Taking coursework, supervised clinical training, and studying for an exam, are great ways to learn about the practice of behavior analysis. But the learning doesn’t stop once you earn your certification. In this installment of Clinical Corner, Carl Sundberg offers suggestions to help newly certified behavior analysts master their craft.
Amanda Guld Fisher, PhD, BCBA-D
Question: I just received my BCBA. Now what?
Answered by Carl Sundberg, PhD, BCBA-D, Chief Clinician and President of the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism
The formal education that is required for obtaining certification as a BCBA is obviously important. Making an ongoing commitment to mastering your craft, in my opinion, is even more important. When I received my BA in behavior analysis from Western Michigan University (36 credit hours in behavior analysis), I thought I knew everything I needed to know to change the world for the better. During the following two years of graduate school, however, I realized how naive I had been and that there was more I didn’t know about behavior analysis than what I did know. As an undergrad, I had a limited appreciation for the complexity of human behavior. I thought I could change any behavior for the better if I set up the contingencies the right way. In retrospect, I think I could say I had the tools to be a good behavior technician, but was not yet a good behavior analyst. Becoming a competent, strong behavior analyst not only requires formal education but also practical, supervised experience, self-study and following the work of others in the field at conferences, workshops and continuing education events.
Continuing education should not be viewed as something you simply check off a list. It should be viewed as an opportunity to polish your craft, to fill voids, to develop greater expertise and to hone skills needed for your particular role as well as to anticipate future responsibilities.
Good mentorship is paramount to increasing your skills as a behavior analyst. Precertification supervision should just be the beginning. A good behavior analyst is always learning from others throughout his or her career. If you ask any veteran, well respected behavior analyst about their influences, most will be very adamant about giving credit to their mentors. I learned much of what I know about being an applied behavior analyst by working with people who were seasoned practitioners in behavior analysis. Don’t be afraid to be criticized. It would be nice if all supervisors were all sunshine and roses and told you what you wanted to hear; but to get to the top, sometimes you have to get beat up a bit. I have had my share of hard criticism (sometimes it doesn’t seem hard until you read between the lines). But the result – when the feedback was constructive – was that it made me stronger and a better behavior analyst. Take the opportunity to learn from mistakes and be happy when someone suggests that you are not quite right about something (or not even in the ballpark). Look at feedback as an investment. It can also be wise to solicit feedback if it is not forthcoming or frequent enough.
Much can also be gained by self-study. There is a difference, though, between a cursory perusing of a paper, book or journal article and mastering the content. Your core area of practice should require mastery of the material. Back in 1986, I asked Jack Michael how many times he read Skinner’s Verbal Behavior(1). He said he read it over 80 times. He read Science and Human Behavior(2) over 75 times. Of course that number has surely grown since then. I would consider Jack Michael the master of all masters in Skinner’s analysis of behavior (verbal, human and otherwise). I wouldn’t expect the average person (or person two standard deviations above average) to master a topic to that extent. The point is this: to be able to talk about, teach, supervise others, and apply your skills so that you have the most impact on your clients in a useful way, takes a form of mastery that is well beyond a cursory perusing of a paper, book or journal article. If you are going to make practical use of or teach a subject matter or a subset of a subject matter, you must be able to talk about it and apply the principles, procedures or concepts into practical application or meaningful discourse. Study the material as if you will be tested in essay fashion, as if you must present the material at a conference. Study as if you will have to debate an opponent of your position (because sooner or later you will).
In a related vein, I am also a proponent of frequently going to workshops and presentations in your area of interest. Experts in the field present many of the core topics related to teaching children with autism. If an area really applies to what you do, for example, teaching verbal behavior, working with kids who exhibit self-injurious behavior, teaching functional skills to older kids etc., then I encourage you to become a groupie. Follow these people around as if they were the Grateful Dead. If you must read material over and over, then the same can be said about seeing a presentation of the material. When you are first exposed to any material, be it in writing or in a live presentation, you are only going to gain what your current repertoire allows you to gain. Repeated study and application, however, changes your repertoire and allows further access to more complex material that may have been over your head upon first exposure.
Establish a verbal community. Talking about behavior analysis with other behavior analysts makes for good practice. Establish a book club or a reading club. I recommend starting with Jack Michaels’ Concepts and Principles of Behavior Analysis(3). If you have enough local people (e.g., you work at an Applied Behavior Analysis facility), it is great experience to meet once a week or so to discuss a journal article or a book chapter. Beyond creating your own reading list, your supervisors and mentors can suggest readings. Anytime you go to a presentation you should get a list of good reading material. Often mastering a topic is born out of necessity. For example, one of your clients begins to elope. This could lead to a solid literature review on the topic of elopement. Agreeing to do presentations and trainings are also good ways to establish strong contingencies for study. In my opinion, there is no stronger contingency for study than to have to present in front of an audience. The same can be said about teaching a class in behavior analysis.
In summary, keep on educating yourself. Hang around strong behavior analysts (stalk them if necessary!), get involved with research, keep a solid reading list, establish a verbal community, seek supervision, present at conferences, get involved with the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), participate in one or more of the special interest groups, join your state ABAI chapter and run for office and /or join a subcommittee. Finally, do all you can to promote behavior analysis in your day-to-day interactions.
(1) Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
(2) Skinner, B. F. (1938). Science and human behavior. New York: The Free Press/Macmillan.
(3) Michael, J. L. (2004). Concepts and principles of behavior analysis (rev. ed.). Kalamazoo, MI: Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis.
Citation for this article:
Sundberg, C. (2014). Clinical Corner: I just received my BCBA. Now what? Science in Autism Treatment, 11(2), 17-18.