Careers in special education – teaching, advocacy and therapy


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Introduction to special education

When it comes to education, there is no “one size fits all.” Children bring varying backgrounds, cultures, languages, family dynamics, and home environments to the classroom, challenging teachers to follow or develop a curriculum that meets the needs of the majority of the children in the classroom. For neurotypical and able bodied children, a standardized classroom approach is considered appropriate to meeting this teaching goal.

In special education, this kind of generalization is not possible. Professionals trained in this field use accommodations in the form of tools, techniques, and learning strategies to help bring the best out of their students. By partnering with parents, advocates, and administrators, special education teachers strive to help students master the social, emotional, and physical skills they need to thrive.

A brief history of special education

Children with special needs have not always been accepted in mainstream educational environments. In fact, special education programs were not deemed mandatory in public schools until 1975. Fortunately, steady progress has been made to bring more awareness to this important population. With advances in education and developmental research, the opportunities for those with disabilities to receive an education are better than ever and continuing to grow.

To understand how far the educational system has come with regard to special education, we can see a clear progression over the past 2 centuries.

  • In 1817, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now called the American School for the Deaf) was established.
  • In 1961, the Teachers of the Deaf Act provided the training necessary for teachers to work with children who were deaf or hard of hearing.
  • In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed, which required federally funded public schools to provide access to schooling for children with disabilities.
  • In 1990, the EHA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which remains the backbone of special education in the United States to this day.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA has 4 clear objectives:

  1. to provide special education services to disabled children
  2. to guarantee fair and equal treatment of disabled children in public schools
  3. to establish the proper management of special education services
  4. to provide federal funds to public schools for their special education programs

Under this amendment, schools are required to develop individualized education programs (IEPs)  for children with disabilities to meet their academic needs. IEPs are planned in conjunction with teachers and parents to ensure students benefit from the best educational experience possible. Once an IEP has been established, students are placed in minimally restrictive learning environments.

As a special education teacher, part of your responsibilities include developing and implementing student IEPs.

Special education today

Approximately 14% of all public school children in America receive special education services as part of their routine school day. That translates into 7.3 million students with special needs. Trained and qualified teachers are scarce and this creates numerous opportunities for those specializing in this field.

The public school services provided to children with special needs are innovative and complex. They include:

  • free evaluations by psychologists, speech and language professionals, occupational therapists, and experts in child behavior
  • special forms of testing to better assess academic needs
  • extended school year services
  • access to assistive technology, such as adaptive pencil grips, automatic page turners, ramps and grab bars, or specialized computer software
  • development of IEPs
  • teaching aids in the classroom

All children in America today have the right to free and appropriate education, regardless of the challenges they may be facing. As a special education teacher, you can help ensure this happens as unobtrusively as possible. By providing this support, you can make a huge difference in the lives of both your students and their families.

What qualifies a student for special education?

To be considered as a candidate for special education and receive free additional services, a student must have a diagnosed condition that requires specialized intervention. These include:

  • physical disorders
  • psychiatric issues
  • emotional problems
  • behavioral challenges
  • learning differences

This could mean the children under your care could be struggling with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, social anxiety, trauma, autism, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. They may also be socially inappropriate, blind, or deaf. These conditions all entitle children to the best educational services and special accommodations available.

To be successful as a special education teacher, you need specific skills coupled with compassion and empathy.


To be successful as a special education teacher, you need specific skills coupled with compassion and empathy. Once you have decided which age group you would like to teach, you can check the qualifications you need to be most effective.

A variety of age groups in special education

A hallmark of special education programs is their flexibility. Students with special needs continue their individual program until they turn 21 or earn a diploma. This means, as a special education teacher, you are not rushed to help students reach their individual educational goals.

For example, early intervention services may start when a child is as young as a year old and continue through elementary, middle, and high school. As a teacher, you may provide services at any of these levels along the way, but you need different skill sets and training for each. For these reasons, it is best to have your ideal grade level in mind before you head off to college.

Common specializations for students wishing to pursue a teaching degree in special education include:

  • early childhood
  • mild and moderate disabilities
  • severe disabilities
  • applied behavior analysis
  • autism spectrum disorder (at the graduate level)
  • combination special education and teaching licensure

If you are interested in teaching at the preschool or elementary school level, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or elementary education along with targeted training in special education are recommended. At each level, you need state licensure to teach in a public school setting and are required to undergo an extensive background check

Teaching young children vs adults

As a special educator of young children, your prime objective is to remove or lessen the impact of learning barriers. These barriers may be physical, developmental, social, or cognitive. You use techniques and equipment specially designed to overcome obstacles so your students have an easier path to navigate. The role is that of a coach and caretaker, making sure the playing field is level for everyone on the team.

The role is that of a coach and caretaker, making sure the playing field is level for everyone on the team.


It is important to keep children’s parents in mind when choosing to specialize in early childhood. At this young age, parents may be still coming to terms with their child’s diagnosis and experiencing a spectrum of emotions including fear, anxiety, grief, and anger. Sending their vulnerable child to school may seem impossible or overwhelming. As their teacher, be prepared to work closely with family members as they learn to navigate the special education system and develop an understanding of what to expect from their child’s school and teachers.

Conversely, when teaching older students, it is usually safe to assume the families already have some experience with IEPs, assistive technology, and other accommodations. They have had time to research and to better understand their child’s diagnosis. These parents are usually more focused on helping their child achieve greater independence than on how the classroom functions.

Careers in special education

Career opportunities within the field of special education are numerous. Most schools need personnel who are specially qualified to work with special needs students in multiple capacities. If you are not sure whether a job in the classroom is the best fit for you, consider exploring one of the many other positions that also positively impact the lives of young special needs students and their families.

Total employment


Projected growth (2018-2028)


Degree required

Bachelor’s degree

As a special education teacher, you spend many hours in conference with students, families, testing specialists, administrators, counselors, and therapists. The goal of these meetings is to learn everything you need to know about each individual student and the challenges they face.

Additionally, you attend regular conferences and specialized training seminars to advance your knowledge of what is new in the field of special education. You may also administer standardized tests and implement approved curricula.

Lastly, you spend time in your classroom with your students, helping each to achieve their individual goals.

Necessary skills

You need a unique set of skills to succeed in your role as a special education teacher, including:

  • the ability to build constructive working relationships with a variety of support professionals
  • strong time management skills
  • excellent coaching and training abilities
  • compassion and empathy for students and their families
  • effective stress management strategies

You must be dependable, courageous, and confident in your ability to help others. It goes without saying that you need a strong character, morals, and work ethic.

If you are someone who enjoys children, is confident working independently, manages your time well, communicates effectively with others, and is achievement oriented, you could be an invaluable asset to the field of special education.

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To begin working toward your goal of becoming a special education teacher, consider earning your bachelor’s degree in special education or a related field. From here, you need to build experience in a classroom via a teaching internship or similar program.

A teacher preparation program can be taken alongside or after the completion of your undergraduate program, which is necessary to complete before becoming a special education teacher in a public school. Every state requires additional examinations be taken and passed before being eligible for licensure. These examinations and other requirements for state licensure will vary by state.

If you have already earned your undergraduate degree in a related field, then you can pursue a master’s degree in special education that focuses on licensure eligibility. This program will prepare you with the knowledge and skills needed for employment in a special education classroom.

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Special education careers outside the classroom

Many careers exist outside the special education classroom that can be rewarding and fulfilling. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Median salary: $80K

    A speech language pathologist, or SLP, helps people overcome barriers to clear speech, including problems with the tongue and swallowing. As an SLP, you help students manage challenges such as aphasia, stuttering, speech apraxia, and pragmatics.

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  • Median salary: $86K

    As an occupational therapist, you help students overcome physical and emotional barriers through the use of specialized exercises. Most occupational therapists need a master’s degree to secure entry level positions.

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  • Median salary: $73K

    The special education administrator usually reports directly to their school’s superintendent. This is a non-faculty management position that requires at least a bachelor’s degree, along with years of proven experience in special education settings.

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  • Median salary: $64K

    Applied behavior analysts usually have either a master’s or doctorate and serve as therapists for people who may benefit from behavior modification. In this role, you help students improve skills in positive behavior while decreasing instances of unwanted behavior.

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Should you work in special education?

Regardless of how or where your interest in special education lies, fitting your degree to your personal talents and interests is key to thriving in this area of teaching. Advancing your knowledge with a doctorate in special education opens up an array of administrative an legislative careers as well. Will you enjoy hands-on experience in the classroom as you help students achieve their goals in areas like social acceptance, anger management, and academic achievement? Or would you rather act in a supportive capacity as a therapist or in early intervention? Are you more interested in being employed by a school district or would you rather advocate for families?

Whatever setting you choose to work in, your expertise is needed now more than ever as demand for special education teachers, advocates, and administrators continues to grow. Earning a degree in special education serves as the first step to make an impact in one of these rewarding professions.

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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