When I first started my graduate program in ABA, I created a binder for myself. I printed out the task list, the pre-experience checklist, and experience standards. I created a 2-year plan for myself, with goals and objectives. My overall goal: “Become a BCBA by January 2021.” This was written on the first page of my binder and posted on my home office wall. My first objective: “Begin supervision and get A’s in my first classes.”
Each semester I gave myself a different goal, typically including how many hours I wanted to accrue and how much time I was going to devote to my coursework. I met each one, even though it was challenging. My last objective was to pass the BCBA exam on the first try, something that gave me a lot of anxiety after seeing many posts on social media about multiple time test takers. After 2 years of studying, hours of supervision meetings, working while raising 2 children, and finally-a global pandemic, I passed the exam on the first try.
Many people asked me how I managed to do it all, and I'll admit there are times that I wonder that myself. I've always been a list maker and found I reached my goals better when I wrote them out and stuck with it. Here is my advice to aspiring BCaBAs (Board certified assistant behavior analysts) or BCBAs (board certified behavior analysts).
1. Before you start your master’s program, really research ABA
If you've made it this far on my blog, you probably already know that ABA is the science of behavior and that most BCBAs work with autistic people. Autism isn't the only field where ABA is beneficial- you can look on the BACB’s site for data on fields that people work- it ranges from working with children with disabilities to organizational and employee management. Before even applying for a masters program, I recommend becoming familiar with what ABA is, what sort of interventions are typically used, controversial and ethical topics within ABA, and determining what sort of work you are interested in. Be sure to look at views from actual autistic people as well and make sure that you’re ready for this journey.
2. Thoroughly review the BACB website
Spend some time downloading the experience forms, the pre-experience tips, and any forms for BCBA trainees. I printed everything out and saved it all on my computer. My self-hired supervisor didn’t prepare me for this, but I took the initiative to look at everything I could to ensure I was competent in the field and any related news. I probably spent about 5 hours before starting my program just seeing what all the requirements were on the website. I have seen so many people who are halfway through their masters program and still have no idea anything about the BACB's forms and requirements- just do this and your future supervisors will thank you.
3. Understand the point of supervision and the requirements.
Understand why supervision is important, and more importantly why effective supervision is important. The purpose of BCaBA/BCBA supervision is to gain individualized experience with a BCBA so that you can apply behavior analytic concepts from the BACB task list to a variety of situations in order to prepare you to enter the workforce as a BCBA.
Supervision hours are anytime your supervisor is present with you, typically along with a meeting to discuss progress, needs, and concepts.
For the 4th edition task list, BCBA trainees requires 1500 total experience hours with 5% supervised by a BCBA. This equates to approximately 75 hours by the end of your supervision. This is different if you’re doing intensive practicum through your grad school, in which you’d need 10% of your hours to be supervised. Keep in mind that this will be changing to 2000 hours for those taking the exam after January 2022. Remember to take another look at the experience standards and familiarize yourself with what counts as unrestricted fieldwork as at least 50% (4th ed.) or 60% (5th ed.) of your hours will have to be unrestricted.
4. Consider your plans for supervision
When I first started grad school, I was working for a BCBA who said she would offer free supervision while I worked for her company. Even with a supervision contract, she rarely answered my calls/texts/emails and scheduling supervision with her was almost impossible. I ended up leaving that agency and hiring a BCBA supervisor in my area to oversee me as I worked in group homes with adults.
My experience isn’t exactly typical, but it isn’t unheard of; if you’re planning to get supervision as a benefit of your job, ask the important questions before you get started. Here are just a few that I wish I had asked… How many hours of supervision per month will they provide for you? If you are able to obtain the hours to maintain the required ratios, are they able to meet with you more frequently so you can accrue hours more? What will supervision meetings look like? Will they train you on things that you haven’t learned in your coursework, and if so, what will that training look like? If I leave the company, will I have to pay back any of that supervision time? Will we do group supervision as well as individual?
Which is better- a self-hired supervisor or a free supervisor? After quite a few years of living very frugally by necessity, I’ve come to learn that typically you get what you pay for. This isn’t always true- I once got an awesome pair of designer shoes on clearance for under $20 (one of the benefits of having feet smaller than most women), but I think there is value to be found in looking for high quality supervision. In many instances, you may be able to supplement your existing supervision with additional supervision from someone else- just make sure that you get proper consents from employers and clients prior to discussing any personal information. Make sure you look for a supervisor who will challenge you, teach you, and support you and avoid supervisors who are just asking for client progress without any suggestions or information to learn and grow from.
5. Ask questions.
When I started working as a "baby behavior tech" I really didn't even know what ABA was all about. I didn't really even know what a BCBA did. It wasn't until the BCBA and LBS I was working with recommended I get my masters in ABA that I really began researching the field. Do not be afraid to ask questions, practice philosophic doubt (an attitude of science that encourages you to continuously question why and how things happen, and also accept that we are not always right in our assumptions).
Completing a masters degree, obtaining supervision and experience hours, and studying for the big test is a big deal, but it's not impossible. Set goals, meet your goals, evaluate your progress, and read as much as you can about their field and the Board. Best of luck in your journey!