Pediatric Therapeutic Services

How to Know When to Hire an RBT for Your Students

Are budget pressures forcing your program to spend less money on related services staff?

Smiling female school-based behavior therapist lies on carpeted classroom floor next to a boy who is sitting cross-legged.If so, you may have considered hiring Personal Care Assistants (PCAs) to help students who require aid with the tasks of daily living that are part of the school day—moving to and around classrooms, taking supplies in and out of a backpack, staying focused on an assignment, and more.

But do you know when hiring Registered Behavior Technicians™ (RBTs®) instead is the right call?

Yes, RBTs cost more. They earn an average annual salary of $33,686 ($16.20/hour), according to Payscale, versus the average yearly PCA salary of $23,674 ($10.93/hour). And for students who do truly require direct, personal care, PCAs are vital.

But PCAs and RBTs aren’t interchangeable. Both help students identified for special education services, but the two paraprofessionals’ training, responsibilities, and goals differ significantly. You need to understand these differences when deciding to hire one or the other.

Loren Gentile, Director of Behavioral Health Services for Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), recently answered some key questions about Personal Care Assistants versus Registered Behavior Technicians. Here’s what she thinks administrators like you need to know as you make this important staffing choice.

Understanding the Differences Between PCAs and RBTs

What are the most important differences between PCAs and RBTs?

Smiling female school-based therapist sits at wooden table with one girl and two boys who play with wooden shapes.

Typically, PCAs have no previous training in behavior intervention. They’re required to maintain 20 hours of professional development per year, but there’s no required minimum education or certification.

The RBT, on the other hand, is a paraprofessional who’s primarily responsible for implementing behavior-analytic service under the close, ongoing supervision of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). They have an aptitude for behavior analysis. They’re specifically trained in its principles, and consistently execute behavior interventions accordingly. 

To earn RBT certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), candidates must finish 40 hours of training and pass both a competency assessment and a proctored exam. Then they can deliver direct instruction, collect data, and implement behavior plans developed by the BCBA or Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)

So students served by RBTs, and students on the Autism spectrum in particular, receive the most current empirically validated treatments. PCAs would be most appropriate for students with medical or intellectual disabilities other than Autism. 

Can students receive services from a PCA and an RBT at the same time?

Sure, because both services address different components of the student’s development.

For example, an RBT may be developing new behavior repertoires for a student who’s working on a toileting protocol. Meanwhile, the PCA would be available to intervene if an accident happens and the student needed help changing.

Or, a PCA could provide academic support for a student struggling in math, but an RBT would intervene if the student started behaving in ways that interfered with completing the task at hand.

Hiring RBTs Can Make a Major Positive Impact for Students

Have you seen hiring RBTs versus PCAs make a big difference to students?

Female school-based registered behavior technician sits next to a young female student in classroom with bulletin board in background.


We’ve recently have seen several of the schools we work with in southeastern Pennsylvania benefit from making the switch. These are schools with significant behavior needs, where the average PCA just didn’t have the background knowledge to support students in making meaningful change. They’d gone through many paraprofessionals before concluding it was time to hire an RBT!

But within a month of consistent behavior intervention, data showed they were making significant gains in student participation, behavior reduction, and social interaction. 

So, yes, when used appropriately, RBTs can have a huge impact.

When the RBT credential was introduced in 2014, some behavior analysts expressed concern the training requirements didn’t ensure these entry-level paraprofessionals can do all the tasks they’re called upon to do. Do you think these concerns are still valid?

It’s a constant hot topic at many of my continuing education conferences. But the BACB has increased the RBT training requirements, requiring additional training in ethics, professional conduct, measurement, documentation, and reporting.

Behavior analysis is an ever-changing field. We should continue to uphold the highest expectations for our staff. I’m encouraged to see such unified standards for this nationally recognized credential.

What are some ways you’ve seen or helped schools and districts successfully fund RBTs in their special education budgets?

Many districts don’t know that when they use an RBT one-on-one for a student with Autism, this service is eligible for MA reimbursement. This provision saved money for many of our districts who planned to hire an RBT anyway.  

Can’t administrators train current staff in behavior therapy and avoid the expense of hiring more providers?

Well, I’ve seen several schools try to put paraeducators through RBT training programs. It seems like a logical solution, but many of these paras don’t have the foundational knowledge to be successful in an RBT role. They need more intensive training and supervision. 

Young elementary school girl sits hugging stuffed animal on cushion in therapy room as concerned female therapist observes.

In my experience, the 40-hour training requirement for RBTs is a baseline, and it’s geared toward individuals with a set of prerequisite skills and a high aptitude for behavior analysis. Many districts who do put their staff through the training realize only minimal differences in performance. It ends up draining more resources and time, as opposed to bringing staff up to speed.

Additionally, many schools aren’t consulting with professionals who know the RBT credentialing process, so they hit roadblocks with the certification requirements. The process has a lot of strict guidelines. My hope is districts continue to reach out to our staff at PTS to ensure they’re in compliance every step of the way!

Make RBTs Part of Your Comprehensive Therapeutic Approach with PTS

When you’re weighing Registered Behavior Technicians versus Personal Care Assistants in your staffing decisions, then, you’ve got to think of more than the final “price tag.” You need to consider whether you’ll be getting value for your investment.

While both roles matter, RBTs can deliver ongoing value PCAs can’t necessarily provide. “By the very nature of their training,” explains Mike McCormick, Supervisor of Special Education for Delaware County Intermediate Unit Early Intervention, “RBTs are able to get a behavior action plan up and running with fidelity right away, especially when compared to other paraprofessionals who may not have those credentials.They’re also able to not only implement the plan with fidelity but also pinpoint ways to improve it as it progresses.”

When asked what sets the Registered Behavior Technicians PTS works with apart from those who work through other agencies, Loren said, “We don’t provide RBTs as quick staffing solutions. Often, we can help fill urgent needs, but we encourage schools and districts to use our RBTs as part of a comprehensive therapeutic approach. Other agencies are busy putting out fire after fire. PTS approaches behavior programming from a proactive, global perspective.”

And PTS consistently staffs behavioral programs with exceptional clinicians.

“We have two RBTs and a Licensed Behavior Specialist,” says Sean Murphy, Director of School Climate for Lindley Academy in Philadelphia, “and every single candidate we’ve gotten from PTS has been nothing but high quality. Day to day, they make teachers feel more supported. They make my job easier. I have faith I don’t have to micromanage people from PTS. They’re independent, they come up with good ideas that are going to work, and there’s been only good work relationships.”

If you’re wondering when you should hire an RBT to help your students and would like to put PTS’ expertise and assistance to work for your program, give us a call at 610-941-7020, or contact us online today.

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