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How to Become a Licensed Behavioral Therapist

Learn how to become a behavioral therapist. Research the education and license information and experience required for starting a career in behavioral therapy.

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Do I Want to Be a Licensed Behavioral Therapist?

Behavioral therapy is a type of therapy based on behavioral science research. Therapists in this field, sometimes referred to as mental health professionals or counselors, help individuals change their behavior or their ways of reacting to certain conditions, as well as help them gain self-control. By learning their clients' personalities, skills and abilities, professionals in this field develop specific treatment plans to help individuals lead healthy and emotionally stable lives. They can work in hospitals, clinics, schools or even private practice. Patience and a positive outlook are often required to work effectively with individuals seeking behavioral therapy.

Job Requirements

Licensing requirements to work in behavioral therapy vary from state to state, and aspiring professionals should take this into consideration. A master's degree in counseling, psychology or social work is normally required for licensing. The following table outlines the requirements for behavioral therapists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree required; master's degree preferred*
Degree Field(s) Psychology, social work, counseling or other related field**
Licensure and/or Certification Licensure requirements vary by state*; voluntary certification is available***
Experience 1-3 years of experience*
Key Skills Listening, social perceptiveness, critical-thinking and complex problem-solving skills****

Sources: *Job listings from employers (October 2012), **Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), ***Behavior Analyst Certification Board, ****O*Net Online.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Earning a bachelor's degree in a health, human services or science field, such as psychology or social work, could be beneficial to advancing into graduate studies. Typical undergraduate programs in this field can help familiarize students in various principles of cognitive, clinical and occupational aspects of the field. A bachelor's degree program in psychology could include core classes, electives or research opportunities in behavioral, marriage and family or occupational therapy.

Success Tip:

  • Consider training options. According to the ABCT, training for behavioral therapists can vary. For example, counselors may only need to consider graduate programs, while psychologists who deal with behavioral therapy will be more interested in doctoral programs. Students should consider these options to confirm that their undergraduate studies fully prepare them for additional study.

Step 2: Attain a Graduate Degree

Graduate programs allow students to focus on specialized areas, such as behavioral psychology or occupational therapy, marriage and family therapy, addiction counseling, sports counseling and clinical psychology. Through extensive research on schools and the state of residency, as well as their perspective field, students can determine if they are required to pursue a master's or doctoral degree.

Many master's degree programs offer clinical work experience through observational rotations or practical internships. Most master's degree programs take two years to complete and culminate in the completion of a master's thesis based on an extensive research project. The length of study for doctoral students can vary and depends on the students' approval of their dissertations.

Success Tip:

  • Be proficient in research. Behavioral therapy is a broad discipline that encompasses many fields. The research experience required in graduate studies can be extensive. Students should develop their research skills, as well as a proficiency in reading scholarly articles. Master's students usually finish their studies with a thesis, while doctoral students typically finish with dissertations. By being proficient in research, students can prepare for completing these capstone projects.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

Most states require licensure for behavioral therapists, although specific eligibility criteria vary for each state. Licensure requires completing a state-mandated exam, and professionals might need to maintain a license with continuing education courses. Students should contact their state's behavioral science board, or other governing department, to learn more about the different licensing and examination requirements for the positions that fall under the behavioral therapy category. For example, states typically provide information for marriage and family therapists (MFTs), licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and licensed educational psychologists (LEPs).

Step 4: Gain Field Experience

Psychologists with a master's degree may qualify to offer therapeutic services in an occupational setting for businesses and organizations. Some states also allow those with a master's degree to work in public schools. Government agencies typically only require a bachelor's degree, though there could be increased competition for these positions.

Prior to earning a doctoral degree, aspiring behavioral therapists could provide supportive roles, such as psychologist assistant, administrative specialist or rehabilitation coordinator, to obtain experience in the field. Optional certification for behavioral therapy offered through the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists requires at least ten years of experience to earn diplomate status.

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