Reading M5 – Can professionalism go too far?


Reading M5 – Can professionalism go too far?

Early on there were just behavior analysts. There was no official definition of what it meant to say that you were a behavior analyst; it was just a matter of self-proclamation. Within that community, there was at least a general sense that being a behavior analyst meant you had a pretty solid knowledge of operant learning, a preference for the methodological practices described by Sidman (1960), and a notable enthusiasm for radical behaviorism as described in Skinner’s books and articles (see Reading P1).

Behavior analysis was not a field or a discipline by any definition. Some in the academic world viewed it as merely one of many specialties in psychology or special education, and not a very big one at all. Some academic departments had a behavior analyst or two on the faculty, but most avoided that taint. There was certainly little sense that behavior analysis was a career path, and employment opportunities were not usually identified as behavior analytic in focus.

Progress, but…

That all changed, of course. Slowly at first, behavior analysis became a somewhat identifiable field. It was still mainly housed in psychology departments, but more of them had at least one token representative and occasionally a recognizable behavior analysis track. Those faculty turned out a modest trickle of doctoral graduates, but terminal masters’ programs were uncommon. It was growing easier for behavior analysts to obtain gainful employment outside of academia, as long as you wanted to work in developmental disabilities. Attendance at ABAI conventions was also growing, and a few state organizations were being created.

There was little change in what it meant to be a behavior analyst, however. There was no core curriculum across academic programs, and merely saying that you were a behavior analyst was still the primary means of claiming membership in the club. As demand for expertise increased, however, the lack of standards for training and expertise was wearing thin. What it had always meant to be a behavior analyst was increasingly being eroded by the uncritical demands of the marketplace.

Finally, a set of standards

We all know what happened next. A slowly growing trend toward credentialing applied behavior analysts finally blossomed into a formal professional certification program – easily the most important event in the field’s history (Johnston, Carr, & Mellichamp, 2017). The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) established the field’s first set of training standards and a means of demonstrating minimum competence by examination. It also identified academic programs that offered coursework consistent with the training standards. That contingency greatly accelerated the formation of masters-level academic programs that prepared graduates to earn the credential signifying that they had demonstrated the minimum competencies required for independent practice.

The pervasive effects of the field’s credentialing programs are too numerous to detail. Most are positive. There is now a clear definition of what it means to be a behavior analyst – at least for practitioners. An entire industry has developed to serve the field’s needs in recruiting, training, credentialing, and supporting ABA practitioners. The number of individuals earning one or another of the credentials now issued by the BACB continues to be positively accelerated, and an increasing number of states have adopted licensure as a requirement for practicing ABA. Despite the increasing supply, employment opportunities continue to outpace the production of certificants. That in turn encourages robust salaries, which are made possible by improving sources of funding for services. By any standard, the practice of applied behavior analysis is now a profession.

Be careful what you wish for

As a young profession, behavior analysis has plenty of catching up to do. The BACB continues to raise standards for training and credentialing, although convincing new practitioners to adhere to the field’s rules for the ethical delivery of services is an ongoing challenge. That is to be expected, but there are some less obvious side effects of becoming a profession that we may not have anticipated.

Some of those side effects can be discovered on social media sites serving various interests in the field, especially the needs of people considering or embarking on a career in this field. Threads addressing career options, training programs, exam preparation, employment conditions, and practice issues are the main focus of those pages. Should I enroll in a master’s program in a college of education or department of psychology? How important is it for me to be trained in ABA in order to work in autism? Which training programs are most compatible with my need to continue working full time? Which are the best online programs? How long did it take to complete your program? What are the best exam preparation materials? What are salaries like in my state? How many hours do others put in each week?

Those and countless other issues are important considerations in preparing for and building a professional career, but they sometimes seem to push aside matters that used to be front and center. The focus of many discussion threads – again, especially for individuals at the beginning of their professional journey – is not so much about behavior analysis as about its professional context. That omission raises the question of whether in the process of forging a profession we might risk losing what it means to be a behavior analyst. Could behavior analysis become merely a means to an end?

A means to an end?

It used to be that you became a behavior analyst because you wanted to be one. You were seduced by what it meant to be a behavior analyst – by the characteristics that set behavior analysis apart from other ways of talking about, investigating, and changing behavior. Being a behavior analyst was at its core an intellectual commitment, one that only other behavior analysts could truly understand. Other approaches seemed flawed and unappealing to the extent that behavior analysis seemed the only acceptable option.

What you might do for a living as a behavior analyst was largely secondary to that commitment. The whole point was to be a behavior analyst, whatever else that might mean. Yes, you might have enrolled in a program that prepared you for a particular kind of employment, but you chose that program because it offered a way for you to become a behavior analyst, which was the all-important context for your career. In the end, you saw yourself as a behavior analyst who provided professional services rather than a professional who used behavior analytic procedures.

Does that distinction seem too subtle? The difference between those two identities has important consequences for both individual practitioners and ABA as a field. The issue has to do with the role that the fundamentals of behavior analysis – its research foundation, its methods, and its philosophical framework – play in the day-to-day work of practitioners. That role depends on how the fundamentals are represented in training programs that prepare students for professional careers. Are they merely faint background for a primary focus on the details of professional preparation, or are they a substantive core that thoroughly pervades the more professional aspects of training?

If what it means to be a behavior analyst becomes subordinate to the understandably important aspects of professional preparation, ABA may gradually devolve into little more than a technology, increasingly unmoored from its foundations. Although there’s no gainsaying the importance of thorough professional training, by itself that priority will always fall short of the field’s potential. The most concerning risk is a diminishing role of the glue that holds everything else together – radical behaviorism. There have always been some who found our direct measurement and behavior change procedures appealing, but what separates them from real behavior analysts is a deep appreciation of how to understand the causes of behavior without falling into the endless traps set by colloquial dialect.

It’s understandable that applicants to ABA training programs find this field attractive because it can provide them with a professional credential that allows them to effectively address client’s behavioral needs and earn a more-than-respectable living. However, if they graduate without having been transformed into well-trained behavior analysts who see behavior analysis – not their professional credential – as the core of their identity, it will be a real problem for the field.


Reading P1 What makes a behavior analyst? March 22.

Johnston, J. M., Carr, J. E., & Mellichamp, F.H. (2017). The history of the professional credentialing of applied behavior analysts. The Behavior Analyst, 1-16.

Sidman, M. (1960). Tactics of scientific research. New York: Basic Books.