Children with severe emotional disabilities, aggression and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression often struggle to progress academically. It is not uncommon for these students to need behavioral support before they begin to respond to academic interventions. In such cases, an individualized education program (IEP) team may determine that it needs the assistance of a behavior specialist, also called a behaviorist.
Behaviorists work primarily as consultants. While some districts have designated behavior specialists, most behaviorists hold clinical certifications and provide services on an as-needed basis. Behaviorists are primarily team leaders, rather than instructors. Their role is to help IEP teams create plans to manage behaviors that affect a student’s learning; they work with the team to provide a comprehensive approach to behavior management that includes evaluation, data collection, interventions and regular monitoring.
A Day in the Life
While some behaviorists provide direct instruction to students, most serve primarily as consultants. Though their schedules vary by district and school, they generally split their workdays between meetings, classroom evaluations and program development. To follow is a sample schedule of a behaviorist.
- Hours one and two: Attend to administrative tasks. Behaviorists usually consult on a number of cases at a variety of schools. So, they must be highly organized and spend their office time scheduling and verifying appointments, returning phone calls and attending meetings with other support providers. They also must budget time within their day for traveling between school sites.
- Hours three and four: Conduct in-class evaluations to collect data on student behaviors. While evaluating new students, the behaviorist watches for antecedents or triggers that lead to inappropriate behaviors. He or she may also observe how teachers and support staff use existing interventions, and provide suggestions on ways to deescalate aggressive behaviors.
- Hours five and six: Attend IEP meetings for caseload students. In these meetings, the behaviorist helps the team develop behavioral goals and benchmarks, and assists them in writing a clear behavioral plan that uses data collected during evaluations to suggest replacement behaviors.
General Licensing Requirements
In many school districts, the school psychologist serves as the behavioral specialist; however, in some states, universities embed behavior training into special education programs, including instruction in applied behavior analysis (ABA) and functional behavior analysis (FBA).
Professional licenses include Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), both of which require passing a qualifying examination. To earn the BCBA license, the applicant must hold at least a master’s degree; the BCaBA license requires at least a bachelor’s degree.
For more specific information about licensing requirements for special education teachers, visit the teacher certification section of Special Education Guide.
Areas of Specialization
By definition, behaviorists are already specialists; however, there are sub-specialties within the profession. For example, some behaviorists work primarily with students with autism spectrum disorders whose behavior plans follow the principles of applied behavior analysis. Others may prefer to work in a clinical environment with students who suffer from mental illnesses. Because “behavior” is such a broad term and describes so many different and complex issues, behavior specialists can easily find ways to focus on one or two areas of interest.
Behaviorists on the Career Path
Those who hold BCaBA licensure often complete their master’s degrees and then go on to earn the BCBA certification. In order to earn the BCBA license, applicants must have training in behavioral sciences; most behaviorists with this credential have completed undergraduate and graduate work in psychology, bioengineering, behavior analysis, human services, medicine or related fields. Many also have experience working in clinical or educational environments. Behaviorists who hold the BCBA license can move into administrative positions within education, social services and the medical field.
List of National Organizations of Interest
The following organizations serve the interests and needs of behavior specialists: