parents, guardians, and other parties. Applied behavior analysts may travel with patients to other appointments or visit them at their homes. Also, the applied behavior analyst communicates with other medical professionals to coordinate in regards to the patient's treatment plan and to answer any questions or concerns that they might have.

Training And Instruction

In addition to their other responsibilities, applied behavior analysts also work to train others to help patients manage their behavior effectively. In particular, applied behavior analysts often work with parents and guardians to inform them of appropriate strategies for dealing with a patient's behavior. They may work to help people understand the causes and circumstances surrounding particular behaviors, and to implement strategies to change or mitigate certain behaviors in the future. They can also often lead training programs that encourage groups of parents, guardians, or authority figures to learn more about behavior analysis and to understand the treatment needs of patients better.

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Who Applied Behavior Analysis Helps

Applied behavior analysis can be used to help a wide variety of patients with different backgrounds and needs.


One of the primary uses of applied behavior analysis is in the treatment of patients with autism. Applied behavior analysis can help people with autism to learn new skills, improve social skills and behaviors, and to control particular impulses when they might not be appropriate to a given situation. Applied behavior analysis is particularly effective in children under the age of four.

Adults With Memory Loss Or Disabilities

Applied behavior analysis can also be an effective treatment for adults with a variety of different developmental and progressive disabilities. Adults with developmental disabilities can benefit from a behavioral approach that helps to healthy strategies for changing behavior and encourages good decision-making and the acquisition of new skills. Patients suffering from aging, memory loss, and dementia may also benefit from applied behavior analysis, as it focuses particularly on behavior, and may allow them to form new habits and routines.

How To Become An Applied Behavior Analyst

Most applied behavior analysts must obtain both a bachelors and a graduate degree in psychology, education, applied behavior analysis, or another related field. To become certified, applied behavior analysts must complete supervised practical work and must take and pass a specific exam.

Obtain A Degree

If you're thinking about pursuing a career as an applied behavior analyst, the first step is to obtain a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field. This will usually involve extended coursework in psychology and may also include practical experience in the form of internships and classes. Once you've obtained a bachelor's degree, you should consider graduate study. A master's degree in psychology, education, or applied behavior analysis will help you to develop the skills that are necessary to pursue this challenging and rewarding career.

Become A Licensed Applied Behavior Analyst

After you graduate with your degree, the next step in the process to become an applied behavior analyst is to become certified. Most certification processes require a graduate degree. To complete your certification and to obtain a license, you must go through a process involving supervised practice hours and a final exam. The practice hours usually take place in a supervised setting under the guidance of licensed professionals and may include working directly with patients or gaining experience by watching other applied behavior analysts work. After completing your practice hours, you should apply to take the exam necessary to obtain certification. Exams generally cost over two hundred dollars, so be sure to prepare before you take it!

Licensure In The Different States

Different states have different requirements when it comes to licensure and certification. Most but not all states require that licensed applied behavior analysts obtain a graduate degree. Not all states require licensure to work as a practicing applied behavior analyst. If you're thinking of transferring from one state to another, states often require you to submit an application, pay a fee, and provide proof that you have already obtained a license in another state.

Applied Behavior Analyst Careers

Becoming an applied behavior analyst can be a rewarding and fulfilling career path. Applied behavior analysts can work in a variety of different settings, including schools, hospitals, and other medical facilities. Applied behavior analysts generally enjoy performing challenging and stimulating work that can make a meaningful difference in people's lives.

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Whether you're considering becoming an applied behavior analyst, interested in undergoing treatment or are suffering from mental illness and looking for assistance, BetterHelp can help. Our trained, licensed therapists can help you to discuss your emotions and feelings, evaluate your options, and make plans for the future. Get in touch with us today to learn more!

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