Focus on…Ethical Caseloads and Practice in Schools

Noor Y. Syed, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA/LBS
Lehigh University Autism Services
Global Autism Project
ABA Ethics Hotline

Although there is a pressing need for BCBAs in general, this may be particularly true in schools and school districts. Currently, 12.24% of BCBAs, or 870 certificants out of 34,471, self-identify as working in education (Behavior Analyst Certification Board [BACB], n.d.). According to the Code of Ethics Code 1.02 (BACB, 2014), behavior analysts must practice within the boundaries of their competence however multiple exemplar experiences are not mandatory to receive the BCBA certification. With the increase in insurance based organizations in the behavior analytic field, it is more common for a trainee to receive supervision hours in a clinic, community, or home-based setting.

Fewer BCBAs have received supervisory experiences or specializations in the school setting, which becomes extremely problematic when BCBAs are subsequently contracted to work or consult in schools and school districts.

Based on a number of queries received through, BCBAs practicing in schools are encountering mounting pressure to work with a high volume of students, which can significantly impede ethical and sustainable practice. It is critical to gain school-based knowledge, such as applicable laws and regulations, as well as the adaptation of behavioral principles in school settings; provide guidelines regarding the number of students with whom a BCBA can ethically provide services; and engage in methods to gain stakeholder buy-in. Below are responses to frequent questions posed to

What is an ethical caseload for my work as a BCBA in school districts?

I recommend for 10-20% of scheduled service hours per week to include supervision and oversight. If a learner is scheduled to receive behavior analytic services for the entirety of a school day and is in school 8AM-3PM Monday through Friday (35 hours per week), then she should be observed at least 3.5 hours a week across various environments. Likewise, if a learner is scheduled for 10 hours of behavior analytic services per week, the BCBA should provide supervision for at least 1 hour.

How much time should be budgeted for treatment planning?

Although you may not be able to anticipate when an initial assessment, FBA, and BIP must be completed, I suggest regularly allotting 1 to 1.5 full work days a week (i.e., 8 through 12 hours) to ensure sufficient time for ongoing treatment planning, program oversight, staff training, etc. This time should also be utilized towards initial intakes and program development. Note this will affect available hours for direct supervision and therefore the number of students to engage in ethical caseload oversight.

Administrative Buy-in

Based on the above, an ethical caseload would be 6 to 10 students within a 40 hour work week, depending on student needs. Although this may be ideal in theory, administration might request a BCBA take on up to 40-50 students such as has been reported to the hotline. Due to requests such as these, it is imperative to present data that will assist administration in understanding feasible caseloads. Clear indications that you have too many students, for example, may be missed data decision opportunities, finding yourself skipping an observation session, working through lunch, regularly neglecting to follow up with program changes, and so on. These data can be presented alongside cost benefit analyses assessing student learning and outcomes when behavioral strategies are implemented with integrity, such as has been reported in research (Luiselli, Putnam, Handler, & Feinberg, 2005; Scott & Barrett, 2004; Twyman, 1998; Weiss, 2005). Time samples outlining how each portion of the day is spent, particularly across a number of BCBAs, can also be helpful as administration may not be privy to the work required for individual students.


Understanding educational federal laws, such as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, 2011), as well as applicable state laws is vital in practicing ethically in schools. Learning about Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and the culture of the schools in which you work, or consult is also key in school based behavior analytic work. Become familiar with Supreme Court Justice rulings that will have a bearing on special education, such as Endrew v. Douglas County School District (2018), and take time to learn about the time constraints and obligations teachers have in various school climates. Finally, mastering how to apply and explain behavioral principles for a larger group to fluency is crucially important for teacher training and buy-in, leading to a sustainable system in which the BCBA can practice ethically and effectively through collaborative practices.



Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (n.d). BACB certificant data.
Retrieved October 4, 2019 from

Behavior Analyst Certification Board (2014).  Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. 
Retrieved October 4, 2019 from

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1 137 S. Ct. 988 (2018).

Family Education and Rights Privacy Act 20 U.S.C. § 1232 (2011). 
Retrieved from

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).
Retrieved from

Luiselli, J. K., Putnam, R. F., Handler, M. W., & Feinberg, A. B. (2005). Whole‐school positive behaviour support: Effects on student discipline problems and academic performance. Educational Psychology, 25(2-3), 183-198.

Scott, T.M. & Barrett, S.B.  (2005).  Using staff and student time engaged in disciplinary procedures to evaluate the impact of school-wide PBS.  Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 6(1), 21-27.

Twyman, J. S. (1998). The Fred S. Keller School. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31(4), 695–701.

Weiss, M. J. (2005). Comprehensive ABA programs: Integrating and evaluating the implementation of varied instructional approaches. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6(4). 249-256.