This post is for my peeps.

Lately I have been getting a ton of emails from ABA therapists working towards their BCBA certification, and wanting to know what to expect from the “Big Exam”. The exam is that last step on that long road towards becoming a BCBA, and walking closer and closer to it can understandably cause a lot of anxiety. I was certified in 2012, and I’m happy to share my experiences of preparing for the BCBA exam in the hopes that it can help someone else who is just starting the process.

The specific steps necessary for obtaining certification are provided in detail on the BACB website, but what many people want to know is “So….whats the test like???” The exam is the confidential property of the BACB, so the information found online about the exam will be vague, or speak in generalities. 

So, why pursue certification? You are a fan of data, the science of behavior, and you actually find pleasure in creating graphs. Or, your passion for this field and love of the work make ABA something you want as a career.  In your perfect world, ABA is what you would live and breathe.

If you are pursuing certification simply because you want to make a lot of money (there is great salary range, but a “high” salary isn’t necessarily guaranteed), you want to get away from “the table” (some companies require BCBAs provide direct therapy), you love working with kids with Autism (some BCBAs dont even work with individuals with Autism), or you think BCBAs just have desk jobs (I will explain this more below), then…..maybe this isn’t such a career path for you.
In addition to the requirements of the BACB, I also think that certain personality traits are necessary to be excellent at this job. To name a few: time management skills, excellent oral and written communication skills, creativity, leadership skills, ability to multitask, ability to work autonomously, problem solving skills, and attention to detail. To sum it up, I think many of the traits Type- A personalities tend to have would serve you well in this job.  Being a BCBA isn’t necessarily the cushy desk job some people think it is. It’s super difficult to describe a day in the life of a BCBA because depending on where you work, the population you serve, the ages you serve, etc., there will be much variability. 
So a hypothetical day for a BCBA could include providing direct therapy to clients, supervising direct staff and providing feedback, attending meetings, parent training, conducting workshops or trainings, conducting assessments or FBAs/FAs, school facilitation or observation, community outing skill training, and/or administrative tasks (at home or at the office) such as program development, creating materials, reading research articles, or looking for patterns and trends in collected data.

So now that you know what to expect from the job, here’s some tips for preparing for the exam. These tips may be helpful for you, and they may not. This is just what I found to be successful and helpful.

The BCBA Exam

-          Get into a great study group (either online or in person), that has a few BCBAs in it. It will be really helpful to have people present who have actually passed the exam.
-          Create study flashcards and visuals, and use these to build fluency.  When I study I need to do more than just read material. I made tons of flashcards of terms and concepts and reviewed them regularly, and for some of the cards I would tape them to the walls in my house so I was constantly looking at them. That visual cue was very helpful.
-          Dedicate time each day to reviewing material. Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Carve out time, and set a space in your home for studying. For me, I studied best first thing in the morning with no TV, cell phone turned off, and music playing softly. Do what works best for you.
-          Get the “White Book”. The Cooper ABA book is essential in this line of work, and it’s an amazing study resource. Don’t just read it though; study the definitions and terms, answer the end of chapter questions, and discuss the chapters in your study group. This is a book you will reference throughout your career, so it’s a good idea to go ahead and purchase it now. Another study resource that worked for me is the BDS modules.  They’re similar to what the actual exam is like, and present questions in content area modules (such as a Behavioral Assessment section). The modules are also timed, so this is great practice for answering questions under a time crunch.
-          Reference the BCBA exam Task List, to assess your strengths and deficits, such as Ethical Conduct Guidelines. You want to use your study time wisely…it isn’t time effective to spend an hour reviewing material you are strong in. Instead use that time to focus on your deficits. Put on your Behavior Analyst thinking cap: If you were teaching a skill to a child and they just weren’t getting it, would you spend the majority of the session asking them things they already know, or modifying your teaching for the areas they’re struggling in?
-           Try to gain experience in the content areas you struggle in. I know for me, I learn better by doing than by reading about something. If you are stuck on a particular concept or term, such as the difference between a mand and a tact, then discuss these deficits with your supervisor. Seek out opportunities to actually apply these behavior analytic concepts and make the terms “real”. There are many terms that I now understand better because I have  implemented them during a therapy session. Just reading about them wasn’t enough for me to fully grasp it. Speaking of your supervisor, USE THEM! I have provided supervision for people pursuing certification and a common problem I notice is not asking enough questions/not asking for enough help. Especially if you are paying for supervision  then you really need to take advantage of the professional sitting in front of you at your supervision meetings.
-           Lastly, but by no means least of all, what helped me prepare for the BCBA exam the most was Prayer. Lots and lots of prayer. I had so much anxiety about the exam, about being prepared and really doing well, and intense pressure may be necessary to make diamonds, but it’s horrible when trying to learn and process information. Optimal learning just can’t occur when the body is full of stress. Over analyzing and stressing over the exam on a daily basis will only make it that much more difficult when you are sitting down to take the exam.


-A blog with some great evidence based study tips: Mindful Rambles

-If you are unable to find a local study group, an online study group I can recommend is called Students of Applied Behavior Analysis, and it is on Facebook.  The group is a good mix of people at various stages of preparing for the BCBA exam, as well as experienced BCBAs who can share their experiences and tips. The group also has a resource library containing free study materials. 

-This blog post is a must read for all my peeps prepping to cross that line into BCBA status. PLEASE dont get those 4 letters behind your name and then become one of those condescending, egotistical, and just plain rude Behavior Analysts who give the field a bad name.

Chaining is a way to teach a multi-step or complex skill. While often used as a component of ABA instruction, chaining can be used to teach anyone a complex skill. A complex skill is a skill that really consists of several small behaviors that are linked or chained together, to accomplish a terminal goal. An example of a skill consisting of several discrete behaviors is wiping a table.

Teaching a skill using chaining is commonly recommended if the child can only perform some of the steps, consistently misses/skips steps, or is completing steps incorrectly. For example, on a daily basis the child throws their wet toothbrush in the sink instead of putting it in the toothbrush holder. That would be a good situation to introduce chaining into. Another issue I see commonly is the child who independently uses the bathroom, and then consistently fails to button/zip their pants back up. That is a child who could benefit from a chaining program.

A way I like to explain chaining is by comparing it to cooking. I am a recipe person. Even if I have made something multiple times, I still like to have the recipe in front of me. Imagine I asked you to make me some oatmeal raisin cookies, but I gave you no recipe to follow and no expectations of exactly what to do. What kind of raisins do I like? Do I like cinnamon in my cookies or vanilla extract? Do I prefer chewy or crisp cookies? You would likely start or finish the cooking chain successfully, but have errors or missed steps in the middle. This is why using chaining to teach a skill can be so helpful. For a child with Autism, hearing a demand like “make your bed” may not mean anything. They may need a recipe to follow, which clearly states my expectations of how to complete the task.

The 3 types of chaining are: Backward chaining, Forward chaining, and Total Task chaining.

Backward Chaining- Backward chaining refers to teaching a behavioral chain beginning with the last step: you would completely prompt the entire chain of behaviors except the last step. Using the tooth brushing example, the child would be prompted to do every single step and then would independently put the toothbrush in the toothbrush holder. Backward chaining is recommended if the child can successfully complete more steps at the end of the behavior chain. Backward chaining also has the advantage of creating a link between the most work and the biggest reinforcer. If I am using backward chaining to teach a child to make French toast, then I would prompt every step and have the child independently use a spatula to move the toast from the pan to a plate. Then we get to eat! So the most work (independent step) led to the biggest reinforcement (consuming the food). Once the last step is mastered at an independent level, then move to the last 2 steps, then the last 3 steps, etc.

Forward chaining- Forward chaining refers to teaching a behavioral chain beginning with the first step: have the child complete the first step independently and then prompt all remaining steps. Using the tooth brushing example, the child would independently pick up their toothbrush out of the toothbrush holder, and then all remaining steps are prompted. Forward chaining is recommended if the child can successfully complete more steps at the start of the behavior chain. Forward chaining has the advantage of using behavior momentum, as the 1st step is often the simplest, easiest step. If I am using forward chaining to teach a child to make French toast, then I would have the child get the bread out of the refrigerator independently, and prompt every other step. Once the first step is mastered at an independent level, then move to the first 2 steps, then the first 3 steps, etc.

Total task chaining- As the name implies, total task chaining is when you teach the complete behavior chain one step after another. Total task is what most teachers or parents naturally use to teach a skill. E.g. "Okay turn the water soap up your hands....good, now scrub your hands together", etc. The adult walks the child through each step, prompting as necessary. For a child with Autism, this may still be too complex of a teaching style. For that reason, backward or forward chaining is usually more commonly used for kiddos with Autism. 

 Lastly, to create a chaining program you will need a Task Analysis. A task analysis isn’t as complicated as it might sound. It is basically the GPS step- by- step directions to completing the skill. A task analysis is typically created by completing the skill yourself or watching someone else complete the skill. It’s very important not to just write up a task analysis based on your memory. Even simple tasks, like making a sandwich, can have small important steps that you may inadvertently skip. If you don’t teach the step, then you really can’t blame the child for not completing the step. You could also consult with a professional or do some research on how to perform a specific task. I could easily create a task analysis for tooth brushing, but if I had to teach an older client to change the oil on a car, I definitely could not easily write a task analysis for that. I would need to do some research, perhaps talk with a mechanic, etc.

 Here’s a tip: after you create a task analysis, complete the behavior chain yourself to make sure you haven’t skipped any steps or placed steps out of order. It happens more often than you might think.


-Here is a link to a massive amount of free Task Analyses  covering a wide range of skills.

-A solid understanding of Reinforcement and Prompting is necessary to teach using chaining.

"Just remember: the beauty of Behavior Analysis is its simplicity, not its complexity. You're about to learn a lot about the elegance of behavior" 
"The beauty of  Behavior Analysis is that it is really very simple (not easy, but simple)"
~~ Ann Beirne, Clinical Director Global Autism Project, Blogger:

Behavior Analysis is a tough but incredible job, that will constantly humble you. If you are working in this field and cant remember the last time you were humbled, thats not a good thing.

Behavior Analysis is about continually improving, continually learning, and continually seeking feedback. Looking back and saying "Yikes, I sure could have done that better" is not a rare occurrence. Behavior Analysts tend to be some of the most unusually geeky and logical people you may ever meet, who were either drawn into the field because of a love for science and data, or because we met an individual with Autism and HAD to learn more. 

The beauty of ABA IS in its simplicity: Feed the behaviors you want to see more, and starve the behaviors you don't. 

Its those pesky details that make it tough :-)

Copyright T. Meadows 2011. All original content on this blog is protected by copyright. Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top