Special education is the field of education involving the instruction of students with special needs, with the recognition of their individual education plans (IEPs). Teaching practices, materials, and classrooms must be modified to provide for the needs of the student population. Particular care must be taken to ensure instruction, technology, and materials are accessible to students with physical or developmental challenges. The goal of special education is to help students with special needs achieve academic and personal growth and success.Teachers trained in special education have experience with students who have learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders, communication difficulties, physical disabilities, and developmental disabilities. These students often benefit from smaller class sizes and more individualized attention from teachers and other educational staff.
It is estimated that about 13% of American students are in a special education program. Some are in full-time programs, while others have both mainstream and special education classes within their regular school day.
Special education teachers provide both academic education as well as instruction in developmental and living skills, and may engage in behavior assessment or assisting with accessibility standards at their schools.
These statistics come from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) – the primary source for cross-nationally comparable statistics on education, science and technology, culture, and communication for more than 200 countries and territories.
At minimum you will need a bachelor’s degree in education with a focus on special education, and be certified to teach in your state. However, the vast majority of online special education programs are master’s degree programs or certificates that require between 36-45 credit hours of coursework.
Yes. In most cases you will need to first earn a bachelor’s degree in education and become certified to teach; you can then add special education as a teaching field/endorsement through an online graduate program.
Special education teachers need to have excellent people skills, patience, adaptability, and critical thinking skills. Unlike traditional classrooms where all students follow the same lesson plan and progress at predictable rates, in special education classrooms you should be prepared to work individually with students, some of whom will progress faster than others. You should also be willing to work with individuals who may present physical, developmental, or behavioral challenges in the learning environment.
When looking for an online teaching degree program, it’s important to choose an institution that is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). NCATE accredits both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Attending an accredited school is critical if you wish to complete your teaching certification for the state in which you plan to teach. It may also be required as a condition of employment at private schools as well as for admission to a graduate program in education.
Here are a few examples of graduate special education programs that you can complete online and that are good values for your money.
The University of Wisconsin Whitewater offers an online Master of Science in Special Education for teachers who wish to add special education licensure to their certification. They also offer online certificate programs in online applied behavior analysis, autism specialist, online transition specialist, and early childhood specialist.
Texas Tech offers an online master’s in special education. They offer several specializations, each of which is 36 credit hours, with each specialty having its own set of prerequisites. You can focus on autism, applied behavior analysis, deaf education, educational diagnostics, orientation and mobility, transition or visual impairment, or you can do a general special education program.
Eastern Oregon University offers an online Master of Science in Education, and special education is one of the concentrations students can choose as part of their degree. This program lasts two years and prepares students to become a “teacher researcher” through an in-depth inquiry project.
At Morehead State University in Kentucky, you can pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching degree, and they also provide special education certification both at the LBD (mild disabilities) or MSD (severe or multiple disability) level. They offer options for students who are new to special education certification, as well as advanced coursework for teachers who already have this certification.
Central Washington University offers several master’s degrees in education including a master’s in special education. Their program is for teachers who possess their teaching certification and wish to add special education to their field of expertise. The program consists of 45 credits, all of which can be completed online.
Special education teachers can specialize in one of the following areas:
Special education teachers in public schools earn on average $55,060 per year. However, the projected job growth in this field over the next ten years is just 6%, likely due to budget cuts at the local and state levels that has led to the reduction in special education programs in some areas. In addition to classroom teaching, special education teachers can become school administrators or program coordinators, with higher salaries.
In addition to working within the public school system, there are a few other career options for special education teachers. Private learning/tutoring centers need special education teachers to assist special needs students on a one-on-one basis. Correctional facilities also hire special education teachers for many of their teaching positions, as many incarcerated individuals have learning disabilities or physical or behavioral challenges that special education teachers have been trained to work with. Mental health facilities, shelters, and other facilities also often offer educational services for individuals on a short-term or long-term basis and will need teachers with the specialized training that comes with special education.
Special education is often the first step to a career working with individuals with special needs in a related but non-educational capacity. Here are a few careers that special education teachers might consider.
These professionals work with individuals who have speech or other communication disorders. This field requires a master’s degree in speech and language pathology as well as certification through an organization such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Some speech and language therapists work in schools to assist students with speech and articulation issues while others may help students with adaptive technology systems.
While this is still a special education profession, these teachers must take additional coursework in adaptive physical education and in many states, must pass an examination to be licensed. Adaptive special education teachers work with individuals with special needs to help them overcome physical limitations through physical therapy, technology and equipment.
Educational audiologists work with students to assess hearing loss and manage hearing disabilities within a classroom setting. This profession requires advanced education, often a doctorate in the field of audiology, and must be licensed through either the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association or the American Board of Audiology as well as meet other state licensing requirements.
These specialists work with both children and adults to problem-solve issues involving school work and classroom behavior, behavioral issues, personal relationships, and functional skills. Early intervention specialists need additional training and an internship that leads to certification in the field.
Much like a rehabilitation counselor, occupational therapists assist individuals with life skills both inside the classroom and beyond. In the classroom they can help students manage their disabilities, modify behavior, and other needs that allow the students to learn and grow. Outside of the classroom, occupational therapists may teach living skills such as how to manage daily tasks, including everything from eating and bathing to more advanced life skills such as cooking, using computers, or getting a job or an apartment. To become an occupational therapist you must receive a master’s degree or higher in occupational therapy and pass a national certification exam.