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How to Become a Behavioral Specialist

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A behavior specialist is a type of educator or psychological counselor who helps clients with disabilities or issues that affect learning or social functioning. A wide variety of positions in this field are available in schools, clinics and with government institutions.

Job Description

Emotional, behavioral and mental health issues can impede academic progress. The role of a behavior specialist is that of team leader, working with classroom teachers and special educators to develop an individualized education plan (IEP) to manage behavioral issues and help a child have a better chance of succeeding in school.

A behavior specialist observes students and teachers in the classroom setting and collects data to make evaluations. Behaviorists provide strategies for teachers and support staff for behavior management.

Behaviorists attend meetings and complete the required paperwork associated with planning, goal setting and assessing behavioral interventions.

Behavior therapy has been shown to be effective, sometimes in combination with medication, for children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Medication can treat common symptoms of ADD and ADHD, such as distractibility and impulsivity, but it does nothing to change the behavior. A behavior specialist works with the child and his or her parents to develop strategies to reinforce positive behavior and learn how to eliminate the triggers of bad behavior.

Education Requirements

In some districts, school psychologists serve as behavior specialists. In other districts, special education teachers who have additional training and certification hold these positions.

To become a special education teacher, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in special education from an accredited college or university. Teacher training programs always include a minimum of 10 weeks of unpaid student teaching, during which the degree candidate trains in a real classroom under the direction of a certified teacher. After fulfilling degree and student teaching requirements, newly graduated special education teachers must obtain state licensure and pass any required tests. Laws vary slightly from state to state. Your academic advisor can help you navigate the requirements in your school district.

A learning specialist degree is usually a degree in special education or educational psychology. If you want to be a behavior specialist, check with a program advisor at an accredited school to plan your college major and coursework.

Most states offer alternative routes to teaching certification, which are usually open to individuals who have obtained a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in another unrelated field. The options for special education are often different from those available to individuals who want to be regular classroom teachers. If you want to be a special education teacher, be sure to find out the requirements for alternative certification in your state.

Earning a Master’s Degree

Many school districts require that behavior specialists have a master’s degree. Learning specialist education prepares you for licensure as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Specialty licensure can enhance your job opportunities and pay. Even without specialty licensure, having a master’s degree ranks you higher on the teacher pay scale, which is important while you’re working and when calculating retirement pay.

Work Environment

Behavior specialists often work in schools, whether public or private. Some are employed by local non-profit or government agencies and provide services to schools and families on a consultancy basis. School-based behavior specialists may work only during the 10-month school year, or they may work year-round. They generally work Monday through Friday during regular business hours, but they may work some evenings to accommodate appointments with parents and caregivers.

Salary and Job Outlook

Salaries for behavior specialists depend on education and experience. A special education teacher with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about $36,350 the first year, depending on the employer. At the master’s degree level, a behavior specialist with professional certification can earn $80,000 a year or more. Geographic location matters. Certified behavior specialists typically command higher salaries in the metropolitan regions of New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Antonio.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which tracks salaries for civilian occupations, reports that the median 2018 salary for special education teachers was $59,780. Median salary means that half in the profession earned more, while half earned less.

The job outlook for special education teachers is about the same as for all other jobs. The BLS predicts an 8 percent growth rate through 2026. Population increases, along with continuing research into the impact of behavior on learning will likely keep demand for special education teachers and behavior specialists strong.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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