What is a Special Education Teaching Degree?

Special education teachers or special educators teach students with physical and mental disabilities. These disabilities include autism, deafness, emotional disturbance, visual impairment and blindness, speech or language impairment, orthopedic impairments, hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit disorder, and specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Degree programs in special education consist of classes in the psychology of instruction and learning, the development and characteristics of children with exceptionalities, differentiating instruction, assessment in special education, the diverse and inclusive classroom, and professional ethics. A student teaching experience is a significant part of the bachelor’s level curriculum.

Program Options

It is important to select a special education program that is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Preparation (CAEP), in order to qualify for initial state licensure and certification.

Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education – Four to Five Year Duration
The special education curriculum at the bachelor’s level is a combination of core classes in special education theory and teaching methods. Programs are focused on teacher preparation for either primary grades (kindergarten through grade 6) or secondary grades (middle and high school).

Central to the special education curriculum is a student teaching experience in a real-world classroom. While state requirements for this practicum vary, it generally lasts between one and two semesters. During their practicum students plan, deliver, and evaluate lessons with guidance from a mentor teacher.

Undergrad special education students begin their studies with foundational courses in writing, behavioral and social sciences, math, natural sciences, humanities, and fine art. They then focus on core courses in the major:

  • Education and Individual Differences – understanding children and adolescents as individuals with differing abilities, aptitudes, interests, emotional responses, and accomplishments as the result of genetics, maturity, and environmental factors; application of this understanding to the classroom
  • Psychology of Instruction and Learning – theories and principles of learning (cognitive, affective, behavioral), motivation, and classroom management; establishing objectives, instructional design, evaluation of learning
  • School Curriculum – objectives, unit planning, lesson planning, classroom management, assessment techniques, strategies for differentiating to meet the needs of diverse learners in mainstream classrooms
  • Foundations of Special Education – examination of legal applications, current trends, practices, professional behavior, and ethical considerations; development of professional writing skills used in the special education field
  • Development and Characteristics of Children and Youth with Exceptional Learning Needs – understanding the causes, theories, and factors associated with various exceptional learning conditions; exceptionalities covered include intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, attention deficit disorder (ADD), giftedness, communication disorders, physical disabilities, traumatic brain injury, severe and multiple disabilities, autism, health impairments, and sensory impairments
  • Strategies for Differentiating Instruction for Students with Exceptional Learning Needs – strategies to build initial acquisition of knowledge and skills in the areas of reading, spoken and written language, mathematics, social/emotional development, and study skills; strategies for inclusion of individuals with a range of abilities; development and planning of the individualized educational program (IEP)
  • Foundations of Teaching the English Language Arts – mastering instruction in the six language arts competencies: reading, writing, listening, talking, viewing, and visual representation; differentiating instructions for diverse learners and special needs learners
  • Informal Assessment and Progress Monitoring – development of skills in assessment, score interpretation, use of data results to plan and make changes to instruction, and monitoring of student progress
  • Supervised Field Experiences – students will observe and help teach pupils with exceptional learning needs in a school setting; these field experiences will include assessment practices and the integration of technology into a class of diverse learners
  • Student Teaching Experience – supervised classroom teaching and seminar discussions on topics including classroom management, culture and personality dynamics, parent relationships, and curriculum organization

Other possible classes from the special education bachelor’s curriculum include:

  • Technology and Special Education
  • Methods of Teaching Mathematics in Elementary Grades
  • Instructional Design for Individuals with Exceptional Learning Needs
  • Managing Behaviors in the Classroom
  • Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction
  • Teaching Learners with Moderate to Severe Disabilities
  • Consultation in Special Education
  • Community Partnership and Advocacy
  • Teaching English Learners in Diverse Classrooms
  • Professional Development of the Special Educator
  • Methods of Teaching History in the Secondary School

Master’s Degree in Special Education – Two Year Duration
The master’s degree is the most common credential in the field of special education. At this level students can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. Possible concentrations include applied behavior analysis (using behavioral principles to evaluate interventions and modify behavior), early childhood special education, mild/moderate disabilities, severe disabilities, or educational literacy. The program’s culminating requirement is a thesis based on original research.

Doctoral Degree in Special Education – Five to Six Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of special education.

Below are some examples of graduate level courses in special education. The courses taken by individual master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates will vary, depending on the focus of their thesis or dissertation.

  • Dyslexia and Reading Disabilities
  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Research Methods in Special Education
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Learning Theory and Research
  • Writing Grant Proposals in Special Education
  • Special Education Law and Policy
  • Advanced Educational Statistics
  • Management of Schools

Degrees Similar to Special Education Teaching

Art Therapy
Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

Audiology degree programs prepare students to work as audiologists, specialized doctors trained to measure hearing ability and function and provide hearing rehabilitation. Subject areas covered include hearing disorders, genetics and hearing loss, hearing conservation, speech science and perception, pediatric audiology, geriatric audiology, and forensic audiology.

Communicative Disorders
This degree is closely connected to the speech-language pathology degree. A communicative disorders assistant is trained to assist a speech-language pathologist with the delivery of therapy. The curriculum focuses on communication disorders such as articulation disorders, phonological disorders, aphasia, delayed language, acquired deafness, and autism-related disorders.

Early Childhood Education (ECE)
A degree in early childhood education provides students with ECE fundamentals and helps them develop leadership and advocacy abilities, as well as the administrative skills required to work in the field. Typical coursework in degree and certificate programs focuses on child growth and development, behavior guidance, supporting children and families, children with exceptionalities, and effective curriculum planning.

Students who major in education study the learning and teaching processes. Among the courses they take are educational psychology and teaching techniques.

Occupational Therapy
Students of occupational therapy learn how to help patients adapt to loss of function by improving their fine motor and cognitive skills through therapeutic everyday activities.

Music Therapy
Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Recreation Therapy
Degree programs in recreational therapy teach students how to develop and implement recreational activities to support the health, healing, and well-being of people with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.

Speech-Language Pathology
Degree programs in speech-language pathology teach students how to diagnose and treat speech and language disorders, voice disorders, and swallowing disorders. The curriculum addresses word-finding issues, social communication problems, literacy challenges, and vocal quality.

Skills You’ll Learn

An Appreciation for Diversity
Special education teachers are exposed to children from different backgrounds and home environments. They are called upon to cultivate an understanding of and an appreciation for diversity – in the classroom and beyond.

Assessment and Report Writing
Teaching at any level involves tracking, assessing, and recording student progress and development. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Child Psychology and Development
This skill can be applied outside of the professional discipline. The capacity to understand the stages of the emotional, cognitive, and physical development of children is certainly something that can be used on a daily basis in parenting and other familial roles.

Perhaps one of the most challenging demands of working in special education is that it asks its practitioners to communicate with students who often have communication difficulties or disorders.

Creativity and Adaptability
Creativity and adaptability must be the hallmarks of special education teachers. Creating lesson plans that incorporate learning games and other approaches that keep challenged children engaged is only part the special education mandate.

Patience, Flexibility, and a Sense of Humor
Children are full of energy and curiosity. They are unpredictable and unfiltered. Classrooms by their nature are cauldrons of unforeseen circumstances and therefore demand patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor – qualities that cannot go unused in any sphere of life.

Stress Management and Physical Stamina
Teaching students with disabilities can be extremely rewarding, but it is also stressful and emotionally and physically demanding.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital in the classroom, especially with special needs learners.

What Can You Do with a Special Education Teaching Degree?

These are the most common employers of special education graduates:

  • Public and Private Boards of Education / Elementary and Secondary Schools
  • Programs for Exceptional Children
  • Mental Health Facilities
  • Public and Private Schools for Disabilities
  • Correctional Facilities
  • Residential Facilities for the Disabled
  • Residential Therapeutic Camps

Other opportunities include:

  • Educational Consultant – school boards may hire consultants to educate their teachers and staff on topics such as differentiated instruction and classroom management
  • Educational Publishing – educational publishers may need former teachers to produce textbooks and workbooks
  • Freelance Tutoring
  • Homeschooling – some parents hire special education grads as homeschool teachers for their children; the ability of special educators to differentiate and customize instruction makes them an especially good fit for this role
  • Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant – these consultants complete education testing, diagnose learning difficulties, and develop individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities; they typically work with school boards and districts and consult at many different schools
  • Reading Specialist – specialized reading instruction one-on-one or in small groups


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