What Is the Difference Between a Behavior Analyst and an Assistant Behavior Analyst?

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Within the scientific area of psychology known as behavior analysis, you’ll find multiple job roles to consider. Two of these roles, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), sound very similar, yet the paths required to secure them and the job duties they fulfill are different in a number of ways.

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What BCBAs and BCaBAs Have in Common

Both BCBAs and BCaBAs work in the field of behavior analysis. Behavior analysis is a specialty of psychology that focuses on the science that drives behavior. Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is a form of therapy that uses these scientific principles to intervene in problematic behavior patterns and ultimately change behavior. The principles used in ABA therapy are backed by scientific studies and empirical evidence.

The goal of applied behavior analysis, as it pertains to an individual patient, may include teaching and reinforcing helpful behaviors in a wide range of capacities. Work in applied behavioral analysis may encompass efforts to improve communication skills, social skills, academic learning skills and adaptive learning skills that include everything from hygiene and grooming to fine motor dexterity. Some of the patient populations who have been shown to benefit from ABA therapy include children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and aging adults.

BCBAs and BCaBAs work in many of the same settings, including hospitals, schools, assisted living facilities and treatment centers, with similar patient populations. These professionals work together as part of patients’ care teams. They may also work with and supervise behavior therapists, paraprofessionals in the field whose formal education may consist of only a high school diploma. Behavior therapy doesn’t take place in a vacuum but in the context of other medical conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. BCBAs and BCaBAs must collaborate with other members of a patient’s care team, including pediatricians and other kinds of physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, clinical and counseling psychologists, physical and occupational therapists, speech-language therapists, registered dieticians and potentially other healthcare workers.

Both BCBA and BCaBA credentials require successful completion of a certification exam. Both exams and credentials are administered and conferred by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, which also awards the Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) certification and the BCBA-D credential for behavior analysts who attain a doctorate. Behavior analysts and assistant behavior analysts must study many of the same subjects and content areas in preparation for acquiring certification and starting their careers.

Given the overlap between these two careers, it makes sense that some of the same characteristics are valuable for both BCBAs and BCaBAs. Regardless of which path you pursue, you will need a natural curiosity about why people behave in certain ways, strong skills in active listening, a high level of emotional maturity and plenty of empathy for the person who is trying to change potentially harmful behaviors to more helpful behaviors.

BCBAs and BCaBAs also, of course, work with the patient themselves and their parent or caregiver. A good behavior analysis professional must be accessible, approachable and able to act compassionately toward patients and caregivers. 

The Biggest Difference Between BCBA and BCaBA

The biggest distinction between a BCBA and a BCaBA is the level of autonomy and extent of involvement in developing behavioral training programs. As the “assistant” part of the job title suggests, BCaBAs support Board Certified Behavior Analysts in their efforts to provide therapy to patients. A BCBA has much more autonomy than a BCaBA.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts are the ones in charge of evaluating patients and developing their treatment programs. They have the final say in selecting the interventions and don’t have to answer to another expert in the field of behavior analysis – although they must, of course, uphold the standards of the profession and of board certification. Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts, on the other hand, must work under the guidance and supervision of a BCBA and are not authorized to practice behavior analysis independently. If in the course of their work implementing a BCBA’s treatment plan they encounter unexpected challenges or developments that warrant making changes in a patient’s intervention plan, a BCaBA must still be the one to approve those modifications.

However, this doesn’t mean that BCaBAs are the lowest level of seniority in the field of behavior analysis. In fact, BCaBAs are often responsible for supervising the Registered Behavior Technicians and other behavior therapists, who provide direct therapy to clients on a daily or routine basis. As such, BCBAs need to be extremely knowledgeable about the field of behavior analysis and its therapeutic practices. They should also develop strong management skills to oversee and help guide the work of behavior therapists.

Although there may be a therapeutic aspect to their work, BCBAs are often involved in more than just providing individual therapy through an ABA approach. A key part of their role is performing the assessments and analyses of behavior that are then used to develop treatment plans based on ABA principles.

The Education Required for BCaBA vs. BCBA Certification

One major factor that differentiates BCBAs from BCaBAs is the level of education required for each credential. If you want to achieve full certification as a BCBA, you’re going to need at least a master’s degree, but BCaBAs are only required to have a bachelor’s degree.

RELATED: The 20 Best ABA Online Masters Programs (Applied Behavioral Analysis Degrees)

The Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB), which awards these credentials, mandates studies in the same fields of study for both types of certification. However, the BCaBA coursework sequence requires less extensive studies in many areas of the field. Only in the newest requirements’ categories of behavior-change procedures and behavior assessment do BCaBAs complete the same number of hours as their peers pursuing the BCBA credential. They complete just half as many hours of study in the philosophical underpinnings of behavior analysis and in personnel supervision and management, and just two-thirds of the hours needed in the compliance code and professionalism and in data measurement and experimental design.

Bachelor’s Degrees for Behavior Analyst Assistants and Behavior Analysts

Let’s start with the bachelor’s degree, since an undergraduate education is something that both BCBAs and BCaBAs must pursue. Technically, you can use a bachelor’s degree in any field to start working toward either of these certifications. However, it makes the most sense for aspiring behavior analysis professionals to pursue a degree in a relevant field of study, such as psychology or applied behavior analysis more specifically.

To be eligible for certification, BCaBAs must complete the required behavior analysis coursework. If you don’t choose a bachelor’s degree program that specifically prepares you to sit for the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst Exam, you will need to complete a sequence of additional coursework in behavior analysis beyond your bachelor’s degree to meet these requirements. Whether you take these classes as part of your bachelor’s degree or separately, you will need to complete studies in the following areas:

  • The concepts, principles and philosophical underpinnings of applied behavior analysis
  • Measurement, data display and interpretation in experimental design
  • Behavior assessment
  • Behavior-change procedures, including the selection and implementation of interventions
  • Personnel supervision and management
  • Professionalism and the BACB Ethics Code

Supervised fieldwork is also required to be eligible to work as a BCaBA.

Master’s and Doctoral Degree Programs for Behavior Analysts

An ABA master’s degree program that is accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International will likely include core graduate-level coursework in subject areas such as:

  • Measurement and experimental design
  • The fundamental elements of behavior change
  • The applications of fundamental elements of behavior analysis
  • Behavioral assessment and functional analysis
  • Behavioral interventions
  • Ethical and professional conduct
  • Consultation, systems change and supervision

BCBA candidates, like BCaBA candidates, must acquire a considerable amount of fieldwork experience. Some master’s degree programs allow students to choose an area of focus, such as working with patients who have autism spectrum disorder or treating and promoting social, emotional and behavior wellness more generally.

Although earning a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree in behavior analysis isn’t required to acquire the BCBA credential, there’s still value to pursuing this highly advanced education. Certified behavior analysts with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. under their belts can use the doctoral designation BCBA-D. Although this added designation doesn’t change the behavior analysts’ scope of clinical practice or professional privileges, it does offer other advantages. If you wish to work in academia or to direct – not just participate in – research in the field of behavior analysis, a doctoral degree could open doors that would be barred to you with only a master’s degree. A doctorate may also qualify you to work in leadership roles in clinical agencies. It’s no coincidence that these roles are often higher-paying than the average behavior analyst position.

The Benefits of Earning a Graduate Degree in Behavioral Analysis

If you can achieve board certification with only a bachelor’s degree, you might wonder what makes going to graduate school worthwhile in this field. Advancing to the BCBA credential offers more in terms of job opportunities. It can also offer a considerably higher salary, boosting your earning potential by tens of thousands of dollars per year.  The income difference between BCBAs and BCaBAs isn’t necessarily a direct result of employers undervaluing BCaBAs, but, at times, a result of how a state’s health insurance regulations allow insurance companies to categorize BCaBAs. Given the brighter career prospects and earning potential, it’s no surprise that BCaBAs often use this credential as a stepping stone while they work toward full board certification as a behavior analyst.

Assistant behavior analysts who took graduate-level classes can apply the hours they used to satisfy their BCaBA coursework requirements toward the more extensive coursework requirements needed for the BCBA credential, the BACB reported.

Differences in Behavior Analyst and Assistant Behavior Analyst Job Responsibilities

One of the biggest differences between BCBAs and BCaBAs is that assistant behavior analysts generally are not authorized to work independently, according to Psychology Today. Instead, they must work under the supervision of a BCBA or BCBA-D, the BACB reported. This requirement limits the scope of their job responsibilities compared to what a BCBA is qualified to do, and to some degree, it can also limit employment prospects. Generally, a BCBA can perform any of the work a BCaBA can do, but the reverse is not true.

Both BCBAs and BCaBAs can work with patients one-on-one to provide therapy, but BCBAs spend more of their time on other, higher-level tasks that may require a more advanced education. For example, a BCBA is the one who assesses the patient, develops intervention plans and, when necessary, adjusts or modifies those treatment plans. BCaBAs aren’t qualified to perform these tasks independently, although they may assist the BCBA in these job functions. They also work directly with patients, providing therapeutic intervention, although a BCaBA typically is not the person who works directly with the patient on a daily basis. That responsibility usually falls on a paraprofessional called a Registered Behavior Technician. Either BCBAs or BCaBAs may supervise behavior technicians.

Due to the limitations placed on BCaBAs, growth in job opportunities has historically been higher for BCBAs and BCBA-Ds. Any BCaBA that is hired must be supervised by a BCBA, but a BCBA may be hired without a BCaBA involved. 

BCBA vs. BCABA Earning Potential

Earning potential across the behavior analyst occupations can vary a great deal by level of education and certification. PayScale reported an average annual salary of $46,009 for Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts as of 2021. That average salary is significantly more than the $34,616 average annual wage PayScale reported for Registered Behavior Technicians, but it’s still noticeably below what full BCBAs earn.

The average annual salary for Board Certified Behavior Analysts in 2021 was $65,616, according to PayScale. Behavior analysis professionals who pursue a doctorate have the highest earning potential. For the BCBA-D role, PayScale reported an average salary of $80,000 per year as of 2021. However, some ABA professionals with a doctorate earn upwards of $100,000 per year. 

Part of the reason BCBAs earn more is the level of education they possess. BCBAs don’t just take a few more courses than BCaBAs. Their coursework must be taken at the graduate level, while BCaBAs don’t face that requirement.

Additional Resources

How Do You Become a Certified Behavior Analyst?

What Does an Assistant Behavior Analyst Do?

What Does a Behavior Analyst Do?