Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities.
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Special education teachers typically do the following:
- Assess students’ skills and determine their educational needs
- Adapt general lessons to meet student's needs
- Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
- Plan activities that are specific to each student’s abilities
- Teach and mentor students as a class, in small groups, and one-on-one
- Implement IEPs, assess students’ performance, and track their progress
- Update IEPs throughout the school year to reflect students’ progress and goals
- Discuss students’ progress with parents, other teachers, counselors, and administrators
- Supervise and mentor teacher assistants who work with students with disabilities
- Prepare and help students transition from grade to grade and from school to life outside of school
Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school. They instruct students who have mental, emotional, physical, or learning disabilities. For example, some help students develop study skills, such as highlighting text and using flashcards. Others work with students who have physical disabilities and may use a wheelchair or other adaptive devices. Still, others work with students who have sensory disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments. They also may work with those who have autism spectrum disorders or emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Special education teachers work with general education teachers, specialists, administrators, and parents to develop IEPs. Students’ IEPs outline their goals, including academic or behavioral milestones, and services they are to receive, such as speech therapy. Educators and parents also meet to discuss updates and changes to IEPs.
Special education teachers must be comfortable using and learning new technology. Most use computers to keep records of their student's performance, prepare lesson plans, and update IEPs. Some teachers also use assistive technology aids, such as Braille writers and computer software, that help them communicate with their students.
Special education teachers’ duties vary by their work setting, students’ disabilities, and specialties.
Some special education teachers work in classrooms or resource centers that include only students with disabilities. In these settings, teachers plan, adapt, and present lessons to meet each student’s needs. They teach students individually or in small groups.
In inclusive classrooms, special education teachers instruct students with disabilities who are in general education classrooms. They work with general education teachers to adapt lessons so that students with disabilities can more easily understand them.
Some special education teachers work with students who have moderate to severe disabilities. These teachers help students, who may be eligible for services until age 21, develop basic life skills. Some teach the skills necessary for students with moderate disabilities to live independently, find a job, and manage money and their time. For more information about other workers who help individuals with disabilities develop skills necessary to live independently, see the profiles on occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants and aides.
Communication skills. Special education teachers need to explain concepts in terms that students with learning disabilities can understand. They also must write Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and share students’ progress with general education teachers, counselors and other specialists, administrators, and parents.
Critical-thinking skills. Special education teachers must be able to assess students’ progress and use the information to adapt lessons.
Interpersonal skills. Special education teachers work regularly with a team of educators and the student’s parents to develop IEPs. As a result, they need to be able to build positive working relationships.
Patience. Special education teachers must be able to stay calm while instructing students with disabilities, who may lack basic skills, present behavioral or other challenges, or require repeated efforts to understand the material.
Resourcefulness. Special education teachers must develop different ways to present information that meets their students’ needs. They also help general education teachers adapt their lessons to the needs of students with disabilities.
- Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school
- Special education teachers, secondary school
- Special education teachers, middle school
- Special education teachers, all other
- Special education teachers, preschool
All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor's degree. Some require teachers to earn a degree specifically in special education. Others allow them to major in education or a content area, such as mathematics or science, and pursue a minor in special education.
In a program leading to a bachelor’s degree in special education, prospective teachers learn about the different types of disabilities and how to present information so that students will understand. Programs typically include a student-teaching program, in which prospective teachers work with a mentor and get experience instructing students in a classroom setting. To become fully certified, states may require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education after obtaining a job.
Private schools typically require teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in special education.