Teaching Special Education

What is Special Education?

Special education programs are designed for those students who are mentally, physically, socially and/or emotionally delayed. This aspect of “delay,” broadly categorized as a developmental delay, signify an aspect of the child’s overall development (physical, cognitive, scholastic skills) which place them behind their peers. Due to these special requirements, students’ needs cannot be met within the traditional classroom environment. Special education programs and services adapt content, teaching methodology and delivery instruction to meet the appropriate needs of each child. These services are of no cost to the family and are available to children until they reach 21 years of age (states have services set in place for adults who are in need of specialized services after age 21).

The strides made in special education advocacy and policy have come far. Primarily established through the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), the law was later amended into the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act of 2004.

Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975

In 1975, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, more commonly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). The goal of EHA was to ensure children with disabilities gained access to a free and appropriate public education. This law provided local and statewide support and protection to children and youth with disabilities, as well as their families.

Under EHA, all public schools were granted federal funding that provided equal access to education for children with physical and/or mental disabilities. Schools were required to evaluate children and create an educational plan that paralleled the academic experience of their non-disabled peers. EHA requirements also provided parents and families the necessary support systems to ensure their child received appropriate and adequate services, along with the services needed to dispute decisions made on behalf of the child.

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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was amended in 1997 and is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The amendments made in IDEA provide children and youth with disabilities access to a higher quality of education-related services, ensuring all students the complete access to the most appropriate education within the least restrictive environment.

Under IDEA’s legislation, all states receiving federal funding must:

  • Provide all students with disabilities between the ages of three and 21 with access to an appropriate and free public education
  • Identify, locate and evaluate children labeled with disabilities
  • Develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each child
  • Educate children with disabilities within their “least restrictive environment.” This environment is ideally with their typically developing peers but is dependent on individual circumstances
  • Provide those students enrolled in early-intervention (EI) programs with a positive and effective transition into an appropriate preschool program
  • Provide special education services for those children enrolled in private schools
  • Ensure teachers are adequately qualified and certified to teach special education
  • Ensure that children with disabilities are not suspended or expelled at rates higher than their typically developing peers

Above all, these federal provisions enacted by IDEA ensure that all children with disabilities are provided with the adequate services and resources necessary for them to succeed within and beyond the educational system alongside their non-disabled peers.

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Types of Disabilities Covered in IDEA

The umbrella term of special education broadly identifies the academic, physical, cognitive, and social-emotional instruction offered to children who are faced with one or more disabilities. Under the IDEA, these disabilities are categorized into the following areas:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a developmental disability that significantly affects communication (both verbal and nonverbal) and social interaction. These symptoms are typically evident before the age of three and adversely affect a child’s educational performance. Other identifying characteristics of those with ASD are engagement in repetitive activities/stereotyped movements, resistance to change in environment and daily routine and unusual responses to sensory stimuli.


Deaf-blindness refers to concomitant visual and hearing impairments. This combination causes severe communication, developmental and educational needs that cannot be accommodated through special education programs solely for those children with blindness or deafness.

Deafness/Hearing Impairment

Deafness means a child’s hearing impairment is so severe that it impacts the processing of linguistic information with or without amplification and adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Hearing impairment refers to an impairment (fluctuating or permanent) that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Developmental Delay

Developmental delay is a term designated for children birth to age nine, and is defined as a delay in one or more of the following areas: cognitive development, physical development, socio-emotional development, behavioral development or communication.

Emotional Disturbance

Emotional disturbance refers to a condition that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics both over an extended period of time and to an exceptional degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors
  • An inability to build and/or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness/depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

Emotional disturbance does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted unless they are determined to have an emotional disturbance as per IDEA’s regulations.

Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability is defined as a significantly below average functioning of overall intelligence that exists alongside deficits in adaptive behavior and is manifested during the child’s developmental period causing adverse affects on the child’s educational performance.

Multiple Disabilities

Children with multiple disabilities are those with concomitant impairments such as intellectual disability and blindness or intellectual disability and orthopedic impairment(s). This combination causes severe educational needs that cannot be met through programs designed for children with a single impairment. (Deaf-blindness is not identified as a multiple disability and is outlined separately by IDEA.)

Orthopedic Impairment

Orthopedic impairment(s) refer to severe orthopedic impairments that adversely affect a child’s academic performance. Orthopedic impairment(s) include those caused by congenital anomalies and diseases, as well impairments by other causes (i.e. Cerebral Palsy).

Other Health Impairment(s)

Other health impairments refer to a limitation in strength, vitality or alertness, resulting in limited alertness to one’s educational environment. These impairments are often due to chronic or acute health problems — including ADD/ADHD, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome — and adversely affect the child’s educational performance.

Specific Learning Disability

Specific learning disability refers to a range of disorders in which one or more basic psychological processes involved in the comprehensive/usage of language — both spoken or written — establishes an impairment in one’s ability to listen, think, read, write, spell and/or complete mathematical calculations. Included are conditions such as perceptual disabilities, dyslexia (also dyscalculia, dysgraphia), brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are the result of visual, auditory or motor disabilities, intellectual disability, emotional disturbance or those who are placed at an environmental/economic disadvantage.

Speech/Language Impairment

Speech or language impairments refer to communications disorders such as stuttering, impaired articulation or language/voice impairments that have an adverse effect on a child’s educational performance.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Traumatic brain injury refers to an acquired injury to the brain caused by external physical forces. This injury is one that results in a partial or complete functional disability and/or psychosocial impairment and must adversely affect the child’s educational performance. TBI does not include congenital or degenerative conditions or those caused by birth-related trauma. TBI applies to injuries that result in impairments in one or more of the following areas: cognition, language, memory, attention, reasoning, abstract thinking, judgment, problem-solving, psychosocial behavior, physical functions, information processing, and speech.

Visual Impairment (Including Blindness)

Visual impairment, which includes blindness, refers to impairment in one’s vision that, even after correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term “visual impairment” is inclusive of those with partial sight and blindness.

In order to be deemed eligible for state special education services, IDEA states that a student’s disability must adversely affect his or her academic achievement and/or overall educational performance. While defining these adverse effects are dependent on a student’s categorical disability, eligibility is determined through a process of evaluations by professionals such as a child’s pediatrician/specialists, school psychologists and social workers. After a student is deemed able to receive such services, their progress is annually reviewed.

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Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

An Individualized Education Program (commonly referred to as IEP) is a document, mandated by the IDEA, which clearly defines the individual goal and objectives set for a child with a disability. These programs are written documentation of the special education program and academic modifications required to meet the child’s individual needs. The two main purposes of a student’s IEP are to:

  1. Set reasonable learning goals for the student, and
  2. State the required services that the school district needs to provide for said child.

IEPs are developed by a team including the child’s teacher(s), parents, and supporting school staff. This team meets annually (at minimum) to assess the academic and developmental progress of the student, design appropriate educational plans, and adhere any changes if necessary. The main goal these reviews is to ensure that the child is receiving appropriate and adequate services within their least restrictive environment.

While each child’s IEP is unique, IDEA mandates that all IEPs must contain the following specific information:

  • Student’s present level of academic achievement and overall performance
  • Annual goals and/or objectives for the child (milestones that both parents and school staff feel is reasonably achievable within the next year.)
  • Special education and related services, including supplementary services such as adaptive communication devices, adequate transportation services, and appropriate school personnel
  • Portion of the day that the child will be educated apart from his or her typically-developing peers
  • Participation and/or modification to district-, state-, and nation-wide assessments
  • How child’s progress will be measured

For a much more detailed explanation of everything that goes into creating an IEP, as well as an overview of the basic Special Education Process under IDEA, please refer to the U.S. Department of Education’s Guide to the Individualized Education Program.

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Become a Special Education Teacher

Just as with general education certification, becoming a certified Special Education teacher allows you to work with a wide range of student ages, grade levels, and abilities. Special Education programs are designed to meet the specific and unique instructional needs of each child, allowing students to be grouped homogeneously by developmental stage (ability) rather than by age. This unique aspect of Special Education allows teachers to provide aid and instruction based on the students’ skill level, rather than biological age. This unique aspect of Special Education allows educators to provide aid and instruction based on a child’s interest and ability, rather than biological age. However, most certification programs are categorized by the student’s age, allowing teachers to become certified for the following age groups:

  • Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education programs: Birth – Age 4
  • Childhood Special Education: Kindergarten – 6th Grade
  • Secondary Special Education: 7th – 12th Grade
  • A number of special education certification programs offer a general certification in birth to 21 years old, allowing educators to work with virtually any age demographic

Special Education Certification

Once you’ve made your decision of which age group to become certified in, consider which degree you want to earn to teach special education.

Undergraduate: B.S. Education, Special Education

Earning your bachelor’s degree in education is your first step in becoming a certified teacher. Typical undergraduate programs in education are four years and provide students with the resources, qualifications, and experience needed to become a certified teacher in their respective state. Average course loads include theory, fieldwork and practical application of skill. If your school offers a Bachelor’s in Special Education, coursework will include theory and practice in both general education and Special Education theory. While not all university programs offer a Bachelor’s in Special Education, earning your undergraduate degree in general education allows you to pursue your master’s degree in special education.

Graduate: M.S.Ed/MAT Special Education

Graduate degrees in Special Education are offered for both certified teachers looking to further validate their credentials, as well as those looking to complete their initial certification. Depending on your school’s program and/or course schedule, a Master’s in Education is typically completed in a two-year period and are scheduled to accommodate your work schedules — typically offering night and weekend classes. While not all states require a master’s degree in order to become a teacher, an advanced degree typically earns a higher salary and makes you eligible for more employment opportunities.

Earning a master’s degree in Special Education allows you to reach a wide range of students in a variety of both academic environments and disciplines. Depending on the programs offered at your local colleges/universities, a Master’s in Special Education degree may offer programs in the following areas:

  • Learning Disabilities
  • Behavior Disorders
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Low-Incidence Disabilities (blindness, deafness, deaf-blindness, multiple disabilities)
  • Early Intervention, Early Childhood Special Education

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Where Can Special Education Teachers Work?

Deciding on a career in special education allows you to work with a wide range of children of different ages and abilities, as well as a number of unique work environments. Special education teachers are able to work in a number of environments, including but not limited to the traditional classroom. It is a unique ability of special education teachers to reach students outside of the traditional classroom, allowing the needs of a broader population of children to be met.

Work environments for those certified in Special Education may include:

  • Specialized/self-contained schools
  • Self-contained classes among general education settings (may include Resource Room, ELL classes, Alternative Education programs)
  • General education classrooms (both public and private schools) operating under an inclusion/CTT model
  • Self-contained and Inclusion model preschool programs
  • Early Intervention programs — includes both at-home and at-site services
  • Residential facilities
  • Home programs
  • Health agencies and clinics
  • Hospitals

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Student Demographics

The inclusive education classroom model where students with special needs are taught in classrooms alongside their general education peers. This model most often operates under a co-teaching strategy, also known as CTT (Collaborative Team Teaching) or ITT (Integrated Co-Teaching), in that the classroom has both a General Education and Special Education teacher.

The difference between inclusion classrooms and self-contained classrooms is that special needs students in inclusive classrooms are typically labeled as having mild to moderate disabilities, while students within self-contained classrooms are labeled as having severe/multiple disabilities. While both mild/moderate and severe/multiple disabilities fall under the same special education category, the needs of these students vary, so it is important that you find a degree program that allows you to focus on your demographic of students.

Teaching Students With Mild-to-Moderate Disabilities

Becoming certified to teach students with mild to moderate disabilities prepares you to help children whose special needs hinder their academic achievement, usually in areas of math, reading, writing, and socialization. Students with mild to moderate special needs spend part or a majority of their school day in a general education/CTT classroom occasionally supplemented with time in speech, resource room, occupational therapy, etc.

Individuals looking to work with students with mild to moderate disabilities should look into school programs that focus on preparing educators to work within that specific demographic. Special education programs such as our partner USC Rossier tailor their programs so that teachers are aptly prepared for succeeding in a co-teaching classroom model. The special needs of students with mild to moderate disabilities may include learning disabilities, speech/language disorders, behavior disorders, ADD/ADHD and/or high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Teaching Students With Severe/Multiple Disabilities

Becoming certified to teach students with severe/multiple disabilities prepares you to work with students whose special needs inhibit their performance — not only on an academic level but also in terms of their physical capabilities and life skills — leading to severe educational needs. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) defines severe disabilities as individuals with severe to profound developmental and/or intellectual disabilities. The severity of these disabilities must require “ongoing, extensive support” in life and/or social activities in order to participate in educational and community activities.

Those looking to work with students who have severe and/or multiple disabilities will most commonly work in specialized private school settings or in self-contained special education classes in a general education setting. Teachers with a degree in severe/multiple disabilities also have the opportunity to work with government agencies, non-profit organizations and private institutions devoted to students with severe developmental disabilities.

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