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Teaching special education involves working one-on-one with intellectually impaired, learning disabled or developmentally delayed learners both within and beyond the learning environment.

As a special education teacher, the core job will involve assessing your learners’ specific needs, limitations and abilities in order to develop lesson plans that best address these needs. You will also be responsible for developing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for your learners and tracking their learning progress. You will work with your learners in groups as well as one-on-one, supervising teacher assistants, and keeping parents and other stakeholders abreast of learner’s progress.

You will also work alongside counselors, general education teachers, administrators, and superintendents too. As your learners move through the school year, you will update their IEPs in order to reflect their goals and progress.

First, what is special education?

Special education, as already mentioned, are learning programs designed for physically, mentally, emotionally, or socially delayed learners. “Delay” in this context broadly refers to developmental delay, an important aspect of the child’s overall development (scholastic, cognitive, and physical) that lets them lag behind their peers in classroom work. Due to these challenges, children with special needs find it difficult to learn at the same pace with their able peers in the conventional learning environment.

Special education programs and services tailor their content, teaching methodology and approach to meet each learner’s specific needs. In the United States, these services are federally sponsored and are available to children under 21 years of age. Nearly every state has put in place special education services for adults in need of specialized education after age 21.

The law advocating for special education was first established through the Education for All Handicapped Children Act back in 1975. This law was later amended to the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act of 2004.

LAW: Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975

Congress enacted the Public Law 94-142, popularly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). This law was designed to ensure that children with disabilities gain free access to appropriate education. This law guaranteed local and statewide support and protection to children with disabilities as well as their families.

EHA grants public schools federal funding to ensure that they provide access to education for children with mental and physical disabilities. Schools are required to assess learners in order to come up with an education plan that parallels the academic experience of their non-disabled counterparts. EHA requirements also provide disabled children’s families with the necessary support systems to ensure that the child receives appropriate and adequate care services, as well as services required to dispute any decision made by the school on behalf of the child.

LAW: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

In 1997, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was amended to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA amendments were meant to provide children and youth with disabilities access to high-quality education-related services. This was to ensure that children with learning disabilities enjoy complete access to appropriate education within the least restrictive environment.

Under IDEA’s legislation, every state receiving federal funding is required to:
  • Provide all disabled students between ages 3 to 21 with access to free and appropriate public education
  • Identify, locate and evaluate children described as disabled
  • Develop an Individual Education Program (IEP) for every learner
  • Provide quality education to children with disabilities within their “least restrictive environment.”
Usually, this environment is typical with their developing peers but dependent on the individual learner’s circumstances.
  • Provide every student enrolled in early-intervention (EI) program with a positive and effective transition into an appropriate preschool program
  • Design special education services for learners enrolled in private schools
  • Ensure tutors are sufficiently qualified and certified to teach special education
  • Ensure that disabled children are not suspended or expelled from school at rates higher than their peers.

Additionally, these IDEA federal provisions ensure that all children with disabilities have access to adequate resources and services necessary for them to succeed within and beyond the educational system alongside their non-disabled peers.

What are the different types of disabilities covered in IDEA?

Broadly applied, the term special education basically identifies physical, cognitive, academic, and social-emotional instruction provided to learners who have one or more disabilities.

IDEA categorizes these disabilities into the following groups:

Orthopedic impairments

These refer to severe orthopedic impairments that can have adverse effects on the learner’s academic performance. These types of impairments include those caused by congenital disorders and diseases as well as impairments by other causes such as Cerebral Palsy.

Specific Learning Disability

This is a general term referring to a broad range of disorders that affect one or more basic psychological processes involved in the learning process such as an inability to comprehend or use language effectively. They affect the learner’s ability to listen, comprehend, read, write, and perform mathematical functions.

Conditions that can trigger specific learning disability include perceptual conditions like dyslexia, minimal brain function, developmental aphasia, and brain injury. These learning disabilities are not included in learning challenges that are caused by auditory, visual or motor disabilities, emotional disturbances, intellectual disability, or learners who are at economic or environmental disadvantages.

Deafness/Hearing Impairment

Deafness refers to impaired hearing ability. It can severely limit the child’s ability to process linguistic information with or without amplification. This can consequently affect a child’s performance in the classroom. Impaired hearing can be permanent or fluctuating, and it can adversely affect the child’s educational performance as well.

Development Delay

This term refers to the developmental delay in children from birth to age nine. It describes a delay in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, behavioral development, socio-emotional development, and communication development.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that significantly limits a person’s ability to communicate (both verbally and nonverbally) as well as social interaction with other people. ASD symptoms tend to be evident before the child’s 3rd birthday and can adversely affect their educational performance.

Children with ASD also tend to engage in repetitive activities/stereotyped movements, unusual response to sensory stimuli, and resistance to change in the environment as well as daily routines.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

These refer to any form of injury inflicted on the brain by external forces. The resulting injury can cause partial or complete functional disability and/or psychological impairment that can adversely affect the child’s learning performance. It is important to note that TBI does not include degenerative or congenital conditions or birth-related traumas.

Instead, TBI refers to injuries that result in impairments in one or more of the following areas of the brain:

Language, cognition, attention, memory, reasoning, judgment, abstract thinking, psychosocial behavior, problem-solving, speech, information processing, and physical functions.

Visual Impairment (Including Blindness)

Visual impairment such as blindness refers to impairment of the individual’s vision such that, even upon correction, can still adversely impact the child’s learning performance. Individuals in this category include those with impartial sight and blindness.

To be considered eligible for state special education services, IDEA states that the learner’s disability must adversely inhibit their academic achievement and/or their overall performance in the classroom. While defining these adverse effects is strictly dependent on the learner’s specific limitations, it takes an evaluation by a professional such as the social worker, child’s pediatrician, or school psychologist to determine eligibility.

After a learner is deemed eligible for such services, their learning progress is evaluated annually.


These refer to concomitant hearing and visual impairments. This combination severely limits the individual’s communication, educational, and developmental ability and needs. As such, children with these conditions cannot be taken through the special education programs that are specifically designed for either deaf or blind children.

Multiple disabilities

Children with multiple disabilities exhibit concomitant impairments such as blindness and intellectual disability or orthopedic impairments and intellectual disability. This combination triggers comprehensive education needs that cannot be realized through programs designed for learners with single impairments.

Emotional disturbance

Emotional disturbance is a condition that is characterized by one or more of the following features over an extended period.

It can adversely affect the child’s educational performance:
  • A learning disability that cannot be explained by an intellectual, health or sensory factors
  • An inability to establish and/or maintain a satisfactory interpersonal relationship with fellow learners and tutors
  • Inappropriate behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • A general pervasive mood of depression or unhappiness
  • A tendency to exhibit physical symptoms or fears that can be traced back to personal or school problems

An emotional disturbance does not apply to individuals who are socially maladjusted unless their form of emotional disturbance fits into IDEA’s definition and regulations.

Other health impairments

These types of impairments refer to the limitation in vitality, strength, or alertness, resulting in the learner’s poor concentration while learning. These impairments often result from acute or chronic health complications such as epilepsy, ADD/ADHD, and Tourette’s syndrome. All these can adversely affect the child’s learning process.

Intellectual Disability

This is described as a significantly below average functioning of overall intelligence that an individual exhibits alongside deficits in adaptive behavior. It is often diagnosed during the child’s developmental period causing serious effects on the learner’s educational performance.

Speech/Language Impairment

These refer to communication disorders like impaired articulation, stuttering, or language/voice impairments that have adverse effects on the learner’s performance in the classroom.

What are Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)?

An Individualized Education Program (commonly known as IEP) is an IDEA mandated document that clearly outlines the specific goals and objectives set for a disabled child. These programs are written documentation of the special education program as well as academic modifications required to meet the learner’s specific needs.

IEP serves these two main purposes:
  1. Set reasonable learning targets for the child based on his/her limitations, and
  2. Outline the required services that the school district need to provide for the learner in question

IEPs are written by a team that can include the learner’s parents, teachers, as well as supporting school staff. This team does meet at least once a year to assess the learner’s academic and developmental record, review and design appropriate educational plans, and implement any changes where necessary.

The primary goal of this periodic review is to ensure that the learner is getting adequate and appropriate services within their least restrictive environment.

While every learner’s IEP is unique, IDEA requires that all IEPs contain the following mandatory information:
  • Learner’s current level of learning achievement as well as overall performance
  • The learner’s annual learning goals and objectives (milestones that the learner’s teachers and parents feel reasonably achievable within the set time frame)
  • Nature of special education and related services, including supplementary services like adequate transportation services, adaptive communication devices, as well as qualified school personnel
  • Time of the day when the learner will be educated apart from their non-handicapped peers
  • Participation and/or modification to local, state, and national assessments
  • How the learner’s progress will be assessed and measured

Visit the U.S Department of Education’s website to learn more about the Guide to Individualized Education Program.

How to become a special education teacher

Same as with general education certification, earning a certification as a special education teacher allows you to work with a diverse range of learner ages, abilities, and grade levels. Special education programs are tailored to meet the unique and specific needs of each learner, allowing learners with similar challenges to be homogeneously grouped together based on their developmental stage and ability rather than by age.

This special education’s unique aspect allows tutors to deliver instruction and aid based on the learners’ skill level and needs rather than their biological age. It also allows the tutor to interact with learners based on their interest and ability rather than age. However, most Special Education certifications are categorized by the learner’s age.

Thus, you can earn your special education certifications as per the following groups:
  • Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education certification programs targeting children from birth to age 4.
  • Childhood Special Education certification targeting kindergarten to 6th-grade learners
  • Secondary Special Education certification targeting 7th to 12th-grade learners
  • Some Special Education programs are designed to let educators work with virtually any age demographic.

Required traits of a Special Education Teacher

More than other teaching professions, the job of teaching children with special needs require individuals with a certain set of traits. Compare your own personal qualities with the ones listed below to see if a career in special education is right for you.

1. A healthy sense of humor

Possessing a well-composed sense of humor will go a long way in lightening up your days and invigorating your teaching of special education learners. Their disabilities notwithstanding, your learners will always sense when you are enjoying being around them and their personalities.

2. Organization skills

While every learner needs some form of structure to succeed, a special education learner needs it more. Whether you are working with severely handicapped, completely deaf, or intellectually challenged delayed learners, it is important that you provide your learners with a physical and academic structure ideal for learning.

3. Creativity

The ability to devise new approaches when explaining and demonstrating the subject matter is one of the single most important traits of a special education teacher. Bringing a sense of creativity into your classroom will greatly enrich your learning environment and motivate your learners.

4. Healthy temper

Learners with emotional disturbances or intellectual disabilities can easily lose it when you are not firm, direct, kind and helpful in challenging situations. Closely watch yourself when an emergency or a crisis arises and note how you handle it.

What is a Special Education Certification?

Once you are decided on the age group you want to become certified in, you need to find a Special Education degree program to pursue.

What is the undergraduate? B.S. Education, Special Education

Your first step towards becoming a certified teacher involves earning a bachelor’s degree in education. The typical undergraduate education program is a four-year-long course that provides learners with qualifications, resources, and the experience you will need to become a certified teacher in your respective state.

Check out the teacher qualifications in your state.

On average, the coursework includes theory lessons, fieldwork, as well as practical application of your teaching skills. If your university offers a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education, your coursework will include theory and practice in both general and Special Education theory. Even if you do not have a bachelor’s degree in special education, a general undergraduate degree in education can pave the way for you to pursue a master’s degree in special education.

What is the graduate? M.S.Ed/MAT Special Education

A graduate degree in Special Education is available for certified teachers looking to further their education as well as those looking for initial certification. Depending on your university’s program and/or course schedule, you can consider a 2-year Master’s in Education program.

While some states do not require a master’s degree before you can become a certified teacher, getting an advanced degree will boost your income and increase your eligibility for more job opportunities.

A master’s degree in Special Education enables you to reach a wide range of learners in a variety of both academic disciplines and environments.

Depending on the program you have enrolled for, a Master’s degree in Special Education may offer programs in the following fields:
  • Behavior disorders
  • Learning disabilities
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Low incidence disabilities such as deafness, blindness, deaf-blindness, and other disabilities
  • Early intervention, early childhood, and special education

Special education teacher employment

Setting your career path in special education enables you to work with a wide range of children of different abilities, limitations, and ages, as well as a number of unique work environments. As a special educator, you will be able to work in a number of environments, including but not limited to the conventional classroom.

It is a unique ability of special education tutors to teach their learners out of the traditional classroom, ensuring that you meet the broader needs of your learners.

Your work environment as a certified Special Education teacher may include the following:

  • Self-contained/specialized schools
  • General education classrooms (both public and private schools) operating under the CTT model
  • Self-contained classes among general learning setting (including Resource Room, Alternative Learning Programs, ELL classes)
  • Early Intervention program including both at-home as well as at-school services
  • Home programs
  • Self-contained and inclusion model programs
  • Hospitals
  • Health agencies and clinics

What are the student demographics?

An inclusive education classroom is designed to provide learning for special need students as well as their non-handicapped peers. This model operates under a co-teaching strategy, also referred to as Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT) or Integrated Co-Teaching (ITT). The classroom is designed to offer both special as well as general education. Click here to read more:

The difference between inclusion classroom and a self-contained classroom is that special need learners in an inclusive classroom environment are basically described as those having mild to moderate learning limitations, while learners in the self-contained classroom environment are described as having moderate to severe learning limitations. While mild/moderate limitations and severe/multiple limitations fall under the same category of special education, the learners in these categories have varying needs. As such, it is important that you find a degree program that lets you specialize on your demographic learners.

You will have to teach students with mild to moderate disabilities

Getting the certification to teach students with mild to moderate learning difficulties prepares you to work with learners whose needs and limitations are a stumbling block to their learning performance. This is usually in areas of writing, math, socialization, and reading. Learners with mild to moderate special needs spend part of or most of their school day in the general education or CTT classroom with occasional time in the resource room or in the occupational therapy facility.

Teachers looking to work with learners with mild to moderate disabilities should look into school programs that are dedicated to preparing tutors to work within that specific demographic.

You will have to teach students with severe and with multiple disabilities

Getting the certification to teach learners with severe or multiple disabilities enables you to work with learners whose performance is inhibited by special needs – not only on the academic sphere but also in terms of the learners’ physical capabilities as well as their life skills. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) defines severe disability as a profound intellectual and/or developmental disability.

The severity of the disability must require a “continuous and extensive” life and/or social activities in order to participate in learning or other physical activities. If you are looking to work with learners with severe and/or multiple disabilities then you will most commonly work in a specialized private school environment or in a self-contained special education class in the general learning environment. With an advanced degree in special education, you will also be eligible to work with government departments, private agencies, as well as not for profit organizations that specialize in providing education to learners with severe developmental disabilities.

A special education teacher wears several hats. Unlike the other tutors whose primary focus is academics, special education teachers serve both as educators as well as advocates for learners with special needs. His or her work schedule is divided among instruction, planning, learner assessment, as well as managing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).