How to Become a Behavioral Counselor

Considering a career in behavioral counseling? Learn all about education and licensure requirements for this career.
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Published on August 22, 2023
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  • Behavioral counselors provide treatment for behavioral disorders.
  • Behavioral counseling helps people understand and change behaviors.
  • In most states, you need a master's degree, certification, and supervised experience to become a behavioral counselor.

Behavioral counselors use various therapies to help people change and modify certain behaviors. You may already be familiar with cognitive behavioral treatment, one of the most common approaches. Behavioral counselors often specialize in a particular client type, such as children or teens, behavioral conditions, or counseling type. Explore how to become a behavioral counselor in this guide.

5 Steps for Becoming a Behavioral Counselor

The steps required to become a behavioral counselor vary by state. Depending on your state, you need approximately six years of education, including a master’s degree, and between 1-3 years of supervised experience. You also need to pass the board examination and apply for a counseling license.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most counseling master's programs accept students with any relevant major related to psychology or social sciences, or other majors if they have extensive coursework or a minor in these areas.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree in Counseling or a Related Field

The next step in becoming a behavioral counselor is earning a graduate degree in counseling. Depending on the state, you may qualify for licensure if you have a master's in a related field, such as behavioral health or behavioral psychology.

Step 3: Obtain Supervised Fieldwork Experience

Each state has different requirements, but generally, you need approximately two years of experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Many states have more specific requirements, such as a certain number of supervised hours or hours spent with clients. Some states require you to apply for a license for this work. Check with your state board to determine specific requirements.

Step 4: Pass the National Counseling Exam

Which licensing examination you take depends on the state licensing requirements. The most common exam for behavioral counselors includes the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), National Counselor Examination (NCE), or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). If you focus on substance use disorders, you may take the Certified Rehabilitation Counseling Examination (CRCE) instead.

Step 5: Obtain Licensure

Finally, you must apply to your state for a license. You must verify your education, supervised experience, counseling exam results, and other requirements and pay a licensing fee. Some states require a test on local law (jurisprudence) or specific counseling topics.

Popular Online Master's in Counseling Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Are the Licensure Requirements for Behavioral Counselors?

Most states have the same licensure requirements for all counselors rather than separate ones for behavioral counselors. Some have exceptions for substance use disorder counselors. In most states, you will apply for a general counseling license.

Typical requirements include:

  • Verification that you graduated from an accredited counseling master's program
  • Passing scores for either the NCE or the NCMHCE
  • Verification of any other educational or test requirements (such as jurisprudence or mandatory reporting)
  • Confirmation of your supervised experience hours, which may include a certain number of directly supervised hours
  • Confirmation that you have not been subjected to professional discipline or have any criminal convictions that indicate you should not work with vulnerable individuals
  • Payment of the licensing fee

Once licensed, most states require you to renew your license regularly, often every 2-3 years, and document professional education requirements.

What Do Behavioral Counselors Do?

Behavioral counselors work with clients from a variety of backgrounds, assisting them with various behavioral issues. Most behavioral counselors specialize in a type of client (such as couples or teens) or specific disorders (such as phobias, autism, or anger management).

All behavioral counselors start from the approach that thoughts and behaviors are interlinked. Many approaches are rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people understand their thinking, how it shapes their behavior, and how to change behavior through changing their thinking.

Other approaches, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), help clients understand and change how they respond to their thinking rather than trying to change their thinking.

Behavioral counselors may work in a variety of settings, such as schools or colleges, private practice, residential facilities, the correctional system, the military, health or mental health clinics, social services, or nonprofits. In addition to direct counseling, behavioral counselors are responsible for helping establish counseling goals, documenting progress, and collaborating with other service providers.

Key Skills for Behavioral Counselors

  • Empathy: Behavioral counselors must project warmth and support as needed.
  • Communication: Behavioral counselors need effective listening skills and the ability to provide clear directions and responses to clients.
  • Observation: Behavioral counselors must be able to observe behavior and unspoken communication, especially for clients with limited or still-developing verbal skills,
  • Cultural competence: Behavioral counselors must communicate with people of all different backgrounds, perspectives, and attitudes to be effective.
  • Personal integrity: Behavioral counselors must continually exercise personal integrity and follow the letter and the spirit of professional ethics.

How Much Can I Make as a Behavioral Counselor?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 50% of substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors earn between $39,810 and $64,400. The median salary is $49,710. The top 10% of earners make $82,710 or more, and the bottom 10% make $34,580.

Behavioral counselor salaries vary based on location, cost of living, experience and education, additional certifications, and workplace.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Behavioral Counselor

What is the difference between a behavioral counselor and a behavioral therapist?

The difference between a behavioral counselor and a behavioral therapist is that counselors primarily provide talk therapy, while therapists receive training in multiple approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy. Therapists also have more training in diagnosing mental health conditions.

Where do behavioral counselors work?

Behavioral counselors work in private practices, mental health clinics, schools and colleges, social service and nonprofit agencies, residential facilities, and the correctional system.

What is an example of behavioral therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common examples of behavioral therapy. The therapist helps clients understand how their thinking drives their behavior and how to change their thinking to change behavior. Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is another example of behavioral therapy that helps clients identify and replace irrational thinking.

What is the best degree to become a behavioral counselor?

The best degree to become a behavioral counselor is a master's in counseling that emphasizes behavioral psychology and counseling. An undergraduate degree in psychology, sociology, cognitive science, or related fields is helpful, but most master's in behavioral counseling programs accept students with any related degree. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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