Special education teachers provide specialized instruction designed with the educational, emotional, social and vocational needs of children with disabilities in mind. These educators adapt and develop materials to provide a differentiated approach that accommodates the individual needs of each student to ensure every child has the opportunity to achieve their full learning potential.
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Though the rising prevalence of autism diagnoses in young children has brought a renewed focus to special education, teachers certified in special education work with children in every grade level and with all manner of disabilities, ranging from mild to severe. This would include students with cognitive impairments and emotional problems, to those with hearing or vision loss, chronic health problems, and those with multiple disabilities.
Still, the goal of special education teachers is always the same: to adapt the educational approach and develop materials in a way that best aligns with the unique needs of each student.
Careers in Special Education: Team Players Providing Individualized Education
Special education teachers are most often found in general education classrooms in public and private schools, but also provide instruction in self-contained special education classrooms and resource classrooms in the normal school setting. Outside of schools that include special education students alongside the general student population, special education teachers are found in specialized schools that provide accommodations beyond what would be possible in a normal school setting, as well as in hospitals, residential facilities, correctional facilities, and in home-based settings for children who are unable to attend school.
In general education classrooms, special education teachers collaborate with other teachers and provide expert consultation. Their expertise is also critical to resource classrooms where they provide children with disabilities individualized instruction for part of their day.
Special education teachers are a critical part of the school team, working in collaboration with school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, paraprofessionals (classroom aids), administrators, parents and guidance counselors to ensure the success of each student.
The Job Duties and Responsibilities of Special Education Teachers
Though a special education teacher’s job will vary somewhat based on the specific disabilities of the children they teach, the setting in which they teach, and the age of the children they teach, there is a set of responsibilities and duties common to all teachers working with students with disabilities:
- Providing direct and indirect instructional support for students with disabilities
- Employing educational strategies and techniques to reinforce learning and meet the various needs of students with different disabilities
- Modifying the general education curriculum based on specific instructional techniques and technologies identified as best practices when working with students with disabilities
- Planning and conducting activities that create a balanced program of instruction
- Establishing and enforcing rules for behavior to maintain an optimal learning environment for all students
- Establishing and following each student’s individualized education program (IEP) to promote educational, physical, social, and emotional development
- Collaborating and conferring with parents, administrators, general education teachers, social workers and other school professionals and paraprofessionals
- Maintaining accurate and complete student records and preparing reports on child progress
- Providing instruction that meets state and federal laws, district policies, and administrative regulations
- Preparing data for local, state, and federal reports
- Establishing clear objectives for lessons, units, and projects and for effective communication, monitoring, and follow-up
- Participating in staff development, curriculum development, and other professional opportunities
Qualities of a Special Education Teacher
Successful special education teachers have several things in common, including superb organizational skills, excellent judgment and decision-making abilities, and advanced conflict management and resolution skills. They are highly adaptive and creative thinkers who appreciate diversity and welcome collaboration and teamwork.
Because they work with children with different skills and different abilities, special education teachers must be resourceful and able to adapt their lessons to highlight the strengths of their students. They must also be able to accommodate the unique needs of their students while remaining even tempered and calm, even in stressful environments.
They must also be patient, able to motivate students, and deftly apply different teaching methods to reach students with different needs.
The Role of Special Education at Different Grade Levels and in Different Settings
The job scope of special education teachers is influenced and modeled after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that requires all states to provide a free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities from age 3 to 21 (or through high school, whichever comes first). Children from birth to age 3 may also receive education and services through IDEA’s early interventions services.
There are 13 disabilities covered under IDEA:
- Emotional disturbance
- Visual impairment, including blindness
- Speech or language impairment
- Orthopedic impairments
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Multiple disabilities
- Traumatic brain injury
- Other health impairment, including ADHD
- Specific learning disability, including (among others) dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia
The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), a professional association committed to supporting the academic success of students with exceptionalities, identifies five domains in which special education teachers often specialize:
- Early Childhood and Pre-K to 12
- High-Incidence Disabilities
- Low-Incidence Disabilities
- Emotional or Behavioral Disorders
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
Early Childhood and Pre-K to 12
Special education teachers work with children at the elementary, middle, and secondary school levels, although they may also work with infants and toddlers.
Most work with children with mild to moderate disabilities and modify the general education curriculum to accommodate the child’s specific needs. However, some special education teachers work with students with more profound disabilities, where they focus their efforts on teaching life skills, vocational skills, and basic communication and literacy.
Special education teachers working with children with high-incidence disabilities, which may include autism, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, emotional disorders, and speech-language disorders, often provide their services in a general education classroom. In this inclusive environment, special education teachers work alongside general education teachers to allow children with disabilities to stay in general education classrooms throughout the day, ensuring students have access to the most integrated and least restrictive learning environments available to them.
Special education teachers collaborate with general education teachers to develop and refine a co-teaching approach that best meets the needs of their students.
Resource environments allow special education teachers to remove the special education students from the general education classroom and provide them with a quieter environment where they can provide them with more specialized and individualized instruction.
It is common for special education teachers working with children with high-incidence disabilities to participate in teaching in both types of environments throughout the day.
Low-Incidence Disabilities: Sensory, Developmental, and/or Multiple and Severe Disabilities
Special education teachers may work with children with more debilitative physical or cognitive disorders or needs in a self-contained classroom. This environment provides the children with more intensive special education that meets their specific needs. Low-incidence resource classrooms usually provide students with basic literacy, communication, and functional skills for daily living.
Although the general curriculum is used as a model, it is common for special education teachers in this setting to modify it according to their students’ level of functional skills.
Emotional or Behavioral Disorders
Special education teachers specializing in emotional or behavioral disorders may work with children with aggressive behaviors, ADHD, depression, anxiety, or with multiple disorders. They may provide instruction in an inclusive general education environment or in a self-contained classroom, depending on the extent and/or severity of the behavioral characteristics.
Special education teachers may also work in separate, specialized schools where they provide instruction for students unable to effectively function in a regular school environment.
Graduate study as a behavioral specialist or applied behavior analyst is commonplace for special education teachers working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
Special education teachers who work with students identified with an autism spectrum disorder may work in settings ranging from general education classrooms to self-contained classrooms with additional teaching supports.
Special education teachers working with children with autism spectrum disorders must have an advanced level of knowledge in communication and behavior. This may involve becoming certified as a behavioral or autism specialist.