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How to Prepare for a Career Working with Students with Special Needs

Working with children who have special needs is a noble calling. Teachers who pursue a career in special education enrich the lives of students with disabilities as well as provide valuable information to parents about their child's progress. Special education careers require specific training and experience that can be obtained through degree programs offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This page provides information about these degree programs, including what students can expect to learn, the jobs they can pursue after earning their degree, and the qualities prospective students should look for in a program.

Best Special Education Degree Programs

Although there are many special education degree programs, some are better than others. To help students find the best schools, we have ranked programs based on factors such as student-teacher ratio, tuition and student graduation rate. Browse our listing below of the top special education degree programs.

  1. Eastern Michigan University

    Ypsilanti, MI

    Students with physical and mental impairments need educators who are both competent and compassionate. Those who enroll in Eastern Michigan University get the training they need to work effectively with special needs students. For example, the master’s degree program that focuses on cognitive impairment includes courses in language disorders, types of cognitive disabilities, and classroom management and intervention strategies for teaching these students. Students who want to teach children with visual impairments take courses about braille, technologies that can be used to teach blind children, the anatomy and physiology of vision, and mobility training.

  2. Canisius College

    Buffalo, NY

    Whether students want to teach adolescents or young children with special needs, Canisius College has master’s degree programs to help them reach their goals. Offered through the School of Education and Human Services, students in the adolescent special education program learn teaching methods best suited for adolescents with learning disabilities. Classes in this program focus on areas such as adolescent development, autism spectrum disorders, and transition issues those with disabilities face. Similarly, students in the early education program take courses in childhood learning and behavioral disorders and childhood learning stages. The programs include a combination of theory and practical experience.

  3. CUNY Hunter College

    New York, NY

    CUNY Hunter College’s School of Education has special education degree programs that allow students to focus on the grade level or impairment they want to specialize in. For example, the adolescent special education master’s degree program includes coursework about topics such as issues in special education, providing classroom assessments to impaired students, literacy techniques used when teaching struggling readers, and best practices for teaching math, science, and English to adolescents. Those who enroll in the program focusing on deaf and hard-of-hearing students can expect to take coursework in American Sign Language basics, how to adapt classroom lessons to meet the needs of deaf students, and ASL linguistics.

  4. Converse College

    Spartanburg, SC

    The special education bachelor’s degree programs at Converse College give students access to award-winning faculty members and administrators, as well as teaching field experience at local schools. Accredited by the Council for Accreditation for Educator Preparation and approved by the South Carolina Department of Education, the school offers a degree in general special education, as well as programs that focus on intellectual and learning disabilities. Coursework in the program includes topics such as classroom behavior, classroom management, language development and disabilities, and assessment techniques for exceptional learners. In addition, students learn how to effectively teach mathematics, reading, science, and social studies.

  5. Daemen College

    Amherst, NY

    Daemen College offers graduate and undergraduate programs for students who want to work in special education settings. Undergraduate students can choose majors in early childhood special education and general special education. Coursework in these programs focuses on areas such as arts for young children, learning theory, instructional design, typical and atypical child development, and assistive classroom technologies. On the graduate level, students build on their previous experience and education to get an understanding of advanced concepts. In addition to classroom work, students in these programs have the opportunity to participate in assistantships that provide further teaching experience.

  6. Ashland University

    Ashland, OH

    Experienced special education teachers who want to gain additional skills that will take their careers to the next level can enroll in Ashland University’s intervention specialist master’s degree program. Students are required to take core courses in areas such as curriculum development, diversity in the classroom, and the social and historical foundations of education. In order to gain a deeper understanding of special education, students take courses in effective learning environments for impaired students, techniques for teaching children with language and communication disorders, intervention specialist best practices, and the laws and policies that govern special education.

  7. Niagara University

    Niagara County, NY

    Those who want to get jobs in special education environments as teachers, development specialists, teacher educators, and early childhood education program directors can get the training they need from Niagara University. To provide this focused training, the school offers a program that gives students the tools they need to work with those who have severe disabilities. Students in the program can focus their studies on working with Grades 1-6 or Grades 7-12, depending on their career goals. No matter which grade level they choose, students can expect to learn how to administer assessments, evaluate student progress, and make accommodations for special needs students.

  8. Syracuse University

    Syracuse, NY

    The School of Education at Syracuse University provides evidence-based courses and intensive experiential learning opportunities designed to create thoughtful, socially just educators. One of the school’s programs is its inclusive elementary and special education bachelor’s degree, which provides a holistic approach that focuses on pedagogical principles and the well-being of young learners. To reinforce these concepts, students have the opportunity to observe special education teachers at work as they deal with the realities of the classroom. Syracuse University also offers a degree program in early childhood special education that focuses on the needs of children from birth to second grade.

  9. University of Mary

    Bismarck, ND

    The University of Mary offers degree programs rooted in the school’s Catholic, Benedictine values. As a result, the special education program not only provides the skills and knowledge students need to work in the field, but also the empathy necessary to deal with students who have disabilities. The program includes core courses in subjects such as education history, early childhood education, children’s literature, and classroom management. In addition, the school also offers classes designed to familiarize students with the specific challenges of a special needs classroom. Students also have the opportunity to get field experience by working in schools, professional organizations, or education committees.

  10. Purdue University

    West Lafayette, IN

    Students with disabilities need compassionate teachers who understand how to create a learning environment that addresses their conditions. The students who enroll in the special education degree program at Purdue University-Main Campus get this specialized training. Whether they want to work in the classroom, or in childcare, camp, and community services settings, the program gives students the pedagogical foundation needed to work with special needs children and adolescents. The curriculum covers topics such as literacy, special education assessment techniques, classroom multiculturalism, and assistive technologies for teachers. Students also get skills through supervised teaching opportunities.

Similar Degree Programs in Education

Education is a diverse field, so those who are interested in the profession can use their degrees to pursue several career paths. The following table allows users to browse our pages on some of the different degrees and career paths in the education field.

Early Childhood Education

Elementary Education

Secondary Education

Special Education

My advice is to enroll in a special education program if you hold the conviction that all students can learn, that all students deserve a chance to be included, and that all people have something special to contribute to our world.

Lindy Crawford, PhD

A Closer Look: Special Education Degrees by Level

Students who are interested in special education careers can earn degrees at the associate, bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels. Each degree level provides more advanced knowledge and skills, and gives students opportunities to build their expertise in a specific area. As professionals advance in their careers, they can earn higher-level degrees designed to build on their knowledge and professional experience.

Special Education Associate Degrees

  • Type of Schools: Community colleges, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Two years, full-time
  • Career Opportunities: Teacher's aide, entry-level positions & internships

Associate degree programs are designed to give students the fundamental knowledge they need to either pursue entry-level positions or move on to earn higher level degrees. Prerequisites generally include earning a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The coursework in an associate's degree program is designed to familiarize students with the special education field. The following are examples of associate-level classes. 

  • Introduction to Special Education

    This introductory course focuses on the theory and practice of teaching special education courses. It also covers the laws associated with the profession as well as different types of learning disabilities.
  • Foundations of Child Development

    Students explore how children develop at different stages and the social and cultural factors that influence the child development process.
  • Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood Education

    Students learn assessment methods and how educators evaluate students based on observations of their behavior.
  • Educational Psychology

    Students in this course learn about the psychological concepts that apply to learning and teaching methodologies.

Special Education Bachelor's Degrees

  • Type of Schools: Four-year colleges and universities, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Four years, full-time
  • Career Opportunities: Special education teacher, special education consultant, behavioral specialist, educational diagnostician, behavioral specialist

Special education bachelor's degree programs prepare students to become licensed teachers in their state and train them to teach students of all grades. Although each school has its own requirements for admission, applicants must come in with at least a high school diploma or its equivalent. Students learn about such topics as how to collaborate with other educators to provide education to special needs students, how to create a grade-appropriate curriculum, and how to use critical thinking skills to solve problems in the classroom. Some of these knowledge areas are put to use in an extended student teaching assignment, a standard requirement for graduation.

Special education bachelor's degree programs offer a robust curriculum that prepares students for the classroom. The courses below can typically be found in these programs.

  • Early Intervention for Children with Special Needs

    Students in this course learn how to conduct assessments on young children and create individualized action plans to help them with their education.
  • Early Literacy

    This course explores how teachers instill reading, writing and listening skills in young children.
  • Mathematics for Students with Disabilities

    This course looks at how special education instructional principles are applied to teaching math to students with disabilities.
  • Legal Aspects of Special Education

    Students in this class learn about the laws that govern special education teachers in public and private schools.

Special Education Master's Degrees (MS, MEd)

  • Type of Schools: Four-year universities and colleges, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Two to three years, full-time
  • Career Opportunities: Special education teacher, special education consultant, education administrator, early intervention specialist, educational diagnostician

Those who are interested in enrolling in master's degree programs are generally required to earn a minimum 2.5 GPA in their undergraduate program and take the GMAT or GRE tests. These degrees are designed for educators who want to take their careers to the next level and pursue leadership roles in the field. Students who enroll in master's degrees learn advanced instructional and assessment skills as well as conduct special education research.

Students on the master's level are able to take specialized courses that focus on areas such as consultation, educational leadership and research. The following is a sample of the classes that are usually found in these programs. 

  • Introduction to Educational Research

    This course covers how to conduct educational research, from developing a hypothesis to discussing findings.
  • Students with Emotional/Social and Behavioral Disorders

    Students learn how to manage a classroom with students who have emotional and behavioral disorders. Course topics include models for disciplining students, assessment techniques and instructional planning.
  • Intervention Strategies

    Because it covers the different ways teachers intervene on behalf of students with learning disabilities, this course may include subjects such as self-monitoring strategies, social problem solving and transitional instruction.
  • Inclusive Classroom Practices

    Students explore the theories and best practices for creating an inclusive classroom environment for special needs students. Specific topics include integrated learning experiences, needs-based formative assessments, and curriculum adaptations and resources for special needs students.

Special Education Doctorate Degrees (PhD, EdD)

  • Type of Schools: Four-year colleges and universities, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Four to five years
  • Career Opportunities: Professor of special education, state or federal grant coordinator, coordinator of special education, director of special education, disabilities and mental health services manager

In addition to preparing students for leadership positions in the special education field, doctoral degrees also train those who want to become college professors, consultants or education researchers. These programs focus on ethical leadership, research methods, administration principles and college-level teaching strategies. Through their thesis or fieldwork, students in doctoral programs can concentrate on a specific area of the field, such as severe disabilities, early intervention, students with visual impairments, or low-incidence disabilities.

Coursework in special education doctoral programs, such as the classes described below, is designed to give students a deep understanding of a specific topic in the field.

  • Leadership in Special Education Administration

    Provides an understanding of the challenges associated with special education leadership and how administrators can address them. In addition, students learn the role education leaders play in special education.
  • Current Issues in Special Education

    In this course, the latest research on special education practice and policy is looked into, as well as how this type of research is conducted.
  • Grant Writing

    Students in the course learn how to identify funding, gather required information and construct each component of a grant.
  • Ethics in Special Education

    Students explore the ethical concerns educators face and how to make decisions that address the needs of special education teachers and students alike.

Choosing the Right Degree Program: Five Things to Consider

After narrowing down their degree options, students should make sure that their programs of choice meet the following criteria:

1. Accreditation

Accreditation helps to ensure students are receiving a quality education from the school they enroll in. To get the most relevant training, students should attend a special education program accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

2. Options for Specialization

The special education field is made up of several components, so students may choose to focus on a specific area, such as autism, early childhood education or deaf education. As a result, students should think about their goals and interests, and find a program that allows them to concentrate on the topic they want to gain expertise in.

3. Observation Opportunities

While the concepts students learn in the classroom provide a foundation for their education, it's also important for them to see these concepts at play in a real-world classroom. Programs that incorporate regular observations of special education classrooms provide students with a deeper understanding of how the theories they learn are applied by educators.

4. Supervised Teaching Opportunities

When students get the opportunity to teach classes of their own, it takes their learning to the next level and helps them develop the skills they will need during their career. Degree programs that provide diverse student teaching opportunities prepare educators for the rigors of the special education field.

5. Community Partnerships

Schools that have community partnerships can help students succeed in their programs as well as their careers. Prospective special education teachers can benefit from programs that are aligned with school districts, state education departments and nonprofit organizations because such programs open up opportunities for internships and employment.

Advice from a Special Education Professor

Q. What can students expect to learn in a special education degree program?

Special education degree programs vary across universities. Decisions about curricula are tied closely to requirements of state education associations that accredit special education degree programs and award teaching licenses. However, high-quality educational programs designed to prepare educators for teaching in the field of special education rely heavily on sharing research-based practices shown to be effective for teaching students who learn differently.

Q. How do special education programs differ from other types of education programs?

High-quality special education programs and high-quality general education programs share many of the same components. However, research in the field of special education makes clear that special attention be given to these teaching behaviors in a special education degree program:

  • Using data to inform instruction
  • Designing targeted instruction to meet the various needs presented by students with disabilities
  • Employing explicit instruction, including, but not limited to, extensive modeling, opportunities for practice, and positive feedback
  • Implementing classroom management practices that are positive and proactive
  • Understanding federal special education law that mandates a free and appropriate education be provided to students in the least restrictive environment
  • Familiarizing oneself about the role of caregivers and the effect that a child with a disability has on his or her family
  • Embracing and using contextually and culturally responsive teaching methods that acknowledge a diverse student body
  • Believing that all students can learn and that all students should be provided opportunities to reach their full potential

Q. What makes special education a rewarding career path?

Teachers of students with disabilities are rewarded daily. Special education teachers understand the value of small gains — academic, social or emotional — and are eager to celebrate these small successes with their students. Because special education teachers have learned the importance of focusing on students' strengths as opposed to their weaknesses, they design programs that enrich student learning. Teachers' use of evidence-based practices ensures that all students learn, and teachers' use of sensitive measures enables them to capture even the smallest increments of learning.

Potential Career Paths and Concentrations in Special Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics , the education and training field is expected to grow by eight percent between 2014 and 2024, which amounts to nearly 700,000 additional jobs. The special education field alone — from preschool to high school — is projected to see 28,000 new jobs during that span, which amounts to a six percent increase.

Browse Career Profiles: Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers work with students who have disabilities. These disabilities could be physical or sensory, such as blindness, but they could also be mental, emotional or learning disabilities, including conditions such as autism and depression. These educators assess the needs of students in order to create appropriate teaching plans, assign activities based on students' abilities, and help students adjust when they advance from one grade to the next.

  • Job Growth (2014-2024) 6%
  • Median Annual Salary (May 2015) $56,800
  • Typical Education Bachelor's degree and state license for public school teachers

Compare the national median salaries for special education teachers at various grade levels:

Special Education Teacher Salaries by Grade Level
Preschool Kindergarten & Elementary School Middle School High School
$53,990 $55,810 $57,280 $58,500

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists are responsible for planning and directing recreational treatments for people with disabilities, illnesses or injuries. Their work entails reviewing medical records, observing patients to assess their needs, monitoring and recording patient progress, and creating therapeutic exercise activities.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Rehabilitation counselors work with patients with developmental, physical, mental and emotional disabilities and help them become independent. Job duties include providing counseling services, maintaining patient records, and locating and referring patients to the services they need — such as career trainers, wheelchair distributors and doctors.

  • Job Growth (2014-2024) 9%
  • Median Annual Salary (May 2015) $34,390
  • Typical Education Master's degree and license (depending on the state)

Source:  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2015)

Key Skills and Certifications for Special Education Teachers

  • State License

    While private schools do not require licensing, every state mandates that special education teachers obtain a license before teaching at a public school.
  • Student Teaching Experience

    Professionals are typically required to gain hands-on experience by working as student teachers as part of their degree. Some states require field experience as part of licensure, and some employers will only hire teachers who have this real-world classroom experience.
  • Specialized Training

    To increase their employability, some teachers specialize in a specific student age group or grade level, while others specialize in a condition, such as autism or visual impairments.
  • Instructional Skills

    For their students to be successful, special education teachers must have the instructional skills to explain classroom concepts in a way students can understand.
  • Critical Thinking Skills

    Teachers in special education classrooms must think on their feet, as many of their students are unable to work independently for significant stretches of time. They must analyze what is going on in the classroom and adjust their teaching in response to student needs.
  • Active Learning Skills

    The education field is constantly evolving, and new pedagogical theories are regularly being developed. As a result, special education teachers should be driven to seek out new information that will aid them in their own classrooms.
  • Patience

    Special needs students learn differently than other students, which can cause frustration for some teachers. It's important for educators to be patient with these students and understand that they often progress at a slower pace.

What skills and qualities do professionals need to be successful in the special education field?

  • Belief in the potential of all students
  • Positive regard for all students
  • Skills for teaching and assessing academics
  • Positive behavior management skills
  • Determination
  • Advocacy

Lindy Crawford, PhD

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