How to Become a Behavioral Therapist

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Behavioral Therapists help clients who suffer from unhealthy disorders such as anxiety, depression and self-destructive behaviors.

A behavioral therapist may also treat clients with cognitive disabilities such as autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

how to become a behavioral therapist

The overarching goal is to help clients live better lives by overcoming negative behaviors and habits holding them back.

Training as a behavioral therapist begins by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. You can be a behavioral disorder counselor with an undergraduate degree, although to practice as a licensed behavioral therapist you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in an appropriate field and work towards licensing.

All U.S. states now require a master’s degree and between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, depending on the state, to obtain a license as a behavioral therapist.

Once certified, you’ll be able to help clients work on changing their behavior as well as their reactions and coping skills when challenges arise. This helps your clients gain self-control and self-reliance. Along the journey, you’ll earn their trust while learning their personalities, skills and abilities, which will be key to pursuing an effective plan of treatment. Ultimately, your clients should be able to lead healthy and emotionally stable lives as they work with you over a period of weeks, months and possibly even years.

In addition to your education and training, you’ll need patience and a desire to help others to succeed as a behavioral therapist. You’ll be helping patients overcome perhaps decades of entrenched behavior so they can begin to rebuild and more fully enjoy their lives.

The demands are high, but so are the personal and professional rewards. If you want to help people move beyond limiting behaviors that are holding them back from becoming their best selves, training as a behavioral therapist could turn out to be one of the most satisfying decisions you make in this life.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter on becoming a Behavioral Therapist::

  • How Much Can You Make
  • Training and Certifications
  • Professional Groups to Join
  • Career Options for Behavioral Therapists
  • Finding Clients
  • Helpful Tips for New Behavioral Therapists

How Much Can You Make?

The national average salary for a behavioral therapist is currently $51,000 a year, according to the Master in Psychology Guide. That average tends to be for therapists employed by a public or private facility. Behavioral therapists running their own private practice can make more than $100,000 a year after a few years of experience.

Psychologist and patient

Training and Certifications

A bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field is the basic prerequisite for pursuing training as a behavioral therapist. All states require practitioners to hold a master’s degree and pass a state-certified exam to get licensed as a behavioral therapist. Check the requirements for your state before choosing a program of study.

Alternatively, it may be less expensive to pursue an online degree. You can search accredited schools here.

The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists (NACBT) offers certification in the field. Online training for certification costs $100 for the application fee and $100 for the annual recertification fee (there’s a $25 discount on annual renewals for NACBT members).

These are the requirements:

  • A master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, counseling, social work, psychiatry, occupational therapy, or a related field from an accredited university.
  • Ten years of verified post-graduate experience in cognitive-behavioral therapy. 
  • Three letters of recommendation from mental health professionals who are familiar with your skills.
  • Successful completion of a certification program in cognitive-behavioral therapy that is recognized by the NACBT, such as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Rational Behavior Therapy, Rational Living Therapy, or Cognitive Therapy. 

Certification is good for five years. To recertify, you’ll need to submit proof of 25 hours of continuing education.

You’ll also be expected to publish at least one article every year that is related to cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Professional Groups to Join

The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists is the most respected organization supporting the profession of behavioral therapy. An annual membership costs $75, or $50 for students.

behavioral therapist professional groups

Benefits of joining include your business listing on the association’s find a certified therapist webpage. There’s also an abundance of ongoing education opportunities, access to workshops and news. You’ll also be able to network with other members, which lets you exchange ideas and learn about job opportunities.

Career Options

There are dedicated facilities throughout the country offering behavioral therapy.  Private healthcare systems employ behavioral therapists. Openings can also be found at private mental health clinics, and state and local government health agencies.

Middle Aged Man With Head In Hands Having Counselling Session

Don’t overlook online job search sites such as ZipRecruiter and, but bear in mind that anyone can find these listings so competition is likely to be greater.

Instead, focus more time on your connections through professional memberships to learn about job openings that may not have been advertised.

Finding Clients

Alert professionals in the community that you are available for referrals. Doctors and clergy who are aware of your business and know you personally are much more likely to recommend your services to prospective clients.

Find out if your memberships in professional organizations include a listing in any online directories. Many organizations maintain a searchable web page of members so potential clients can find you.

Your website should include the business name, address, city and state and phone number on every page at the top. This helps search engines recognize your website as a match for people looking for a therapist in a specific city. You should also claim your Google My Business listing and add an online booking link to your website and Google My Business so clients can easily see your availability and schedule you.

Your website content should list your services and what clients should expect from therapy. You should highlight your achievements and education, but most of your content should focus on how your services benefit clients.  

If you’re running a private practice, at some point you’ll have to decide whether to accept insurance as payment for counseling services.  By accepting insurance plans, you can increase your eligible pool of available clients; however, it will likely take more time for you to be paid. At the same time, your fees may need to be adjusted to meet insurance reimbursement rate guidelines. There’s also more paperwork and administration that comes with working with accepting insurance. 

Helpful Tips for New Behavioral Therapists:

doctor talking to her male patient at office

When you’re just starting out as a behavioral therapist it’s helpful to have a game plan for interacting with new clients. Psychology Today offers these 7 tips to make your practice a success:

Discuss treatment goals

Plan for success starting with the initial assessment phase. Patients need goals to stay focused. Without goals, therapy can devolve into “the problem of the week” rather than getting to the underlying issues.

Begin each session with an agenda

Discuss solutions that are specific to issues

The goal here is to practice the skills that help unblock specific behavioral issues, focusing on one at a time.

Use flashcards

These visual cues help reinforce new coping skills being used in therapy. For example, a patient suffering from depression could be shown flashcards with solutions such as “take a short walk” or “reach out to a friend.”

Stay focused

Keep the session on-topic as much as possible. If a client veers off into an unrelated discussion, gently steer them back to that week’s agenda.

Assign homework

This helps clients maximize the benefits of therapy sessions by continuing their work after they leave your office. Encourage clients to write down their thoughts in a journal or notebook and bring the notes with them to therapy. 

Ask for feedback

Be open with your clients. Ask how the session went, what were the key take-aways and what, if anything, could be improved. This open communication builds a stronger relationship with the client, fosters trust and creates a greater sense of teamwork. Asking for feedback shows you care and want to provide the best therapy services possible.