A Free-Spirit’s Guide to Maintaining Professionalism

What does it mean to be professional? For a while I struggled to understand the balance of being myself and following what I thought of as a rigid formula for professionalism. As I gained self-confidence, and more knowledge of this amazing field we know and love, I realized being professional was far beyond wearing the right thing or acting exactly the same as those who trained me.

I lived my adolescent years in a small community, and felt constant pressure to prove my value (insert socially mediated behaviors) to others. I was determined to show the proverbial them I was _____ (Attention was most likely the function of behavior). It wasn’t until later in life that I realized:

a) Many other people share the exact same irrational fears and

b) Literally no one cared what I did or didn’t do with my life.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with professionalism, stick with me here.

Several years ago, in our local dive bar, some of my friends and I were out for drinks. My new job had come up casually in conversation during one of those, “What are you up to now?” sort of exchanges that I love for all the wrong reasons. I proudly explained my response. I had recently graduated college, and started a job in Applied Behavior Analysis as a “Skills Trainer”, which I loved to explain to anyone who would listen. But what came next, I will probably never forget.

“They let you around children?” he said with a laugh (cue aversive stimulus!).

I hope it was said playfully, but it still hurt and sent my mind reeling in all directions (covert behavior/private events). It was that moment that I carried onward to the start of my career. Maybe the girl with colorful hair at the bar wasn’t someone people would trust around their children. Maybe I should be more like the people who were training me, and less like…myself.

While thinking of topics to share in this blog, professionalism was something I thought I could share my experience with. It seems like many people naturally come to this idea of how to act (behavior), but it was something I wanted to look into further.

Professionalism can include the competence or skill level expected of a professional person. A professional football player would be considered professional within their field (oh! A pun!), but if you took that same person and expected them to perform open heart surgery…professionalism is questioned: not necessarily because of what they wore, but with consideration to their competency of a specialized skill. In behavior analysis, this would be referred to in our Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysists: Ethics codes 1.02 Boundaries of Competenceand 1.03 Maintaining Competence Through Professional Development(BACB, 2014, p.4). To accompany this description, a professional practices an activity beyond the amateur level. This is the reason our field values certifications and credentials. We get RBT, BCaBA, and BCBA certifications to signify that we are held to a uniform professional expectation. ABA is not just a fun party trick.

Professionalism can mean different things to different people (Subjectivity). Instagrammers told me professional people were respectful, humble, ambitious, responsible, accountable, and able to keep their composure at work despite any problems that arise. I realize these responses are mostly subjective, contain some mentalistic terminology, and do not pass the Dead Man’s Test, but go easy on them. We can translate these to something more behavioral.

balancing rocks

Respect was mentioned by my mom and my supervisor as consideration (of others, of your environment, of stimuli). Adjustments are made in the environment and to one’s own behavior and presentation out of consideration for others sharing that space. Even if I love my “Needy AF” sweatshirt, I don’t wear it to work. This is not because of a dress code, but because I am considering my families rules, beliefs, and attitudes.

Humble is an important trait to consider. Be proud of your accomplishments, while supporting the achievements of others. Never let a job title, credential, or experience define your worth or the worth of those you encounter. In the words of the Behavior Bitches and Dr. Pavone, “Don’t be an Asshole”. For more on this and OBM, go have a listen to episode 6 of the same title. Ethical code 1.05 Professional and Scientific Relationships (BACB, 2014, p.5), asks us to use understandable language with others. People may be different, but never lesser than you. Staying humble includes preventing the discrimination of others, and refraining from harassing or demeaning comments or actions.

Ambitious people are essential to furthering the quality of ABA. Ethics codes 1.02 Boundaries of Competenceand 1.03 Maintaining Competence Through Professional Development (BACB, 2014, p.4) mention this within the importance of on-going education and keeping current in a constantly developing discipline. Be ambitious in your work, but be mindful of ethics code 1.04 Integity, part C, which specifies following through on commitments while producing a high quality of service (BACB, 2014, p.4). Don’t take on what you can’t complete well. It’s ok to reach out to others for help, and it’s ok to be realistic with what you can take on. You are human!

Other terminology mentioned by Instagrammers was responsible and accountable. Not only is responsibility the name of one of the ethics codes, but both terms are referred to throughout the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysists. Responsibility could be defined more objectively as upholding rules and the Ethical Compliance Code, of course, but it should also include completing tasks you’ve taken on and the duties described in your job description. Accountability is accepting when mistakes are made, instead of making excuses. For you BCBA studiers out there, a replacement behavior for making excuses for mistakes might include coming up with short and long term solutions when those mistakes occur (Start reinforcing yourself and your team with some DRA!).


The last thing mentioned was keeping composure in the work place despite problems. An antecedent strategy that helps me is taking a break, breathing, and counting. Sometimes I let my emotions get the best of me. Self-care and recognizing your boundaries are all antecedent manipulations (It’s an AKA).

You can still be a professional person despite what you look like or the position you hold. If we want to give the term “Professionalism” an operational definition, we can say: A professional manages their antecedents by:

1) Setting boundaries and expectations

2) Developing an understanding of environments

3) Demonstrating competence within the field

4) Exhibiting consideration of others

5) Displaying a humble disposition within conversations and actions

6) Following through with commitments to the best of one’s ability, while recognizing one’s own limits, and accepting when mistakes occur by arranging for short and long term solutions.

I can still be everything I want to be, but during my client’s and coworker’s time, I will do my best to consider others within a shared environment and especially within the homes of the families I serve. When SDs signal it’s time to work, I think to these qualities. I no longer worry about being like someone else, because I know that I am DAMN good with kids exactly the way I am (just with a little bit of polish at the right time). There is nothing wrong with bars, backwards caps, and trap music within the right context. Whew. That was fun, someone pour me a glass of wine.


Behavior Bitches Podcast (Producer). (2019, July 9).Don’t Be An #Asshole with Dr. Maggie Pavone.[Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


Board, B. A. C. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts.

About the Author

Ravelle is a program manager for Adapt Behavioral Collective in San Francisco, California. She has a Masters in Applied Behavioral Analysis and loves saturating her everyday life in ABA awesomeness to get ready to slay the BCBA exam! Other interests include Disney, poke’ bowls, stalking StudyNotesABA on social media, and living her best life. For some extra quirk and tales of high adventure, you NEED to follow her on Instagram at misskittysquirrel.

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