Special education certification and programs

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HomeSpecial education overview

Special education degree

A career in special education can be a challenging and rewarding experience. Many educators, health personnel, therapists, and counselors dedicate their lives to supporting individuals with disabilities. Working in the field of special education is a good fit for people who are patient, creative, adaptable, and detail-oriented. There is an abundance of career and academic opportunities available to those who have finished a special education program. For example, students who complete a bachelor’s in special education and have fulfilled their state’s licensing process can apply for employment as a teacher in a public school, and Ph.D. graduates can work as researchers or as special education administrators.

Online vs. in-person

Numerous online options are available, at all academic levels, for special education courses. The number of online courses has further increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in many universities and colleges being forced to adapt their on-campus programs to an online format. With an online degree, the student has more flexibility and freedom to fit education in their lives, whereas traditional education has regimented class times which can conflict with family or work schedules. For students who prefer an in-person education, taking advantage of the campus resources, or being able to book an appointment with a professor or tutor for some extra help, an on-campus education may be a better match. Thirdly, some courses are offered as hybrid classes, which is a combination of online and on-campus learning. As a prospective student, know that many study options do exist and that these options extend to all academic levels.

Should my university be accredited?

Before selecting a special education program at an institution, it is imperative to check that the university is accredited. An accreditation agency grants accreditation to academic programs that meet a set of high standards to ensure students who graduate from the program have the knowledge and skills necessary to enter the workforce or continue their education. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and the Higher Learning Commission ensure that special education programs meet a standard of excellence which guarantees that high quality learning is taking place.

Financial aid

The cost of formal education can be a deterrent to many prospective students. Fortunately, there are several financial aid options available to those who qualify. FASFA is a federal grant agency that provides a free online application to students seeking financial assistance. From your application, FASFA will assess your situation and request for financial aid. When applying for an associate’s or bachelor’s program under the age of 24, FASFA considers the applicant a dependent, and therefore financial information from your parent or guardian is required. For those over the age of 24, or who are applying to a master’s or doctorate program, applicants are considered to be independent and only need to submit their own financial details. Scholarships, grants, and loans can also be applied for, yet these differ according to your state, university, educational level, and personal finances.

Associate’s degree in special education

An associate’s degree in special education is an entry level degree program that introduces students to the special education field. This introductory course prepares students to work as teaching assistants in special education classrooms, as private caregivers to people with special needs, or to be preschool teachers. For those who are interested in pursuing a bachelor’s in special education, associate’s classes can prepare you for future coursework.

What do I need?

Before admission to an associate’s program is approved, you will need to submit transcripts from a high school diploma or equivalent. An online application is submitted directly on your community college’s website, and you will receive a reply within the next 24 to 48 hours. If you are applying for a 4-year university program, you may also be asked for standardized test scores, prerequisite courses, and academic references.

What will I learn?

When completing an associate’s program in special education, general education classes such as mathematics, English, humanities, science, and history will typically be required. Once you dive into program specific courses, you will learn about psychology, human development, health, and introductory courses on special education. This will give you the knowledge and skills required for introductory employment opportunities, or be the foundational knowledge needed to continue your education.

Intro to psychology

This course will introduce you to behavioral science, including the principles, theories, and concepts that shape our understanding of human behavior. Students will learn how cognitive, behavioral, developmental, social, and learning shape thought and behavior.

Child psychology

This course will teach students about a sequence of predictable events in a child’s psychological development. By learning about the cognitive, behavioral, learning, and social stages in development, you can better understand a child’s thinking and behavior.

Human development

A human development course will guide you through the developmental phases of the human lifespan, highlighting how cognitive, developmental, social, cultural, and behavioral elements change throughout a person’s life. Factors which can influence behavior or development are also taught in this course.

Health and nutrition

The importance of a healthy diet and exercise is covered in detail in this course. Strength, nutrition, flexibility, and endurance are all important elements of an individual’s well-being. The curriculum includes lessons on the cardiovascular, muscular, and digestive systems to increase your awareness of how diet and exercise benefit the human body. Some courses will also cover issues in health, such as diabetes, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted infections.

Intro to special education

From this course, you can learn strategies to effectively work with students with diverse learning abilities in an educational setting. The course covers information of behavior observation skills, the development of individualized programs, and important communication techniques.

Field practice

Some associate’s programs require that you complete field practice, or a practicum, which places you in a position to put into practice what you have learned in your coursework. Typically, practicum locations are selected by the professor and are chosen because they meet a set of standards set by the faculty of the university. An example of a fieldwork location would be a state-funded preschool.

How much will this cost?

The cost of a 2-year associate’s degree program ranges from around $3,000 at a public community college to over $15,000 at a private institution. This will cover your tuition and fees during your associate’s program. The cost of books, parking permits, lab and technology fees will add an additional annual expense, with exact numbers varying greatly between schools and program types. Online programs may be available at a lower cost than on-campus only programs.

Certificates

The certificate opportunities are for those who want additional education in a specific area of child development which can benefit their understanding of special education. Depending on the program, certificates can be taken online or on-campus. As with academic programs, certificates are more frequently being offered online which is great for students who are have busy professional or personal lives.

Infant and toddler certificate

An infant and toddler certificate focuses specifically on infant and toddler development, care, and education. This certificate is designed to prepare students who want to work with children 0-3 years of age in an early care program.

Associate teacher certificate

This certificate prepares students to work as a teacher’s assistant in a public school classroom alongside a licensed teacher. This certification can also be applicable for those who want to work in special education classrooms. Certificate holders will learn how to provide direct instructional services, classroom management, and lesson preparation.

Career options

A preschool teacher prepares children for kindergarten. A preschool teacher develops age-appropriate lessons that incorporate movement, language and literacy, mathematics, science, and sensory exploration in a playful way. Preschool teachers need to have a minimum of an associate’s degree in child development to be considered for the position, but typically a bachelor’s degree is preferred. A special education associate’s degree can benefit a preschool teacher because children in a preschool program may have learning difficulties or behavioral issues.

Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a preschool teacher is $30,520.

Teaching assistants prepare work for lessons, gather materials, give additional instruction, and assist in classroom management under the supervision of a licensed teacher. This is essential for working with exceptional learners who typically require additional help with behavioral and scholastic issues as well as life skills.

Salary

Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the median annual wage for teaching assistants, in 2019, was $27,920.

Continuing education

After you earn your associate’s degree, the decision to work or to continue with your studies will need to be made. You may find that the jobs you are interested in require a bachelor’s degree in special education. This degree can increase your knowledge of evidence-based theories, research, psychology, curriculum, and behavior analysis, which can lead to career opportunities as a teacher or specialist.

Bachelor’s in special education

A bachelor’s degree in special education can give you a strong foundation to work in the field of special education. With the end goal of education and support for people with disabilities, the coursework in this program will expand your understanding of diverse learners, assessment practices, behavioral needs, and evidence-based research.

What do I need?

To be considered for a bachelor’s program in special education from a community college or 2-year university program, you will need to have academic transcripts and a minimum GPA of 2.5, or preferably higher. If you are applying directly from high school, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement may be required.

What will I learn?

During a 4-year bachelor’s in special education program, students will take introductory psychology and human development courses to understand how development affects behavior. They will also gain an understanding of observation and assessment procedures to analyze behavior, and to learn how to support individuals with disabilities in an educational setting.

Foundations of special education

This course addresses and introduces you to special education theories and techniques. To prepare you for future studies or employment, you will learn best practices, challenges, and evidence-based research that is the foundation for the special education program.

Child and adolescent development

It is likely that your program will include several courses on child and adolescent development. This will include how a child evolves cognitively, physically, emotionally, and linguistically. Coursework may cover atypical development, issues in behavior, or developmental delays.

Individualized education programs (IEP)

Someone in the special education field needs to be proficient in designing and implementing IEPs for special education students. Individualized Education Programs create a bridge for parents, teachers, administrators, and related service personnel to work together to help a student achieve their academic goals.

Mild to moderate disabilities

This course will give you the tools needed to provide support to children and adults with mild to moderate disabilities. Mild or moderate disabilities can include emotional, behavioral, learning, or intellectual issues which can hinder academic achievements or life skills. It will provide the training necessary to work with children with attention problems, memory problems, or who have difficulty interacting socially.

Teaching diverse learners

This course will teach you how to encourage active learning, provide alternative testing options, and incorporate adaptive learning tools to better suit diverse learning styles and needs. You heightened awareness of the needs of different types of learners in your classroom can result in their increased understanding.

Fieldwork component

Fieldwork is a great way to apply your classroom knowledge while you gain real-world teaching experience. This can also be called a practicum, internship, or student teaching. You will be placed in a preselected special education program to advance your understanding of the discipline.

What’s the cost?

The typical cost of an online bachelor’s in special education is anywhere between $25,000 to $82,000 in tuition and fees. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that for the 2017-2018 academic year, the average price for an on-campus program was $17,797 per year, which included room, board, tuition, and fees.

Career options

Special education teachers work with students who have physical, mental, emotional or learning disabilities. They are trained to modify the curriculum to maximize a student’s unique learning abilities. For example, a special education teacher might break learning into smaller steps or incorporate music therapy into lessons to maximize their student’s academic success.

Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a special education teacher in 2019 was $61,030.

The World Health Organization predicts that, by 2030, more than 2 billion people will need at least one assistive product due to problems related to aging and noncommunicable diseases. An assistive technology specialist provides assistance with technology equipment for people with disabilities. They work at schools, government agencies, or medical centers. Assistive technology includes software that “reads” on-screen text out loud for students who are vision impaired, or hearing-aids to improve a child’s language skills.

Salary

According to PayScale, the average salary for an assistive technology specialist is $54,304.

An early intervention specialist supports children from ages 0-4 years by assessing and addressing developmental delays. They work closely with therapists, social service providers, and medical personnel to design, implement, and carry out individualized programs that positively affect a child’s needs. They can work in classrooms, center-based, or at-home programs.

Salary

The average hourly rate for an early intervention specialist is $19.55 an hour, according to data from PayScale.

Special education compliance officers, or special education compliance specialists, ensure organizations and schools are up-to-date with licensing requirements. This can pertain to company, state, and federal regulations.

Salary

According to PayScale, the average salary for a special education compliance officer is $69,570 annually.

Certificate programs

A graduate or post-graduate certificate is an advanced education qualification that focuses on a certain area of special education. For example, you may take additional coursework in autism awareness to gain certification required to become an autism specialist, or obtain a teaching credential to be considered for a special education teaching position at a public school. Many universities are offering online certification, but it is imperative that these certifications are from accredited universities to ensure their validity.

Teaching credential

Before you can step into your first classroom as a special education teacher at a public school, you will need to obtain a license. Licensure will involve the completion of a bachelor’s degree, a credential program, and you having passed your state’s licensing exam. Depending on what is offered at your university, a bachelor’s program can be taken alongside a credential program. If you prefer to take the bachelor’s program, followed by the credential program, this is also acceptable. The credential program will incorporate a student teaching internship in a special education classroom. After completing the academic portion of your requirements, an assessment exam will need to be taken, such as the Praxis exam. Once you have earned the bachelor’s, completed the credential program, and passed the assessment exams, you are eligible to apply for your teaching license.

Deaf and hard of hearing certification

By the completion of this certification, you will have learned how to develop strategies to support children with hearing loss. This certificate is relevant for professionals who work in communication sciences, education, psychology, social work, or medicine. You will learn ethical practices, evidence-based knowledge and developmentally appropriate outcomes to reinforce the learning potential of children and adults with hearing impairments. Most of these programs will require a knowledge of American Sign Language, or experience working with people with hearing issues.

Graduate certificate in gifted education

This certificate prepares teachers to meet the needs of gifted students. By exploring the theories behind education for gifted students, you can help challenge these students academically, and raise student achievement and involvement. It will help you gain instructional methods, create gifted education programs, and teach you how to work with administrations and school boards to advocate for gifted students.

Graduate certificate in autism spectrum disorders

To those who yearn for advanced education or specialization, there is an abundance of master’s programs available in special education. A master’s degree in special education can increase employment opportunities in administration, education or counseling. An advanced understanding of special education practices, theories, and research gives graduates a well-rounded understanding of how to educate, advocate, and support individuals with special needs.

Concentrations for continuing education

To those who yearn for advanced education or specialization, there is an abundance of master’s programs available in special education. A master’s degree in special education can increase employment opportunities in administration, education or counseling. An advanced understanding of special education practices, theories, and research gives graduates a well-rounded understanding of how to educate, advocate, and support individuals with special needs.

Master’s in special education

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 1 in 16 school aged children were diagnosed with a developmental disability. Master’s programs offer a selection of concentration and certification opportunities only available at this level. A master’s program will also give you the opportunity to work with a cohort of professionals who are as passionate about special education as you are. You will network and work with your colleagues on your thesis or project which will be presented at the end of the year. With this higher level of education, you will be prepared for advanced career opportunities, or a doctorate program.

What do I need to apply?

In addition to your undergraduate transcripts, you will be asked to submit academic references, a personal statement, and test scores. A minimum of a 2.75 GPA is required, although some universities may require a 3.0 GPA minimum. Academic references are generally written by people who are aware of your academic skills, such as a professor from your undergraduate program. A personal statement shows why you would be a good candidate for the program, and why it will help you reach your academic or professional goals.

Coursework

The coursework will teach you about the special education policies, laws, evidence-based theories, and curriculum development geared for special needs students. Upon completion of the program, the graduate will have an advanced understanding of how to support children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities.

Developmental foundations

A developmental foundations course will cover psychological theories in relation to education. Students will learn how cognition and learning capabilities can be applied to teaching and curriculum design.

Behavior analysis

Behavior analysis is the scientific approach to analyzing behavior including the impact that environmental factors can have on it. This course focuses on the principles, techniques, and research which is applied to behavior to bring meaningful change in a child’s life.

Language and literacy support

This course helps you understand how to support students 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.

Practicum

Before working in special education, the university program needs to ensure that you have gained a specified number of hours of experience working in an actual classroom. A practicum allows you to be part of a special education classroom under the guidance of a licensed special education teacher.

Special education law/policy

This course covers the history and current status of laws put into place to protect people with disabilities, judicial decisions, and the American legal process. It is especially relevant to anyone interested in pursuing a career in the government sector.

Classroom and behavior management

Classroom and behavior management comprise a large component of a teacher’s job, and this course introduces the strategies essential for a teacher to succeed. Managing the behavior of students in your classroom will keep a harmonious educational environment which increases your student’s academic achievement.

Community collaboration

Collaboration of families and professionals promotes communication between the people and agencies in a child’s life, and can positively influence a child’s success. You will learn about cultural and linguistic diversity to better support your students and their families.

Thesis

The majority of master’s students are required to write a thesis that is a 40-80 page summary of the knowledge they have acquired in the program. A thesis exposes their deep understanding of a particular area in special education and demonstrates adequate research and writing skills.

Concentrations

Selecting a concentration can give you an advanced set of skills which can better prepare you for a future career. This gives you additional coursework in a specific area of special education.

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). Autism awareness is an important area of special education and continues to be studied and understood by educators and scientists alike. A concentration in autism awareness will introduce you to the disorder, how to support students with ASD, and assess ASD to implement educational programs with their needs in mind.

Educational diagnostician

This concentration teaches you how to implement educational technology into your classroom or career. Technology has become prevalent in people’s daily lives, and the benefits of educational technology can increase academic achievement in special needs students.

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 create programs to fit the needs of students with mild disabilities.

Gifted and talented

Sometimes children can have high academic achievement, excellent memory, or learn material rapidly. These children are considered to be gifted or talented, and benefit greatly from having a curriculum adjusted to meet their individual needs. You will learn to keep these children academically involved and challenged.

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. Certifications qualify you for certain career opportunities or set you apart from other applicants.

Educational technology

Technology is an important part of our daily lives, so there are many reasons why technology can benefit academic achievement. Integrating technology, and understanding how, why, and when to use it to support student’s learning will increase learning success.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) certificate

This form of therapy can improve social, communication, and learning skills through positive reinforcement of children with behavioral difficulties such as autism. A professional certificate is needed to become a licensed ABA. As the requirements vary by state, make sure to visit Behavior Analyst Certification Board for more information.

Teaching certification

A credential program can be taken alongside or after the completion of the graduate program, either way it is necessary to complete before becoming a special education teacher in a public school. A bachelor’s degree, completion of the credential program, and a passed assessment exam are required to be considered for licensure, but these requirements vary by state.

Assistive technology professional certificate

This teaches you how to assess, analyze, and assist 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 to those interested in pursuing a career in assistive technology.

Autism graduate certificate

This certificate is designed to equip you with knowledge to help students who are on the autism spectrum. Evidence-based research and intervention strategies help promote behavioral changes and social achievements in children with autism.

How much does it cost?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost of an on-campus master’s program is approximately $32,870. Online programs can range anywhere from $9,000 to over $40,000.

Career options

After you complete your master’s degree, you will discover employment prospects within the special education field that you were previously underqualified for.

Special education teachers work in public and private schools educating students with a range of disabilities. They adapt the general education curriculum to meet the needs of their individual students. These teachers can work with a variety of age groups from preschool to high school, but to work in a public school, you first need to complete a credential program and pass the state’s licensing exam.

Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average salary for special education teachers was $61,030 in 2019.

Behavior intervention specialists assess behavior and create plans incorporating positive reinforcement to correct problem behaviors. They team up with educators, health professionals, and families to develop a plan for joint collaboration to increase the chance of its success.

Salary

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

Rehabilitation counselors work with people to find solutions to their problems. They can work with disabled individuals, or people with emotional and mental health disorders. They can help them with mobility or employment issues, chronic pain, and basic care. Certification/licensure is required to be considered for employment.

Salary

Payscale reports that Rehabilitation Counselors earn between $29,000 and $69,000 per year, with the average being around $45,800.

Continuing education

If you have finished with your master’s program and want to pursue a doctorate, there are a few options available. A Ph.D. program can take 3-8 years depending on the research and coursework required, and you are considered to be an expert in your field upon graduation.

What do I need to apply?

To be considered for a Ph.D. program, you need to submit academic transcripts from your undergraduate and/or graduate program. Some universities require a master’s degree, others only require a bachelor’s degree, but both request a minimum GPA score of 3.0 to 3.5. Most likely, you will also need to present your test scores, academic references, motivation letter, resume, and a research proposal.

Doctorate in special education

Graduates who complete this program can work in leadership positions in administration, universities, research institutes, or direct clinic-based programs. Depending on your dissertation topic, a Ph.D. in special education can take anywhere from 3 to 6 years to complete.

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)

An Ed.D. in education is a professional doctorate rather than an academic one. This program is better suited for individuals who want to work as senior-level professionals in the academic field. It involves collecting data, conducting interviews, observations, and developing strategies to solve an issue in the education field, and that can become the subject of your dissertation.

Doctorate of Philosophy in Education (Ph.D.)

Students in the Ph.D. program conduct their own research seeking new information about education by adopting a more theoretical and study-based approach. This program is best for students who want to pursue a career working as a post-secondary teacher, or researcher at the university level.

Concentrations

Although the availability of concentrations will rely on the university and program, your chosen concentration should match your dissertation topic. Program concentrations and doctorate programs may be shuffled depending on the university or program. For example, one university may offer a Ph.D. in educational psychology with a concentration in special education while another may offer a doctorate program in special education with a concentration in educational psychology.

Education policy

This concentration focuses on public policy and large-scale reforms. You will learn about aspects of programs and policies such as teacher effectiveness, educational finances, accountability systems, access to education, and more.

Human development, learning, and teaching

You will focus on the scientific research that influences educational policy and practices. You will learn how to design academic learning technologies that incorporate cognitive, behavioral, social, socioeconomic, and philosophy that is based on new research.

Culture and society

You will examine social, cultural, and institutional contexts and how they relate to educational development and reform. You will investigate how community action, sociology, political science, and history have shaped and continue to shape classroom structure, diversity in classrooms, government agencies, neighborhoods, and families

Educational psychology

This concentration prepares you for employment in universities or research institutions. You will look at current research, evidence-based studies, and statistics to understand educational practices and related issues.

What’s the cost?

The average cost of a doctorate program typically ranges between $20,000 and $79,000 per year.

Career options

Post-secondary teachers are considered to be experts in their field, and often work in academia. They may teach at a university, work in administrations, conduct research, and write scholarly articles.

Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a post-secondary teacher was $79,540 in 2019.

A college president is in charge of directing all administrative duties of a college and is responsible for organization and administration. They develop budgets, and oversee human and financial resources.

Salary

According to PayScale, the average salary of a university/college president is $151,294 annually.

A chief learning officer is in charge of creating and implementing strategies related to building a team of professionals. They act as supervisors and consultants and are required to make difficult executive decisions.

Salary

PayScale reports the average annual salary for a chief learning officer is $151,081.

The International Association for University Presidents  

This is an association for chief executives from higher education from around the world to network together to increase levels of collaboration, strengthen institutions, and promote international understanding through education.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association  

This organization works to make effective communication and education accessible for all children and adults. They provide publications, certification opportunities, career information, and information on continuing education.

National Autism Association  

he National Autism Association provides information about the spectrum disorder, safety tips, downloadable toolkits for family members, and promote wellbeing for children and adults with autism.

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