The Business of Practice

Techniques Used by Behavior Therapists

Behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy focused on changing problematic behaviors and reinforcing positive ones, with the overarching goal of helping individuals understand and modify their behavior patterns as a means of improving their quality of life. To achieve this goal, behavioral therapists use a variety of techniques, which we will discuss in this post. 

Techniques Used by Behavior Therapists

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning increases the likelihood of a specific behavior by providing reinforcement when the desired behavior is exhibited, and punishment when it is not. For example, if a behavior therapist uses operant conditioning to help an individual overcome their fear of public speaking:

  • They would provide reinforcement, such as praise or a reward, when the individual successfully delivers a speech in public
  • They may provide punishment, such as verbal criticism (positive punishment) or withholding a reward (negative punishment), when the individual fails to deliver the speech.

Token Economy

Token economy reinforces positive behaviors by providing tokens (such as stickers) to individuals when they exhibit the desired behavior. The tokens can then be exchanged for rewards, such as toys or privileges. For example, a behavior therapist may use a token economy to help a child who struggles with completing their homework, providing tokens when the child completes their homework, which can then be exchanged for screen time or a favorite snack.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization helps individuals overcome their fears or phobias, and involves exposing the individual to the feared object or situation in a gradual and controlled manner. For example, if a behavior therapist uses systematic desensitization to help an individual overcome their fear of flying, they may start by having the individual look at pictures of airplanes, then to watching videos of airplanes taking off and landing, and eventually to taking a short flight while using relaxation techniques to manage their anxiety. Desensitization is achieved through a series of steps, known as a hierarchy: at each step of the hierarchy, the individual is encouraged to use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy helps individuals overcome their fears or phobias by gradually exposing them to the feared object or situation in a controlled manner, while teaching them relaxation techniques to manage their anxiety. Over time, the individual is encouraged to confront their fear in increasingly challenging situations. For example, if a behavior therapist uses exposure therapy to help an individual overcome their fear of spiders, they may start by having the individual look at pictures of spiders, then to being in the same room as a spider, and eventually to holding a spider while using relaxation techniques to manage their anxiety. 


It’s important to note that while exposure therapy and systematic desensitization may sound similar, these two techniques are actually quite distinct. They both involve gradually exposing the individual to their fears, yet systematic desensitization is typically used to treat specific phobias, while exposure therapy is used to treat a broader range of anxiety disorders. Systematic desensitization also places a greater emphasis on relaxation techniques, while exposure therapy is more focused on preventing avoidance and safety behaviors.

The techniques discussed in this blog post are just a few of the many techniques used by behavior therapists. If you are interested in learning more about behavior therapy, here are some recommended programs:

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