What Is a Special Needs Teacher?

Explore the career requirements for special needs teachers. Get the facts about job duties, education and certification requirements and salary outlook to determine whether this is the right career for you. Schools offering Emotional & Behavioral Disorders degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Special Needs Teacher Do?

Special needs teachers work with students who have physical, emotional, cognitive or other disabilities. Job responsibilities and places of employment can vary. Special needs teachers may teach their students a variety of subjects, as well as basic skills, through adapted lesson plans that keep in mind a student's abilities. They plan and oversee appropriate activities and monitor each student's progress throughout the year. They are often in contact with parents, school administrators and other teachers to inform them about a student's progress. Special needs teachers also have other typical duties of any teacher that may include monitoring students during free time and supervising teacher assistants. The table below offers a brief overview of required education and licensing and career outlook.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree; Master's degree required in some states
Licensing/Certification State-issued certification required
Key Responsibilities Provide one-on-one or small-group instruction; administer assessments; provide diagnoses; create specialized education plans for individual students; work with parents and teachers
Job Growth (2014-2024) 6%*
Median Salary (2015) $56,800*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Special Needs Teacher Exactly?

Special needs teachers are educators who work with students living with disabilities. As a special needs teacher, you could work at the preschool, elementary, middle or secondary education levels. While some professionals in this field work with severely handicapped students, most work with students who have mild to moderate special needs. A primary responsibility of special needs teachers is to adapt standard curricula to meet the needs of such students; however, students with severe disabilities may need to simply learn basic life skills and literacy.

Students in special needs classrooms could have a number of disabilities, including emotional trauma, speech and hearing impediments, mental retardation, autism or deafness. Other disabilities include blindness, brain injury or orthopedic impediments. It could be your job as a special needs teacher to identify these conditions as well as develop Individualized Education Programs (IEP) based on them. Additionally, special needs instructors could help students develop socially and professionally.

Professionals in this field could work in several capacities. Some teachers are in charge of classrooms consisting of special needs students only. Others work in a resource center offering help to teachers who have special needs students in their classrooms. Some teachers work in resource centers in addition to having a classroom of their own. In schools that integrate special needs students with general education students, special needs teachers might share a classroom with a general education instructor.

What Degree Do I Need?

While you need at least a bachelor's degree to work in this field, many states require a master's degree in order to obtain a license. Some bachelor's degree programs are 5-year professional programs. Programs might also allow you to specialize in a particular education level or a certain type of disability. Additionally, some programs allow you to pick a general education specialty. For example, you could earn a bachelor's degree in special education with an emphasis in psychology.

What you learn will likely depend on which specialties you choose to pursue. Subjects commonly studied in most programs include basic education theory, special education ethics, assessment of special education students, individualized curriculum development, and pedagogical techniques for special needs classrooms. You could also take courses in more specialized areas, such as speech therapy, psychology for special needs children, behavioral analysis and sign language.

Do I Need a License?

You must have a license to practice special education in all 50 states. Requirements for license vary by state. All states require at least a bachelor's degree for licensure and some require additional training. Some states also offer different types of certification within the field, including cross-categorical, early childhood, hearing impaired or the severely disabled. States may also offer specialized certification in areas such as emotional disability, learning disability, retardation or orthopedic impairment.

What Are the Employment and Salary Trends?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that employment of special needs teachers is expected to increase 6% between 2014 and 2024. The median annual salary for this profession was $56,800 as of May 2015.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school teaching are all alternative careers in education that require a bachelor's degree. These teachers perform many of the same tasks, but geared towards children at various age levels. Outside of traditional education, recreational therapists are also similar. These professionals work with people of varying disabilities, and use recreational activities as a form of therapy to improve physical and emotional health. A related job that requires a master's degree is that of an occupational therapist. These therapists aim to help injured, ill or disabled patients gain the skills necessary to work and/or live independently.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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