BCBA. It always surprises me that there are so many varied emotions associated with these 4 letters. For those of us who get to write them after our name, that emotion is pride in being affiliated with a field that matters greatly to us. For others there is sometime defensiveness or denial. I hear so often “I am not a BCBA but I know all of the things to be one” or “I have been doing this for 20 years, I just don’t have the letters.” Parents with children on the autism spectrum often ask about the letters. But there is a lot of confusion there as well.

Why do these letters matter so much? What makes them so important? Why should parents care if their provider is a BCBA?

Let’s start with the basics. BCBA stands for Board Certified Behavior Analyst. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board, (BACB), is the governing board that grants the BCBA designation. It describes BCBA’s as “independent practitioners who also may work as employees or independent contractors for an organization. The BCBA conducts descriptive and systematic behavioral assessments, including functional analyses, and provides behavior analytic interpretations of the results.” (BACB, 2014). So what does this mean? And as parents why should you care?

The letters are very important because it means that the person working with you and your child has been through rigorous course work with intensive supervision to be able to demonstrate skills in order to help, in our case, children on the autism spectrum achieve new skills while decreasing problem behaviors. BCBA’s are required to demonstrate a high level of understanding of behavioral principles and concepts that are not limited by our own clinical experience. For example, I have been in the field for 20 years and am lucky enough to work with some amazing kids, but if my expertise only extended as far as the clients I encounter, that would limit my ability to work with new children.

Let’s break down the requirements. In order to become a BCBA we need to have supervision and coursework that teaches us the breadth and depth of the field. BCBA’s must have a minimum of a master’s degree (and a Ph.D. to be a BCBA-D) and have a minimum of 1500 hours of supervision and 225 classroom hours of graduate level coursework in behavior analysis (BACB, 2014). For more information on the specifics of these requirements see http://www.bacb.com. Once this education is completed the professional then has to pass a rigorous national exam.

However, learning does not end once you pass the exam. BCBA’s must keep up their education by attending conferences and gain 32 hours of coursework during every 2 year recertification cycle to maintain their certification (BACB, 2014). Keeping up with the research and continuing to grow your skills are not just requirements but are the heart and soul of the BCBA certification. If this isn’t happening then service will not meet a standard level of excellence.

When a BCBA works with you and your family, they must be able to:

  • Describe the area they are targeting (which can be teaching a new skill or reducing problem behaviors), to increase or decrease,
  • Assess the level of that area
  • Derive an intervention

Our purpose is to look at behavior scientifically and let the data guide our decision making. All of our practice must be evidence based. That sounds very cold when it is spelled out that way, but it really is not. BCBA’s are required to ensure that what they are doing has the most benefit for the client. We measure and question ourselves each day in all we do. If the data shows that our approach is not working, we are required to put that idea aside and re-do the assessment to make sure what we are doing is correct. We get the privilege of working closely with people who need help but also have a strong science behind us which informs what we do. That is the benefit of working with a BCBA.

As the number of children who are diagnosed with autism increases, so has the need and relevance for BCBA’s who specialize specifically in working with children on the spectrum. The high number of problem behaviors and skills which need to be addressed in children with autism makes the field of behavior analysis an essential part of their treatment. As behavior analysts, we break down those skills into small pieces and measure their growth to make sure our teaching is effective. In addition, we look at the function of problem behaviors and work to reduce them so the children are more available for learning.

Not all BCBA’s work with children with autism, but for those of us who do we need to make sure we have the expertise and the training to do so. I am so lucky to be able to work with amazing kids and their families and have the science of behavior analysis to support what I am doing. We get to figure out the pieces of the puzzle for each child while getting to be around the sweetest kids while we are doing it!

In the end what does this all mean for the kids and families with whom we work? It means that having a BCBA or BCaBA (supervised by a BCBA) should be a minimum requirement for those overseeing you in an ABA program. You should make sure you know what to ask them, or any professional: questions about what they are doing and they should easily be able to provide data and clear rational for their treatment. Some questions that are important to ask are:

  • What are the goals that you are working on with my child and why did you pick those? Clearly defined goals can be attained, those that are not clear are almost impossible to achieve!
  • Is the BCBA or practitioner taking data and analyzing it regularly? Make sure the answers are yes and yes – and they should be able to show you that data in a format that is easy to read and understand, such as a graph!
  • Are they using evidence-based practices in all they do? ABA is an evidence based practice, but make sure if they are integrating any non ABA techniques they are identifying those and providing evidence for them.
  • What is their experience and expertise? Do they have supervised experiences working with children with autism? Supervised experience is essential. We all need to grow and learn from others and just having yourself to rely on for feedback does not promote growth or allow for true learning.

If you are working with those without a BCBA and they say “Don’t worry. I know all the same things” please ask them about their coursework, supervised experience, national exam and continuing education. Ask them how they review the science and keep up with what is evolving in the field. Ask about who oversees them? And make sure that they are taking data and constantly evaluating the program they have put into place.

BCBA does matter. When I first began working with children with autism all I wanted to do was help. I had fallen in love with these amazing individuals and knew that I wanted to spend my life working with them and having the honor of being in their lives. I spent the first year researching everything out there that might help to work with kids with autism, trying to decide where I should focus. The day I found ABA was the day I felt I came home. Being able to work with children I loved, and having the data to support what I was doing changed everything. I found a way to make sure I was having an impact, and also joined this amazing community of others who shared these same standards and ideas. It changed my life in more ways than I can describe, and is a field I am honored to be a part of and that is why being a BCBA matters to me.

BACB. (2014). BACB. Retrieved 2015, from http://www.bacb.com/

By Christine Accardo, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Programs

To learn more about joining The Shafer Center for Early Intervention family, call us at 410-517-1113 or email us at: [email protected]