Special Education Degrees: Helping Improve the Lives of Special Needs Children

Special education degree

Special education teachers fill a vital need in their communities. According to the US Department of Education, nearly 14% of public school students have disabilities and receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Special education degrees are designed to provide college students with both content knowledge and teaching skills, preparing them to work with K-12 students who have a wide range of disabilities, including mental, emotional, physical, and learning disabilities. Discover what it takes to become a highly qualified educator who makes a difference to those who need it most by exploring special education schools.

What are the Different Special Education Degree Levels?

Pursuing a special education degree equips aspiring teachers with the specialized knowledge, insight, and skills required to instruct students with special needs. Special education programs are offered at the bachelor’s, master’s, education specialist, and doctoral levels. As an undergraduate degree, bachelor’s degrees require a high school diploma and typically take four years to complete.

A minimum of a bachelor’s degrees is required for entry into a master’s, education specialist, and doctoral program. Master’s degrees can be complete in two years, whereas an education specialist degree is generally 40-45 credits beyond the master’s degree. Doctoral programs usually take three to five years to complete.

All states require special education teachers at public schools to have at least a bachelor’s degree, but some states and districts will require special education teachers to earn their master’s degree within the first several years of teaching. Completion of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in special education typically leads to a state teaching certification. Education specialist and doctoral programs in special education are designed to prepare teachers for leadership roles within special education.

In addition to pursing a major specifically in special education, teachers can choose to major in elementary education or a specific content area and minor in special education. There are also alternative routes to becoming a teacher for graduates who have earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-teaching major, but now wish to become a special education teacher.

Special Education Program Overview

Special education colleges teach students about different types of disabilities and how to present information to students with disabilities so that they understand it. Some specialties that students may focus on include severe/multiple disabilities, learning disabilities, early childhood special education, and behavioral disorders. Students may be required to take courses in:

  • Assessment of learning difficulties
  • Classroom management
  • Education of students with autism
  • Educational diagnosis and remedial instruction
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Social and emotional development in education

Most teaching programs typically include a supervised teaching practicum that provides students with the opportunity to apply knowledge they have gained through coursework in an educational setting. To qualify for teaching positions in public schools, you must also pass a state exam to earn your teaching license. Depending on the state, there are general special education licenses, which would allow you to work with students who have a variety of disabilities, as well as specialized special education licenses for specific types of disabilities. Many private schools will also require state certification, especially at the special education level.

Special Education Careers

Utilizing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), special education instructors adapt their lessons and teaching style to the individual needs of their students. Some teachers work exclusively in special education classes, while others spend part of the day accompanying their students in mainstream classrooms.

Special education teachers must devote a lot of time and energy to their students and often work as part of a team of general education teachers, administrators, counselors, and parents in order discuss students’ progress and set goals. Certified special education teachers may have access to job opportunities in the following settings:

  • General education classrooms in public and private schools
  • Special schools and classes
  • Juvenile correctional facilities
  • Resource rooms
  • Preschools
  • Early intervention programs
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Private/government agencies
  • Residential facilities
  • Home programs

Qualities that special education teachers must possess include patience, creativity, communication skills, and people skills. Owing to increasing enrollment and a growing demand for special education services, employment of special education teachers is expected to grow 17% from 2010 to 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of special education teachers was $53,220 in May 2010. However, most people go into special education not for the paycheck, but because they love the work. If you think you have what it takes to succeed as a teacher for students with special needs, then start working on your special education degree today.

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