Within the field of psychology is an area of research and clinical practice known as behavior analysis. Professionals who work in the field of behavior analysis are experts in the scientific principles underlying behavior and how to manipulate those principles to change behavior for the better. Behavior analysts work in many different settings – from outpatient intervention programs and schools to assisted living facilities and hospitals – and serve populations that include young children with autism and senior citizens. The work a behavior analyst does depends on his or her employment setting and the population he or she works with, but generally, this career revolves around assessing behavior and, often, applying their expertise to creating the behavior change intervention strategies that help clients.
A Career in Assessing Behavior
It’s clear from the job title that this occupation focuses on analyzing behavior. What’s not so obvious is the perspective from which this analysis is done. Behavior analysts approach their evaluations of behavior not so much from a moral standpoint – although they study ways to change unwanted, or “maladaptive,” behavior – but instead, from a scientific one. The principles that guide the practice of behavior analysis are the scientific and natural laws that express how the different factors in environments affect behavior, according to the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts. One example of the scientific principles of behavior is the concept of reinforcing behaviors by selecting certain consequences that follow them. Studying behavior through a scientific lens also means focusing on the complex workings of causal relationships – not just recognizing that certain events and behaviors occur together, but understanding which phenomenon causes the other.
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In a field so heavily based in science, it only makes sense that assessments of behavior aren’t subjective opinions. Rather, these evidence-based findings are acquired through assessment tools and strategies developed through research. In the process of assessing a client’s behavior, behavior analysts will interview the individual and parents or other caregivers about behavior patterns and administer screening tools, such as questionnaires, that can be scored quantitatively.
Some of the specific tools commonly used in behavior analysis and assessment include the Functional Assessment Interview and the Functional Analysis Screening Tool (FAST).
More Than a Subject of Study
It’s common to hear the phrase “applied behavior analysis,” because a large part of the field is based on applying research in behavior analysis to the application of clinical interventions. Through research on behavior assessment and experimental measures of addressing behavior, analysts learn how different attempted interventions work. However, for many behavior analysts, the work doesn’t end with research.
Once they assess behavior, certified behavior analysts come up with an intervention plan, or treatment plan, based on their assessments. While these plans should be based on intervention strategies that have well-researched empirical value, they are also individualized, according to the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts. These plans are created to address the client’s unique behavior patterns and take into account the factors that lead to and reinforce behaviors.
Developing an intervention plan is not a one-and-done situation. Often, behavior analysts and the treatment team with whom they collaborate find that they need to tweak plans and strategies based on the results of their efforts.
Collaboration and Supervisory Responsibilities in Behavior Analysis
Although applied behavior analysts are the ones to select the combination of appropriate interventions that becomes the client’s treatment plan, they may not be the ones to carry out those interventions. Instead, behavior analysts may train others to use the programs they have designed and developed. They may equip therapists and behavior technicians who use the interventions directly in one-on-one therapy sessions or work with caregivers to educate them on how to apply the interventions to real-world situations in daily life.
Often, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) are responsible for supervising lower-level behavior analysis personnel. Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs) must work under the supervision of a BCBA. Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) may work under the supervision of a BCBA or a BCaBA, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.
Being a behavior analyst doesn’t mean you have no contact with the people you help. You work with clients and caregivers while making baseline assessments and periodically as you assess treatment effectiveness. Some analysts provide some degree of direct intervention.