Behavioral therapy is an umbrella term covering the many forms of clinical behavior-based therapy used to treat mental health disorders, behavioral disorders, and mood disorders. Behavioral therapists are clinical mental health practitioners who use techniques derived from behaviorism (the theory that all behaviors are learned) to help their clients change unwanted thought processes and behavior patterns.
Behavioral therapy is a vast discipline, however. Behavioral therapists may use methods more familiar to psychoanalysis, humanism, Gestalt therapy, and other types of psychotherapy when working with clients.
What does a behavioral therapist do? Because so much of what happens in therapy is client-driven, these practitioners employ a variety of techniques to help their patients. In this article, we cover:
Behavioral therapists are licensed clinical therapists who have additional training—and sometimes voluntary certifications—in therapeutic disciplines that prioritize behavior modification. These disciplines include applied behavior analysis (ABA) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Like traditional talk therapy, behavioral therapy looks at the underlying causes of conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental health disorders. The treatment involves helping people heal by teaching them new, healthier behaviors.
Behavioral therapists use several techniques when working with patients, including:
This technique aids in the strengthening of favorable outcomes and positive responses to events and stimulus.
This technique involves the repeated pairing of discomfort with unwanted behaviors, creating a negative association with that behavior.
This type of graduated exposure therapy helps patients develop coping skills for triggered fears over the course of many controlled sessions.
This treatment involves conditioning the control of behavior by using external stimuli as reinforcement or punishment.
During therapy sessions, a behavioral therapist might also use techniques from psychoanalysis, emotion-focused therapy, and relational psychotherapy.
Not necessarily. All licensed behavioral psychologists can work as therapists, but not all therapists are psychologists.
Confused? ‘Therapist’ isn’t a legal designation in most states, and there are many mental health professionals who can legally administer behavioral therapy to clients, including:
Clinical psychologists work in medical settings to assess, diagnose and treat individuals, often focusing on a specific population—geriatrics, pediatrics, substance abuse treatment, etc.
The psychoanalyst helps patients tap into their unconscious mind to recover and gain insight on repressed memories and emotions.
Marriage and family therapists focus on conflict and difficult situations between couples and within families, sometimes focusing on the mental health of one individual or a difficult situation like divorce or death in the family.
Mental health counselors assess and treat ongoing mental health issues like anxiety and depression or with other challenges like substance abuse.
Clinical social workers deal with individuals, groups and families in the assessment of mental health with treatment that involves considering biological, psychological, cultural and social influences in the patient’s environment.
All of these clinicians must have a license to practice. However, they are not legally required to have a separate behavioral analysis certification to call themselves behavioral therapists.
Like all clinical therapists, CBT therapists, ABA therapists, and other behavior therapists care for clients coping with or suffering from a wide variety of mental and emotional issues. They diagnose clients—one-on-one or in group settings—and help them not only to understand their negative behaviors and negative self-talk, but also to change them.
Counseling can be a part of behavior therapy, but patients who seek out a behavioral therapist are usually looking for more. Part of a behavioral therapist’s job is to devise personalized problem-solving strategies and behavior modification plans designed to eliminate behaviors and thoughts that are unhealthy.
Every day will be different when you become a behavioral therapist, but almost everything you do will be patient-focused. On a typical day, a behavioral therapist might:
Early meetings with clients help therapists design treatment that best fits their individual stresses and concerns.
Ongoing communication is critical to creating effective and personalized treatment for clients.
Record keeping is important in tracking and monitoring treatment and patient progress.
Staying agile and focused on a patient’s goals is a significant part of a therapist’s focus.
Active participation and communication between therapists and their patients helps in the design and implementation of effective treatment exercises.
Group therapy sessions allow for patients to share and support each other in a uniquely designed space.
Continuing to follow the latest news in treatment plans and theories is critical to a therapist’s ongoing education.
When children are the patients, communication with parents and family members becomes an important part of treatment.
Sometimes a family needs someone to begin helpful and healing communication between individuals who are suffering and experiencing things differently.
At critical and stressful moments, a therapist can step in and help perform triage that can guide individuals and families through intense experiences.
Therapists can help people to help themselves by offering reading material, research on specific conditions, communication exercises, and other concrete solutions and information.
Communication and collaboration is an important piece of therapeutic work. Learning from the work and input of other professionals can be helpful in treatment.
The day-to-day paperwork involved in therapy is significant, and critical to keeping insurance and billing matters in order.
A lot of what behavioral therapists do involves listening, which is, in fact, the most important part of the behavioral therapist job description. Before a psychologist or counselor can recommend behavioral health or CBT strategies or treatments to help a client meet their goals, a therapist has to understand the client’s needs.
Behavioral therapists work in many settings, providing basic counseling services as well as intensive behavioral therapy. When you become a behavioral therapist, you might work in clinical settings such as:
Behavioral therapists usually work alongside speech and language therapists and often an occupational or physical therapist to provide comprehensive care to patients.
Therapists in this setting may work on trauma education with communities and neighborhoods impacted by drug and sex trafficking, substance and alcohol abuse, and community violence.
Often the doctor’s office is the first place people go for physical symptoms that may actually be signs of depression, anxiety, or stress. So, integrating behavioral therapists into physicians’ practices makes a lot of sense.
Many government agencies have counseling services including social welfare agencies, veterans services, court systems, and corrections departments.
Frequently physical and mental health care can work in concert to produce results that treat the whole patient. So, having therapists on site at hospitals can be greatly beneficial.
In both inpatient and outpatient facilities, a behavioral therapist can help diagnose troubling behaviors and set goals, measure progress, and modify treatment plans when necessary.
The duties for behavioral therapists in mental health clinics are similar to those at hospitals and psychiatric facilities in that teams of health professionals may work toward assisting patients during long-term care.
Care for members of the military and their families might occur during active duty, or focus on marriage counseling at home, or include services specifically for veterans.
Because patients live at these facilities, mental health care can be closely monitored over time, and may consist of individual therapy as well as group work, with the patient’s family included at times.
Behavioral therapists can benefit incarcerated individuals deal with life in the prison environment, but also prepare them for life after prison with positive behavior reinforcement and educational programs.
Working as an individual therapist in private practice has many benefits, and group practice adds additional experience, credentials, and qualifications which may help provide more comprehensive care.
Schools and universities allow therapists to collaborate with teachers and administrators in the construct of care, providing students with positive behavior reinforcement in familiar surroundings.
Behavioral therapists can help patients make connections between their thoughts, feelings, and actions, thereby raising awareness in their work toward recovery.
Some therapists enjoy working with specific populations. If you think you’d like to treat children with autism, children with ADHD, soldiers with PTSD, or patients in the criminal justice system, keep that in mind during your undergraduate and grad school years. You may be able to find relevant internships, which will make it easier to land jobs in your desired settings after graduation.
Behavioral therapists work with all kinds of clients and treat all types of issues. While many ABA therapists specialize in treating individuals with autism spectrum disorder, behavioral therapists also commonly treat behavioral problems like:
Therapy for anger issues focus on understanding the anger triggers, so that adapting coping skills allow patients to think and feel differently in response to these circumstances.
People with anxiety disorders also benefit from learning about triggered thoughts and feelings in order to reinforce positive responses to anxiety and panic responses.
Behavioral therapists can make a positive impact on individuals with developmental disabilities with treatment plans modified to accommodate a patient’s specific needs in dealing with anger, fear, and frustration.
Therapy for depression includes addressing negative thought patterns that influence behavior, and identifying the core beliefs that fuel those negative thoughts.
Eating disorders can be treated by challenging the core beliefs of the disorder, including over-concern about weight, and the strict dieting, binge eating, and compensatory behaviors that follow, like excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting.
WIth the focus on perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, behavioral therapists are able to help patients change their reactions to panic triggers and learn new positive behaviors.
Addressing the reasons a person feels that a situation is inherently dangerous will allow them to make the shift from automatic fear-based reactions to more positive and measured responses.
Behavioral therapy treatments can also help people coping with:
Behavioral therapy usually works in conjunction with medications to create positive treatment plans for those managing their ADHD symptoms.
Individual and group sessions can help create awareness of emotions and the physical sensations that indicate the onset of manic episodes.
By addressing negative interactions, children can learn more positive responses instead of developing secondary behaviors like oppositional defiant disorder, low self-esteem, and anxiety.
OCD treatment begins with trigger identification and re-learning reactions to fears instead of creating negative repetitive behaviors that aid in avoiding those triggers.
Personality disorders are defined by distorted and rigid thoughts and patterns of thinking, and treatment involves altering those dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors.
PTSD has trauma at its base, so addressing the associations that lead to debilitating behaviors can help patients progress to new and healthier emotional processing.
Self-harming behaviors can be linked to other mental health disorders like depression. So, a comprehensive approach to identifying the underlying negative beliefs will help patients adapt to healthier, more adaptive ones.
Behavioral therapy tools including self-awareness and problem solving can help reevaluate the relationship a patient has with drugs and addiction, assisting recovery and behavior change in the long term.
In some cases, behavioral therapists work with clients who are merely unhappy, going through a rough patch, or feeling dissatisfied with their lives.
The reason behavior therapy can be used effectively to treat so many types of conditions is that there are many forms of behavioral therapy. Applied behavior analysis, for example, looks at how environmental variables, antecedents (what happens before a behavior occurs), and consequences can be modified to impact behavior positively. Cognitive-behavioral therapy combines behavioral therapy with traditional talk therapy. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on the psychosocial influences and relationships in a person’s life.
Many therapists launch their careers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but aspiring behavior therapists also choose undergraduate majors in a related field like sociology, social work, and behavioral science. Earning a four-year degree is only the first step, however, because behavioral therapists need an advanced degree and state licensure to practice legally.
There are multiple educational pathways you can take to become a behavioral therapist. You can pursue a PhD or PsyD if you want to study psychology. The Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is also an option. You also can become a licensed therapist with a master’s in counseling (e.g., the MA in Mental Health Counseling or MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling) or a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.
The classes students take to earn these degrees and satisfy the educational requirements can look very different, but the curricula in all of them touch on topics like:
Classes will focus on the frameworks needed to help interpret a patient’s behavior in order to diagnose and implement treatment.
Students will learn to listen to patient language and communication to find the cognitive, relational, and behavioral patterns that present during diagnosis.
Classwork will outline the social influences on behavior in groups, group dynamics, and the theoretical approaches to group counseling work.
This class will examine physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development—and evaluate the application of psychoanalytic theories to human behaviors.
Classwork here will prove beneficial to any career, but particularly one that provides mental healthcare services, where goal-setting and finding potential will impact both the therapist and the patient.
This course will outline practical and theoretical approaches to testing and assessing individuals with personality testing, intelligence, and other cognitive functions, with attention to the ethical issues associated with measurement.
Classes in psychotherapy will cover classical psychoanalysis, as well as contemporary interpersonal psychoanalytic approaches to treatment and the influence of gender, aging, trauma, and other factors.
This coursework will examine and critique counseling research methods, including topics like research design, validity and reliability, and statistical tests.
This coursework is critical to providing competent and effective services to patients from culturally diverse backgrounds, and includes the study of worldviews, cultural values and behaviors, and sensitivities.
Students who are sure they want to go into behavioral therapy should look for psychology or counseling programs with an applied behavior analysis or cognitive-behavioral therapy track. The top colleges and universities for psychology include:
“Students enrolled in the PhD program may follow one of two tracks: Clinical Science or the Common Curriculum, which includes Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Cognition, Brain, and Behavior (CBB).”
“The mission of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is to reverse engineer the brain in order to understand the mind.”
“Among the first departments established at Stanford University, the Department of Psychology has a long-standing tradition of ground-breaking theoretical research that also has powerful impact in the real world.”
“The goal of the graduate program in Psychology at Berkeley is to produce scholar-researchers with sufficient breadth to retain perspective in the field of psychology and sufficient depth to permit successful independent and significant research.”
“The UCLA Psychology Department offers graduate PhD training with area emphases in Behavioral Neuroscience, Clinical, Cognitive, Developmental, Health Psychology, Learning and Behavior, Quantitative, and Social Psychology.”
“The Master of Science in Psychological Science Degree at Illinois prepares emerging scholars for doctoral level work or jobs in industry through engagement in advanced coursework, collaborative research with world renown scholars, and professional development targeted to master’s students goals.”
“Our undergraduate and graduate programs are recognized for pioneering contributions in classroom and research education, as well as innovative experiential learning.”
“Our goal is to produce highly accomplished scholars and researchers who can function at a high level in a variety of occupational roles.”
Behavioral therapists don’t need a specialty license to practice, though some organizations, like the Association for Behavioral Analysis International, are pushing for a separate licensing process for applied behavioral analysis therapists. Some behavioral therapists choose to pursue voluntary certifications. The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, for instance, offers four certifications for CBT therapists.
It’s not easy to calculate an average behavioral therapist salary because there are different kinds of behavioral therapists. PayScale reports that behavioral therapists can earn from $30,000- $53,000 annually, but also that the average salary for a clinical therapist is $49,472.
This discrepancy may occur because lower-paid applied behavior analysts and technicians are sometimes referred to as ABA therapists—or it could be because mental health counselors earn as little as $30,590 in some parts of the US.
Meanwhile, a clinical psychologist working in a government job can earn about $100,360, and an experienced licensed clinical social worker might earn more than $64,910. The best way to obtain an accurate picture of how much behavioral therapists earn for what they do is always to look at local job listings for mental healthcare professionals.
There are two main reasons aspiring psychologists and counselors are drawn to behavioral therapy. First, behavioral therapy is effective. It can be successfully used to treat many conditions, and about 75 percent of patients who undergo behavioral therapy experience some benefits. Behavior-based play therapy is especially effective in children. Research shows that behavioral therapy works, so it’s a great specialization for people with good communication and strong interpersonal skills who want to improve the lives of others.
Second, behavioral therapy is versatile. Practitioners who work in behavior therapy are qualified to work with the elderly, children or adults with autism, combat veterans, patients with borderline personality disorder, and other populations. Some specialize in treating certain conditions or types of patients, while others don’t. Some stay in clinical roles for their entire careers, while others explore the many non-clinical opportunities open to behavioral therapists. Experienced clinicians sometimes choose to transition to supervisory or administrative positions or to work for government organizations or NGOs.
In sum, behavioral therapists can do a lot, in many different settings, for a host of different types of clients. The one constant is that the people who are happiest and most satisfied in this role are the ones who are most motivated to help people find practical, lasting solutions to their mental health issues.
(This article was updated on October 22, 2021.)
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