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Finding The Right Behavioral Specialist For Your Needs

Mental health and substance use challenges were already at alarming rates before COVID-19. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) statistics reveal that the pandemic exacerbated the situation, causing a surge of mental health concerns and behavioral problems.  Estimates show that nearly seven out of 10 people who visit a doctor’s office in […]

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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Mental health and substance use challenges were already at alarming rates before COVID-19. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) statistics reveal that the pandemic exacerbated the situation, causing a surge of mental health concerns and behavioral problems. 

Estimates show that nearly seven out of 10 people who visit a doctor’s office in the U.S. today have a behavioral health or mental health issue. Of particular concern in 2023 is a youth mental health crisis that has been making headlines since 2022.

Especially for many parents and caregivers facing this crisis, knowing how to find a behavioral specialist who can help with different behavioral health challenges is an important step.

Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health

Though related, behavioral health (BH) and mental health (MH) aren’t one and the same thing. Understanding differences between the two is critical to receiving the right care.

The American Psychological Association defines behavioral health as an interdisciplinary subspecialty of behavioral medicine that emphasizes one’s responsibility in maintaining their health using self-initiated activities. According to NIH, behavioral health entails a broad spectrum of behaviors and emotions that affect one’s overall well-being. These can range from the behaviors one adapts to cope with day-to-day life challenges to behavioral disorders such as separation anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric conditions.

Behavioral health is the connection between the impact of a person's behaviors and the health and well-being of the body, mind, and spirit

- Michelle Coleman, LPC

Mental health pertains primarily to an individual’s state of mind, while behavioral health goes beyond a person’s psychological state and includes physical health. “Currently, behavioral health is the connection between the impact of a person’s behaviors and the health and well-being of the body, mind, and spirit; this by definition can overlap into mental health as it involves the mind.  However, it may not reach the level of mental health if a person does not meet the criteria for a mental health condition using the DSM-5,” says  Michelle Coleman, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy.

Conditions addressed as part of behavioral health include: 

There’s an overlap of these conditions with mental health conditions. For instance, common behavioral health disorders among children may include ADHD and spectrum disorders.

According to The Commonwealth Fund, people with behavioral health conditions are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. In addition, they’re at a greater risk of facing insecure housing and unstable employment or getting involved in criminal activity.

Reassuredly, behavioral specialists can help to effectively manage BH conditions, resulting in improved outcomes for patients and their families.

Who Is a Behavioral Specialist?

A behavioral specialist is a health professional who works with patients dealing with developmental, mental health, and behavioral challenges. Karina Hester, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Grow Therapy, says, “behavioral specialists work with patients on interventions that are guided toward diagnosis where behavioral interactions can be challenging for the patient.” 

For example, a behavioral specialist will create interventions and goals for a child who has autism spectrum disorder (and help/coach the caregivers) to assist with behavioral challenges — like waiting in line or not being aggressive.

Most behavior consultants have earned a master’s degree in psychology, learning and behavior analysis, or social work. In addition, they may undergo specialized education and training as a requirement for working with specific demographics. Behavioral therapy license requirements vary by state. For example, in order to work in New York State as a behavioral specialist, obtaining a license from the NYS Department of Education (NYSDOE) is required.

Behavioral specialists may hold different licenses, including:

Also, they may be members of associations like the American Counseling Association (ACA), American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling (ACAC), and Association for Play Therapy.

What Does a Child Behavioral Specialist Do?

Child behavior specialists provide intervention and behavior modification counseling to help manage behavioral problems in children. Their goal is to achieve better behavioral health outcomes. 

Pediatric behavior therapists often work with children dealing with behavior issues such as impulsiveness, aggressive behavior (physically or verbally), disruptive and noncompliant behaviors, self harm behaviors, involuntary behaviors related to spectrum disorders, and difficulty coexisting with others in school and home environments.

Differences Between Behavioral Specialists, Psychologists, and Psychiatrists

Therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists work within the healthcare services industry. However, their roles are different.

Behavioral specialists employ treatment approaches derived from applied learning theory. They seek to relieve symptoms and solve problems by modifying behavior and environmental factors that impact behavior. Psychologists study behavior in a broader sense and use approaches that entail both human behavior and thought processes. On the other hand, psychiatrists primarily use medical treatments to treat mental disorders.

Techniques Used by Behavioral Specialists

Behavioral specialists may use various methods, including social skills training, behavior modification, and operant conditioning.

Social Skills Training (SST)

Social skills training (SST) is a behavioral therapy method that aims to help people with developmental disabilities or mental disorders acquire or perform social skills. SST incorporates skills such as modeling, curiosity, role-playing, and telegraphing for learning and relearning social skills. 

It’s one of the effective methods for assisting people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) to understand how to interact with others socially. A recent study revealed that SST interventions can improve social participation and social reciprocity among children with autism.

Life Skills Training

This is another intervention used by providers and some social workers that can focus on teaching and practicing practical skills like cooking, applying for jobs, managing finances, cleaning the home, etc.

Behavior Modification

Behavior modification uses psychotherapeutic techniques to reduce or eliminate a particular behavior in children or adults. Based on conditioning theories, it aims to teach individuals how to behave in ways likely to increase the chances of positive outcomes.

Consistent behavior training, supported by appropriate reinforcements and punishments, can help a child learn good behaviors and stop bad ones. Positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of a particular behavior recurring, while punishments reduce the likelihood of a behavior. This usually involves implementing changes at school and home and tracking direct connections between interventions and reduced behaviors.

Behavior therapists may also use other behavior modification techniques, including: facing fears (exposure), positive affirmations, journaling for solutions, reframing unproductive thinking, and relaxation techniques.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, also known as operant learning or instrumental conditioning, is a process whereby the consequences of behavior are used to cause behavioral change. It works on the premise that three types of responses can follow a person’s behavior:

Behavioral therapists use operant conditioning in a wide range of clinical situations, including when treating anxiety, stress, phobias, mood disorders, sleep disorders, substance use disorder, and eating disorders.

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Why Seek Help From a Behavioral Specialist?

It’s possible for someone struggling with behavioral health problems to develop mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse or addiction, trauma, and even PTSD. It’s important to take all of these conditions seriously, as they can greatly affect a person’s health and well-being.

SAMHSA advises that early detection, prevention, and treatment of behavioral health conditions can improve individual, household, and community health. By embracing positive behavioral health practices, individuals can effectively manage stress, increase productivity, and experience greater happiness in their lives. 

Behavioral specialists provide tools and guidance for changing negative thoughts and behaviors and replacing them with healthier ways of thinking and acting. Specifically, they observe, record, and evaluate a patient’s behavior, then design appropriate behavioral treatment and follow-up strategies.

Are you worried about your behavioral health or that of a loved one? Seeking help from a behavioral expert can help you to find hope. They can guide you on appropriate treatment options for behavioral conditions and work with you toward desired behavior changes. 

If a child needs help with overcoming problem behaviors, find a behavior specialist who has experience working with children and adolescents. They will provide a deeper understanding of the child’s behaviors and causes and collaborate with other healthcare providers on behavior management. For example, a child behavior consultant can work closely with a pediatrician to help a young one struggling with an eating disorder.

When to See a Child Behavioral Specialist

It’s normal for a child to throw tantrums occasionally; they are still figuring out how to communicate their emotions. However, frequent tantrums, outbursts, or other adverse behaviors from a child may indicate some underlying issues that need a parent’s or caregiver’s closer attention.

There are some problematic behaviors and red flags you should look out for as a caregiver.

Problematic behaviors you should pay attention to include:

Major signals that indicate a need for immediate help include:

If you’re unsure of what constitutes problematic behavior, you can find a pediatric behavioral therapist to help you determine if your child needs help. It is a good idea to first talk with your primary care physician about the behavioral problems you or a loved one is experiencing. “As with most concerns, it is best for clients to seek direction from their primary care physician and they will refer the individual to the correct provider,” Coleman advises.

Finding a Behavioral Specialist Near You

You’ve decided to seek behavioral therapy — now it’s time to choose a professional therapist. It’s a big decision and an important step toward maintaining good behavioral health and avoiding other conditions that may result from delayed treatment. Understanding what to look for in a behavioral specialist and what questions to ask them is crucial to picking the right one for you.

What to Look for in a Behavior Specialist

When looking for a behavioral specialist, first identify professionals with experience working with particular demographics such as children, adults, or seniors. If you’re looking to learn about a therapist’s experience, there are a few easy ways to do so. You could send them an email, take a look at testimonials from past clients they’ve worked with, or read their bios on websites like Grow Therapy.

Questions to Ask a Behavioral Specialist

Many highly qualified behavioral consultants devote some time to highlight their qualifications and experiences during your first contact. It’s totally OK to ask questions to get more information about the professional and become comfortable with them.

When considering a behavioral specialist, it’s important to ask about their licensing. Make sure they are licensed to practice in your state, or if they are working under supervision by a licensed mental health professional. Additionally, find out if they offer telehealth services or only in-person therapy. It’s also important to discuss the cost of therapy and the types of health insurance they accept. These questions will help you make an informed decision about which specialist is the best fit for you.

To make your search easier, try using the filters on Grow Therapy to get a curated list of therapists in your area who are licensed and accept your insurance.

Seek Help Through Grow Therapy

At Grow Therapy, we’re committed to making sure that you find a behavioral specialist near you when you need them. Our licensed and experienced mental health professionals provide specialized guidance and support so you can maintain your mental health. Use Grow Therapy’s search tool to find a behavioral therapist who is in your region and accepts your insurance.


  • A behavioral specialist applies behavior therapy to analyze behaviors, design programs to reduce or eliminate problematic behaviors, and provide treatment for behavior disorders.

  • Child behavior specialists typically work with children and their families to provide intervention and behavior modification counseling for various behavior issues, such as aggressive behavior, disruptive classroom actions, impulsiveness, and difficulty working in groups.

  • Behavioral health specialists work in various settings including, primary care, treatment centers, private practice, hospitals, and community mental health centers.

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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