What to expect when studying Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

When you are attending University to study Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), you may be feeling excited and a bit nervous. Well in this blog I have explained what to expect, so you might feel a little bit more prepared.

I studied for my Masters in ABA after I completed my Bachelors. I didn’t have any experience in ABA, so here’s what I have to say….

“Whilst studying my undergraduate in psychology (2007-2010), in my final year, my supervisor suggested we attend  two Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) classes for Master students. I went and I fell in love. I decided straight away to study for a Masters in ABA (2010-2011),  so I went straight from my bachelors degree to a masters. I studied full time for one year, two full days a week and I worked in a local supermarket to fund my studies. I also did an internship for 10 hours (2 days a week), where I worked in a school that was using ABA principles. However, I always felt slightly disadvantaged throughout my time at University. Many of my peers were in different places in their career, but a lot of them had experience working in ABA and were currently doing so. They heard terms, or learnt about an intervention and had a eureka moment. “Aha! We do that with a boy I work with! I understand now” they cried. I had very little practical experience to transfer this knowledge to, so was always a bit jealous. The internship was fantastic, but unfortunately was very limited in the experiences I can have. These experiences only come with time and working with a wider population. I  would strongly recommend that people considering studying who have limited or no experience in the field of ABA, begin gaining experience.

And be prepared to do a lot of reading. But don’t be disgruntled! It’s a really good idea to set time aside to read a paper that’s assigned by your lecturer, or choose one that you’re interested in. Read lots of  research papers! It should become a habit, and one that will continue well into your career. Being up to date with research and being knowledgable about research will definitely help you as a Behaviour Analyst. Get the reading list in advance (if you can) or find out what previous students found useful and buy it ASAP. I couldn’t get ‘Applied Behaviour Analysis’ by Cooper Heron and Heward (2007) until after my Masters was finished. They went out of stock and it seemed they only got stock around September. I had to go to the library and use their copy.  I, also, photocopied pages and pages of that book during the first term.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions! The lecturers are well experienced and extremely knowledgeable. Ask anything and everything! Even ask them about how they got involved in the field and why. They may have worked with some really interesting people and have some good advice.”

As my experience, I think, is very different to most peoples experience, because I think a lot of people have work experience, and are already working in the field before they decide to complete their Masters. For this reason, I have invited a dear friend and Colleague, Jodie O’Sullivan of All Behaviour Consultancy, to share her experiences and advice. Jodie had gained 4 years experience in a school and on home programmes before completing her Masters, so she was very experienced across settings. Congratulations to Jodie for graduating this summer. Let’s see what she said…

“I took 4 years from finishing my undergraduate degree in Psychology to starting the Masters in Applied Behaviour Analysis (2010-2014). I finished my undergraduate degree in Psychology knowing that I wanted to specialise in autism but didn’t really know where to go with it. We had a very short introduction to ABA in our Psychology lectures but I didn’t really know that much about it. I was approached by one of my lecturers who told me about an ABA Tutor job at Treehouse school which I applied for and stayed there for 1 year. This was where I had my initial training in ABA and where I discovered that this is the field I wanted to work in. I left Treehouse School as I wanted to experience ABA home programs to see how they differed from an ABA school. I then stayed within ABA home programs for 3 years working my way up to a Senior ABA Tutor. I feel it is important to experience many different ABA settings ideally before or during studying ABA.  I would suggest looking on the Yahoo Forum group ABA-UK. This is where clients advertise for ABA tutors on home and school programmes so you could advertise to work as an ABA tutor on there even if it is for a few hours a week. I worked with children from the ages of 2-14 years with a range of abilities as I feel this gave me important experience of how ABA can be applied to different people and settings. I then approached different Consultants I worked with to ask how to progress within the field of ABA. I was fortunate enough to be offered to ‘shadow’ one of the ABA consultants I worked with to find out what their day to day work is like. I think this is important before studying as it ensures you have as much information as possible to what the job entails, as even though it is thoroughly rewarding it can be very demanding.

I started my ABA Masters in 2014 part- time at Bangor University, I was a distance student so attended lectures through video conferencing once a week. I choose to study part time due to financing costs and also to allow me to continue working with my clients. I think it is important to consider the amount of studying time required when doing a Masters. Even though my lectures were once a week I was putting in about 15+ hours a week for extra studying and reading materials. You need to take this into consideration when choosing /full or part time courses and if you are getting work experience at the same time.

One thing I did that I found really useful is after each lecture (no matter how tired you are!) try to write a summary sheet of what the lecture covered with revision style notes if possible. I then added to my notes as I read more around the topic. Try to think how you can apply each area of the course content to practical work and ask BCBAs/ABA Consultants as they are normally more than willing to provide background information. Usually BCBAs/ABA Consultants are more than happy to take input of behaviour strategies from the ABA Tutors as long as this is done in a respectful way. As you work in different ABA settings try to think how you can apply behavioural interventions learnt at university to support clients you work with. Ask your ABA consultant/BCBA if they could listen to your ideas and that way you will learn how to apply ABA strategies yourself and receive feedback as to why/why not the interventions may not be appropriate.

As well as applying ABA strategies to work examples try to think how you can apply them to your everyday life. For example, a token economy for losing weight, the premack principle for studying, differential reinforcement and extinction for training pets or positive reinforcement for getting your partner to wash up more often!! Behaviour principles apply to every aspect of our lives so be thinking constantly how you can apply the theory to practical examples.

Another tip I would give is to form a study group with class mates early on. It is extremely helpful to study in a group as you can all collate different ideas and it can make learning more fun!”

Here are some recommendations from the both us

Check out these websites and Facebook pages,

You will find these books helpful whilst studying, 

  • Applied Behaviour Analysis, Cooper, Heron and Heward (Top priority!!)
  • Behaviour analysis for lasting change, Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, Wallace
  • Ethics for Behaviour Analysts, Bailey and Burch
  • The Verbal Behaviour approach, Lynch Barbera
  • Behaviourspeak, Newman, Reeve, Reeve, Ryan
  • Behaviorol Detectives, Newman and Reinecke
  • Motivation and Reinforcement: Turning the tables on autism, Schramm
  • Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behaviour Analysis by Baer Wolf Risley

Also familiarise yourself with the VB-MAPP (Verbal Behaviour Milestones Assessment and Placement Program) and ABLLS-R (The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills – Revised) assessment tools, as you will use these during your career.


Also if you would like to advertise / find a job role to gain experience while you study, try one of these

  • Speak to your supervisors/ lecturers
  • ABA / Autism therapists and families UK (Facebook)
  • VB Community (Facebook / website)
  • Gumtree (Website)
  • There are Saturday Schools around England called Focus that offer volunteers experience in ABA for up to 12 Saturdays a term (Facebook)
  • Read the blog on starting a career in ABA

1 thought on “What to expect when studying Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

  1. Good read, useful info! I studied a MSc that wasn’t in applied behaviour analysis before I stumbled across ABA, so I did the FIT ABA coursework to work towards certification – another route in to it


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