Master’s degree in special education program guide

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Master’s in special education

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that disabled students make up approximately 14% of all public school enrollment. A master’s degree in special education is designed to educate individuals who want to pursue a career working inside or outside the classroom supporting people with disabilities. This program is designed to advance your knowledge of special education, with opportunities to concentrate your studies in a particular area or field. For example, if you want to work with people with autism spectrum disorder you could look for a university that would allow you to specialize in autism intervention and assessment.

What do I need to apply?

Admissions requirements vary by program, but all require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree, and most have minimum GPA requirements. You may also be asked to provide academic references, a personal statement, and/or test scores. The academic references can be written by a professor or tutor from your undergraduate program or a counselor who is familiar with your academic skills. Your personal statement showcases why you are a good candidate for the program, and provides an opportunity to introduce yourself to a prospective school.

Online vs. on-campus

Given the current health pandemic, many universities now offer master’s programs exclusively online, or with a hybrid component. This is a great option for those who live far from campus or have tight daytime schedules due to work and family commitments. Online programs or classes give more flexibility and independence when managing coursework. Hybrid classes are a blend of online and face-to-face learning. For example, a hybrid class might have scheduled meetings on-campus, online lectures and tutorials, and an expectation that coursework is submitted online.

Does my university need to be accredited?

The short answer is yes. To have your degree recognized by future employers or academic programs, you should make sure that you only apply to accredited universities. Accreditation is a sign that the program you are enrolled in has reached a standard of excellence set by the national accreditation agencies. For you, this means that your course has passed the test and that you are signing up for the real academic deal. This process is especially important when working in the special education field. One of these accreditation agencies is the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation which ensures that the students graduating from this program are prepared for educational or professional advancement.


The classes in a master’s program take a deeper look into special education policies, laws, evidence-based theories, and curriculum development. Upon completion of the program, the graduate should have an advanced understanding of how to support children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities.

Developmental foundations

This course seeks to build on the foundations set into place during undergraduate programs in special education, and continue reviewing educational theories and psychology. Students are taught about cognition and learning development which is applied to teaching.

Behavior analysis

Behavior analysis is the scientific approach to analyzing behavior, and how environmental factors affect it. This course focuses on principles, techniques, and research into child behavior, which can be used to assess behaviors and to implement meaningful changes in a child’s life.

Language and literacy support

This course provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to support people with disabilities in reading, language, and literacy. It takes a look at phonetics, phonological awareness, oral and written language strategies to support people who may have difficulties reading.


The practicum component of a master’s program is when a student gets to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, under the guidance of a supervisor. It is a valuable experience for students to learn from experienced professionals who work in the field.

Special education law/policy

This course is an overview of the legal rights of people with disabilities and their families. It covers the history and current status of laws put into place to protect people with disabilities, the judicial decisions, and the American legal process.

Classroom and behavior management

When working with diverse learners, it is important to have an understanding of classroom and behavior management. The course offers strategies and systems meant to manage difficult classroom behaviors, helping to create an environment conducive to learning for all students.

Community collaboration

This course focuses on the collaboration of families and professionals to promote communication between the people and agencies in a child’s life. By applying knowledge on cultural and linguistic diversity, students can develop the skills needed to identify and apply this information to appropriately meet a child’s educational needs.


A thesis is a paper students write which sums up the knowledge they’ve learned in the master’s program. A thesis highlights a student’s in-depth understanding of a particular area in special education. Generally, between 40-80 pages in length, the thesis is also evidence that the student has developed essential writing and research skills.


A concentration within the master’s program is a set of classes which specialize in a particular aspect of special education. Selecting a specific concentration can give the student an advanced set of skills to better prepare them for their future career.

Autism intervention

In 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 54 children in the United States were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which makes autism awareness an important portion of special education. A concentration in autism awareness introduces students to the disorder, how to support students with ASD, and assess ASD to implement positive educational programs.

Educational diagnostician

A concentration in educational diagnostics teaches how to effectively assess and diagnose the special learning needs of students using different assessment techniques. Students are presented with diffferent prevention and intervention strategies which can be applied to an educational setting.

High incidence disabilities

High incidence disabilities are sometimes known as mild disabilities. This can include emotional or behavioral disorders, ADHD, or learning disabilities. This concentration prepares you to identify specific learning needs and create educational programs for these students. Graduates can apply this knowledge to working as teachers or intervention specialists.

Gifted and talented

This focuses on children who show evidence of high achievement in specific academic fields, creativity, leadership, or intellectuality. Children who are categorized as gifted or talented have different curriculum needs, and graduates from this concentration learn how to develop an appropriate program for these children.

Certificate opportunities

Similar to concentrations, certificates can provide the opportunity to expand your knowledge in a specialized area. Certifications can be completed at the graduate, postgraduate, or professional level. In addition to increasing your knowledge, certificates can benefit your future employment prospects.

Educational technology

This graduate certificate prepares you to integrate technology into your future classroom as an important part of the education process. How, why, and when should technology be used to support student learning? As technology becomes an increasingly important aspect in our lives outside the classroom, it can be used as a helpful tool inside the classroom.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) certificate

This form of therapy is one of the most effective interventions used in working with children with autism and other behavioral disorders. It can improve social, communication, and learning skills through positive reinforcement. ABA certification is required for ABA licensure, though the specifics vary by state. Make sure to visit Behavior Analyst Certification Board for more information.

Teaching certification

If you plan to teach at a public school after your master’s program in special education, the completion of a teacher preparation program is generally required. This program can be taken alongside or after the completion of the graduate program. The licensing requirements vary by state, but typically a bachelor’s degree, completion of the preparation program in your field, and passing assessment scores are required to be considered for licensure.

Assistive technology professional certificate

This certificate recognizes the competency and understanding of assessing, analyzing, and assisting customers with disabilities by selecting the appropriate assistive technology. Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America offers certification, continuing education, and professional development. This is for students who want to pursue a career as an assistive technology professional.

Autism graduate certificate

This certificate is designed to equip you with what you need to know to help students who are on the autism spectrum. It is meant to provide essential knowledge of evidence-based interventions and support strategies.

Financial aid

If you need financial assistance to study, be aware that there are federal grants like FASFA, scholarships, and loans available to qualifying master’s students. FASFA is a needs-based program that requires applicants to fill in an online application with information about themselves and their financial situation. Scholarships are granted by governments, cooperations, universities, or organizations to help applicants pay for their education. For example, the National Association of Junior Auxiliaries offers scholarships for graduate studies in special education.

Career options

Completing a master’s program in special education can open many doors for future employment in an array of work environments. Completing a teaching credential qualify students to work in a public school, and earning additional certifications enable employment in hospitals, physical therapy clinics, or assisted living facilities.

A special education teacher works with a variety of learners and disabilities. Their students may have a range of disabilities such as physical, emotional, mental, or learning disabilities. Special education teachers help adapt general education to better fit the needs of students with mild to moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills such as self-care. Most special education teachers work in public schools and teach students from preschool to high school. To be eligible to work as a special education teacher in a public school, you need to complete a teacher preparation program and pass the state’s licensing exam before possible employment.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average salary for special education teachers was $61,420 in 2020.

Behavior intervention specialists apply Behavioral Intervention Plans (BIP) into classrooms to help change issues in behavior. They observe and assess behavior, develop plans to treat behavior, and communicate with people or agencies involved in the life of the individual with the behavioral problem. This can be for behavior that is aggressive, disruptive or both.


According to PayScale, the average salary for a behavior intervention specialist is $48,072.

Rehabilitation counselors work with a range of people to find solutions to their problems. They can work with disabled individuals or people with emotional and mental health disorders. They play an important role in these individual’s lives helping them deal with employment issues, chronic pain, mobility, and basic care. This career will require additional education and training to be eligible for certification/licensure.


Payscale states that rehabilitation counselors made an average of $46,515.

Continuing education

A Ph.D. program can take 3-8 years depending on the research and coursework required. At the end of the program, the information is presented as a thesis or dissertation. While sometimes you work with others in your cohort, the work is mostly independent.

Doctorate in Special Education

A doctorate in special education is a terminal degree, the highest award available in the field of special education. Graduates often work as administrators, directors of clinical programs, or teach at the post-secondary level. Depending on your research topic and speed, a Ph.D. in special education can take anywhere from 3 to 6 years to complete.

Doctorate in child development / developmental psychology

Pursuing a doctorate in child development or developmental psychology will teach you about the research and theory that pertains to child development and applying it to the real world.. |As with most other doctoral programs, you will be conducting original research that is required to be eligible for graduation.

Doctorate of Philosophy in Education (Ph.D.)

Students in the Ph.D. program conduct their own research seeking new information about education. This program is best for students who want to pursue a career working as a postsecondary teacher, or researcher at the university level.

National Association of Special Education Teachers 

This association dedicates itself to helping teachers prepare for working in the special education field. They provide resources, news articles, and publications to support teachers in this field. This dedication ensures that children and adolescents with disabilities receive the best education possible.

National Autism Association

The National Autism Association provides support and information to caregivers, educators, and first responders who benefit from additional information about autism. They advocate for federal policy that addresses the needs of the autism community, conduct research, and provide education that will enhance the understanding of autism.