Behavior analysis program preps far beyond certification
The national demand for Board Certified Behavior Analysts has grown a staggering 800%, says HealthCare Recruiters International, a California-based healthcare recruiting firm. And meeting that need is a challenge — putting "BCBA" after your name requires a rigorous graduate course of study, followed by an equally tough national certification examination.
University of Houston-Clear Lake's Behavior Analysis Program, a three-year, master's level program, is helping to meet that need by achieving the top exam pass rate in the nation of students taking the exam. In 2017, 2019 and 2020, every UH-Clear Lake student who has taken the exam has passed on the first attempt, compared to the national average pass rate of just 66% in 2020.
While attaining the number one ranking in the U.S. is gratifying, Professor of Psychology Dorothea Lerman said the reason UHCL students do so well is the rigorous coursework, training and practical experience they receive.
"The written exam measures basic competency and foundational knowledge, based on course content and supervised experience," she said. "But passing a test doesn't necessarily make someone a good behavior analyst. Our program builds on that to provide a wide variety of hands-on experience through our autism center, which is funded by program contracts and grants."
Lerman said students receive paid experience working with children and adults, teaching social and communication skills, assessing and treating problem behavior, providing early intervention skills, and training parents and teachers. The Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities offers services at both UH-Clear Lake and UHCL at Pearland. "This makes our program unique and is reflected in our exam pass rate," she explained.
The small student body in the UHCL Behavior Analysis Program is deliberate, Lerman continued. "We value providing rigorous, high-quality training. The three-year program has three faculty members, and we graduate about 10 to 12 students a year, even though we annually receive 60 to 80 applications," she said. "Most students come to us with an undergraduate degree in psychology or education, and we look for students with some type of work or experience involving an individual with a neurodevelopmental disability. We have a high bar for admission to the program."
Graduates of the course are in high demand for work in the field. "Our students are very highly sought out," Lerman said. "Especially in the Houston area, they have their pick of jobs because of the school's great reputation. Others go out to cities across the U.S., and a surprising number stay here even though they may not originally be from the Houston area."
Pia Som graduated with his Master of Arts in Behavior Analysis in 2021 and is currently the clinical director at the Virginia Institute of Autism in Charlottesville, a private school that helps children with autism acquire the skills needed to return to their original school.
"Interacting with students who want to engage with others but don't know quite how to do that is especially rewarding because learning appropriate behaviors opens so many doors," Som said. "Sometimes it's hard to see progress in the moment, but when we step back and see how a series of small changes adds up to significant overall progress, it's very gratifying."
He said his education at UHCL prepared him for success for both passing the certification exam as well as his career. "When people are pursuing this line of work, their focus is often on the certification process and meeting the requirements," he said. "You need much more than just minimal knowledge. The faculty at UHCL does a great job of teaching the science, not teaching to a test."
He said he felt equipped with both knowledge and a strong conceptual foundation. "We were taught to consider multiple variables," he said. "They cared about us as people, thanks to the low faculty-student ratio. I came away with relationships with people who have influenced me tremendously and will be my mentors for life."
Som noted that he entered UHCL unsure of exactly what he wanted to do. "That's the value of elective courses," he said. "I took an undergraduate elective on behavior principles, and almost immediately fell in love with it and realized that this was for me. Then my nephew was diagnosed with autism, which added to my interest. These all led to me devoting my studies to this discipline, much to my surprise."
He said his work at Virginia Institute of Autism gives him the outlet to do what he was trained for. "In my work, I often encounter someone who's having a rough time," he said. "It's good to know I can teach them the skills to help them enjoy life, make friends and be happier."
To learn more about UHCL's Behavior Analysis program, go online.