How to Become a Special Education Teacher

A special education teacher instructs students who have physical, emotional and learning disabilities. They work with all ages from infants to young adults and help them develop the motor, social and problem-solving skills they need to finish their education and live independently.

The most common disabilities as specified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are:

• Mental retardation
• Learning disabilities
• Language or speech impairment
• Visual impairment
• Hearing impairment
• Autism
• Behavior disturbances
• Developmental delay
• Traumatic brain injury
• Orthopedic impairments

The teachers create an individual program for each student that allows them to set goals and develop a customized curriculum to match the abilities of each student.

For students in kindergarten through the 12th grade teaching may take place in a classroom, in a one-to-one environment or in small groups. Some special education teachers specialize in teaching students who have a particular type of disability.

All of the states in the U.S. require special education teachers to be licensed. The minimum requirement for getting a licensing is a bachelor’s degree in special education, but several states and employers also require a master’s degree. 

If the candidate has a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than education, there are programs that they can enroll in to get a special education license.

Most special education teachers first get a general license for teaching kindergarten through 12th before applying for special education certification. Some employers require further certification is specialized fields such as teaching students who have visual impairments. The American Academy of Special Education Professionals offers additional certification.

A special education teacher requires a special set of skills. It takes a lot of patience and understanding to work with special-needs students and it’s a very challenging job. However, it is also a very rewarding job.

To enter this field, teachers must be creative, flexible and encouraging to motivate their students and inspire the confidence in them, so they are willing to attempt new tasks.

Some of the skills required are:

• Communication skills are required to interact with the student and his or her parents as well as other educators
• Understanding individual needs and being able to work in a one-on-one setting
• Good computer skills for keeping detailed records of the progress of each student
• Familiarity with technology and aides that can be used in the classroom

Special education teachers don’t work alone. They may be a member of a team of teachers who deal with different aspects of the educationally challenged child’s schooling. 

For example, they may work with a physical therapist, a speech language pathologist, occupational therapists, resource room personnel, teacher assistants and others.

This team will create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each student. Special education teachers may work with several different children throughout the day, each requiring a different technique and approach.

Because children who have disabilities have a wide range of needs, people who are interested in becoming special education teachers can choose from many different specialized programs. However, there are some courses that are common to all programs. 

These include:

• An introduction to special education – this course covers the history and legal background information related to teaching learning-challenged students. The course covers the way a teacher can identify different characteristics of behavioral, learning, mental, physical and sensory disorders.

It also includes how to identify students with extreme talents. Teachers learn how to adapt the environment for all levels of students with special needs as well as effective instructional strategies and how to develop curriculum. They also learn about the legalities that are associated with parental involvement and discrimination.

• A diversity of needs course – this course teaches potential special education teachers about the different types of needs children have. Some children may need behavioral, sensory or physical help. The course teaches the unique teaching strategies that can be applied to different students’ needs such as problem-solving skills that the teacher may need in the classroom.

• Analyzing behavior and intervention – this course teaches how to handle disturbances in the classroom and how to intervene when it is important to change a student’s behavior in the classroom. Analysis and intervention must also help the child develop.

• Family involvement – this course covers the importance for the disabled child of having his or her family involved in their education. The disabled students are constantly learning at school and at home. 

It is important for their parents to know what they need to do at home to help their child continue to develop. This course trains teachers to effectively collaborate with parents for the benefit of their child.

Special education teachers are required in both public and private schools. In public schools they are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license. 

In private schools, they also need a bachelor’s degree, but may not be required to have certification or a state license. While special education teachers are always in demand, there is a bigger demand in the elementary school level.

If it is unrealistic for a person to become a special education teacher, they may be able to become a special education assistant. For this they need an associate’s degree, a background check and they’ll get on-the-job training.

The main skill required is to be able to focus on the teacher’s instructions. Teaching assistants may work with younger children in groups with the supervision of a therapist or teacher. Assistants may also use exercise and games to aid the physical and behavioral development of the students.

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