The Road to Becoming a BCBA: the Things That Surprised Me the Most

The road to becoming a BCBA can be a really tough road. There is schooling, supervision, and other hurdles. However, it is worth it and I am pleasantly surprised about some things I have learned becoming a BCBA.


After years of schooling, supervision, after-school behavior therapy, and slaving away studying the entire summer, I’m officially a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA for short)!  When I found out I passed the exam, I felt more shock than anything.  I constantly hear stories about people who need to take the test 4-5 times before passing.  The time, money, and mental exhaustion where things I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle for a second time.  Knowing how challenging it is to retain all that there is related to ABA and its application, I honestly wasn’t so confident that I would pass.  Not going to lie, passing on the first try was a big confirmation that I knew this stuff all along.  However, it wasn’t always so clear that I would land in this field.
My first exposure to autism classrooms was when I was in undergrad and worked as a substitute aide in special education schools.  Like most people that have never been exposed to the ways that children with autism learn, the whole thing was very new to me.  The teacher in the classroom would always set me up in a station and I would usually just play with the student that was with me.  I didn’t entirely know at first what was going on, but I would overhear directives, a short pause, followed by a “good job! Here’s a M&M” or “nice try, try again” coming from the other stations.  There would be thick binders and little craft organizers with different snack foods broken in to teeny tiny pieces.  This was what I thought ABA was for many years.
When I was considering going back to school for my post-master’s credits, I struggled with deciding the best route for me.  I wanted to do something that would further my career, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be an administrator.  I was hesitant about ABA because all I remembered was my stint as a sub aide.  It seemed really dry and boring.
To add to my own personal (yet limited) anecdotes against ABA, I had heard horror stories which highlighted how ABA didn’t teach real skills, how it was not mindful of students, and how some practices were downright abusive. 
I didn’t make the decision until I was discussing it with a colleague one day who was starting an ABA program.  Her explanation made a lot of sense.
“I think it breaks down learning in to a way that makes it understandable to our kids”.
The irony of these words is that, after completing the program, my friend had no interest in doing anything related to ABA (including working with kids with autism).  However, the words stuck with me enough to go through with the program.  I am really glad I did.  The process has really solidified my knowledge of working with our students.  I have learned really great techniques for not only working with our students, but managing staff in my classroom.  Here is a short list of some of the things I found most surprising about the whole process and the science of ABA as a whole:

There is a huge emphasis on ethics

Big enough that there is a twenty something page guide as to ethics that BCBA’s are expected to follow.  This covers everything from picking appropriate reinforcers, not misguiding people in to thinking ABA is a “cure-all”, and maintaining appropriate relationships with clients.  I’m not allowed to speak too in depth about the exam, but I can say there were many questions where ethics were laced in to the answers.


Socially significant behaviors are the focus of ABA

The science of ABA is meant to change socially significant behaviors.  I feel like this goes hand-in-hand with the ethics and making sure to do right by our clients.  What is important to our clients is the cornerstone for choosing goals.

There is a lot of stuff that falls under the ABA umbrella

There are some aspects of ABA that you see constantly talked about, such as my initial encounter with discrete trials.  However, there is way more to it.  Ever complete a self-paced course? ABA.  Ever have a student use a behavior contract?  ABA.  As you can see ABA covers a huge span.  To say ABA is simply token economies and discrete trials and very, very limiting.

Teaching for generalization and in the natural environment is hugely emphasized

Discrete trials definitely have their place in ABA, but there are many other ways to teach that generalize skills.  Naturalstic teaching, pivotal response training, and function communication training are methods of teaching that use the natural environment and naturally occurring reinforcers to reach goals.

ABA can be applied to many different environments

True, treating those with autism and other disabilities makes up a majority of the ABA field.  However, the same science is used in many arenas, from animal training to managing businesses.  Remember my post about pairing with reinforcement?  This concept is totally applicable to managing the staff in your classroom (speaking from personal experience, my para did a hell of a job of pairing herself with reinforcement the other day when she brought me a vegan cookie).


By the way, if you are not following me on Instagram, I am starting to post my favorite little behavior bits lately.  These are just little tidbits and reminders to think about when working on behaviors.  Click below to follow me!


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