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10 Benefits of Teaching Special Education

Thinking about becoming a special education teacher?

Wondering if it’s the right career choice for you?

While teaching special education definitely comes with some unique challenges, the truth is that there are a lot of big benefits to the career as well. Few people realize how rewarding becoming a special ed teacher can be and just how much it can positively influence your life.

Luckily, this article is here to help. Below we’ll give you an overview of the top benefits of teaching special education and tell you why it may be the right career choice for you.

1. You’ll Have a Specialized Skill

One of the benefits of becoming a special education teacher is that it will require you to have a more advanced education and specialized knowledge that other teachers don’t have. You’ll have to be licensed to teach special education and this extra education can help you stand out in the job market.

More job opportunities will become available to you and you’ll have a much better resume that you can use when it comes time to look for new positions. As a result of becoming certified and teaching special ed, you’ll become a much more marketable teacher.

Even if you move on from teaching special ed later on in life, your experiences as a special ed teacher will shape your skills and continue to influence your career in big ways.

2. Special Ed Teachers Are in High Demand

If you want to gain a high amount of job security, becoming a special ed teacher is one of the best ways you can do it. Special education teachers are harder to come by than the average teacher and because of that, you’ll be in high demand.

When it comes time for a job search, whether you’re moving across the country or looking for a job close to home, you’ll often find that it goes very smoothly and is over quickly. There are also plenty of jobs that you can do outside of the classroom as well.

3. Work Days Will Be Shorter

One extra perk of working in special education is that, in many cases, your workday will be much shorter. Special education school days are typically a bit shorter in length than average. Along with that, there is also plenty of flexibility in how you can arrange class schedules and the course curriculum.

While the work can be hard, having a little bit less time at school can be a great perk that can give you the rest and relaxation you need after a hard day of teaching.

4. You’ll Develop Great Relationships With Students

When you work as a special ed teacher, few things can compare to the close relationships you’ll form with your students. You wouldn’t always get the same opportunity to form deep relationships with other types of students like you can as a special education teacher.

Your students’ relationships with you will be a big part of what matters as a special education teacher. You’ll find yourself caring for your children deeply and celebrating their successes as your time with them goes on and as you get more chances to further their education.

5. There’s a Better Adult-to-Child Ratio

While it’s not always the case, when teaching special education there is often a much better ratio of teachers to students. For many teachers, this is a big plus since managing a big classroom full of students can be difficult.

While teaching special ed comes with its challenges, having a smaller focus on a limited number of students can be a better alternative to dealing with a large classroom full of students. While only a few special education students can often be just as difficult to deal with, in other moments it can be a much simpler experience.

6. There Will Be More Individualized Education

You’ll also find that it’s a necessity to give each student plenty of individualized attention when you teach special education. Each child will be different and will have different capabilities. You’ll also be working with students at various grade levels.

Big classrooms make it hard to spend one-on-one time with each student and instead teachers usually have to adopt a one size fits all approach out of necessity.

If you would rather focus on giving your all to a few individual students, then special education will give you that opportunity. No matter what your special education specialization is, you’re likely to have a lot of time to focus on each student along with their specific needs and challenges.

7. You’ll Get to Teach the Students Who Need It Most

By becoming a special education teacher, you’ll get a chance to reach the students who are most in need of help. While all students can benefit from strong educational support, children who are in special education need it even more.

By becoming one of their teachers, you’ll be able to know that you’re making a big difference in their lives. You’ll be educating and caring for the children who need your love and support most of all and will develop stronger teaching skills and capabilities as a result.

8. You’ll Go Beyond the Classroom

When you become a special education teacher, you’ll usually be a lot more than that. You’ll also become their advocate and will have to communicate with other people in the students’ lives.

You’ll often be communicating with parents as well as health professionals and other educators to care for the student. You’ll team up with these people to ensure that a student is not only getting a great education but that their other needs are being met as well.

As a special education teacher, you’ll be influencing many areas of a child’s life and impacting them in ways that extend beyond the classroom.

9. You’ll Be Able to See The Impact Firsthand

By teaching special education students you’ll also be able to see the impact you have on students firsthand. Oftentimes, you’ll spend several years with a student. You may even teach them for the entire time they spend at your school.

When you’re not a special education teacher, this usually isn’t the case. You won’t spend the same amount of time with a typical student who has a different teacher as they move from grade to grade.

On the other hand, working as a special ed teacher will often give you a better chance to see your students grow and learn over the course of time. It also allows you to see the full impact of the work you’ve done to get them to where they are.

10. It’s a Rewarding Experience

Few things can be as rewarding as working with special needs students. You’ll know that you’ll be making a difference in the life of some great kids who need it more than most.

You’ll be able to rest assured knowing that at the end of the day you’ve made good use of your time as a teacher. You’ll see that you have been able to impact others in a positive way.

The truth is that the relationships you form with students are everything and knowing that you impacted their lives and their families’ lives in a positive way is a great feeling.

Ready to Start Teaching Special Education?

Teaching special education can be very challenging. However, teachers who have never done it don’t realize just how rewarding it can be as well. If you’re trying to make the decision of whether you should teach special ed, then consider the above points carefully. Your decision may become a lot easier.

Looking for more teaching and career resources? Check out our resources section now for more great tips and insights.

Disability Awareness and Bullying prevention

There’s a reason education professionals strive for as much inclusion as possible for kids with disabilities. Being in a diverse environment is an educational experience for kids of all ages. It lets them learn about people who are different from them and find ways to get along.

At the same time, an inclusive environment will always come with some hurdles. As sad as it is, we tend to see bullying issues any time there’s a large group of kids. It happens even more when we bring kids with disabilities into the mix, though.

How do you face these issues head-on? It’s important to have a frank discussion with all kids about bullying prevention. It might be a challenging subject, but these tips will help.

How to Talk to Kids with Disabilities About Bullying Prevention

As a special education professional, you may be dealing with bullying prevention on a regular basis. Here are some tips to keep in mind while you discuss bullying with your students.

Explain Both Sides of the Coin

Many people assume that kids with disabilities are the ones who get bullied and that neurotypical kids are the bullies. While this does tend to be the most common scenario, it’s not always the case.

While you want to talk to your students about what to do if they’re getting bullied, don’t neglect to talk about why bullying is wrong. It’s just as important to make sure they know not to be bullies as it is to help protect them from becoming victims.

Explain That It Isn’t Their Fault if They Get Bullied

One of the most common problems facing kids who are bullied is the assumption that they’ve brought it on themselves. Too many adults say things like, “If you didn’t act so weird, they wouldn’t bully you.”

The #1 cause of bullying is bullies, plain and simple. You don’t want kids to think that if they want to be themselves, it gives others the permission to abuse them.

Make sure your students know that if they get bullied, it isn’t their fault and they don’t need to change who they are.

Talk About What Constitutes Bullying

Another common problem with bullying is that kids don’t actually know that they’re bullying someone. They might think they’re picking on a friend in a playful way but they’ve crossed the line into bullying.

Make it clear that it isn’t okay to pick on other kids, regardless of what the intentions are. While bullying is defined by a pattern of behavior, it’s a slippery slope from the occasional mean-spirited “prank.”

It’s also important to explain that bullying doesn’t need to be a physical action. Words alone can be a form of bullying that is more traumatic to kids than physical abuse.

Tell Them What to Do if They See or Experience Bullying

When your students have a clear understanding of what bullying is, it’s important to give them actionable instructions, too. Tell them what to do if they see bullying or experience it themselves.

Make sure kids know that it’s important to report bullying if they see it happening to someone else. If they don’t, they’re hurting the victim by allowing the abuse to continue.

Don’t Wait Until Something Happens

Too many parents and education professionals put off “the bullying talk” too long. They tend to think they have more time before their kids have to worry about it.

If you wait until something happens, you’ll guarantee that your students will have at least one situation when they don’t know what to do. The key is to educate kids about bullying before they can form bad habits or get into a situation when they may react in violence.

How to Talk to Neurotypical Kids About Disability Awareness and Bullying Prevention

In some schools, you’ll only spend time with kids with disabilities. In other cases, though, schools may recognize that you’re a resource for bullying prevention with neurotypical kids as well.

If you’re in a position to discuss bullying with neurotypical kids, here are some tips to help.

Educate Them About Kids with Disabilities

One of the largest reasons neurotypical kids bully kids with disabilities is a lack of understanding. They don’t recognize what their disability is or that it may be the reason they seem “weird.”

Education alone will go a long way toward creating a cooperative and safe environment. Talk to neurotypical students about various disabilities their peers might have, from autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome to physical impairments.

Define Bullying

As with your students with disabilities, many neurotypical kids who are bullies don’t realize they’re bullying. To them, it might seem like good fun while it creates fear and anxiety for the victim.

Discuss examples of bullying with the kids and answer any questions they have about it. Explain to them that if they’re questioning whether something is okay, it’s probably not okay.

Talk About the Impacts Bullying Can Have

This is a touchy subject. Some parents and educators think suicide is too heavy of a subject for their students.

The reality is that it’s something they deal with at an early age. The youngest documented suicide victim is a 6-year-old girl. Kids as young as 8 and 9 have committed suicide that we know to be the direct result of bullying.

As unpleasant as it is, kids need to understand the real risks of bullying. You don’t need to get graphic, but you need to explain to them that it can have serious consequences.

In addition to suicide, it’s important to explain the other potential effects of bullying. Discuss the results of low self-esteem, higher risks for drug use, poor academic performance, and more.

Explain What to Do if They See or Experience Bullying

As with your special education students, you need to give neurotypical kids actionable instructions. Explaining what bullying is and why it’s bad won’t help much if they don’t know what to do if they see it happening.

Tackling Bullying Prevention Before It’s a Problem

Total bullying prevention isn’t practical. Still, there are plenty of ways you can cut down on bullying in your school and the tips above can help.

For more advice that will help you with your special education career, check out our online resources.

What You Need to Know About Teaching Special Ed in Florida

If you’re considering a career in special education, the timing couldn’t be better.

A recent U.S. News & World Report article laments the teacher-shortage crisis looming across the country and the particularly severe scarcity in special education. In fact, according to a study from the Learning Policy Institute, most states – including Florida – identified special education as a shortage area in their reports to the U.S. Department of Education in 2015-16.

As Florida grapples with this serious situation, college graduates who specialize in or seek advanced special education degrees will be snapped up by local school districts to fill vacancies.

Ready to position yourself as the perfect candidate? Here’s what you need to know about teaching special education in Florida.

Teachers’ Starting Point

To teach in Florida, you must at a minimum hold a bachelor’s degree, commonly in education or special education. (Each state sets its own requirements for earning a professional teaching certificate.) In the Sunshine State you can choose to major in special education (or similar majors), or you can opt for a bachelor’s degree that includes 30 semester hours in specific areas of exceptional student education – often called ESE for short.

Head to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) website for general information about the state’s public education system. Then check out theBureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services, which administers programs and coordinates services for Florida students with disabilities.

Next Stop: Florida Requirements

In addition to requiring a bachelor’s degree, Florida mandates certification for all educators (including classroom teachers, school administrators and other support professionals) who teach in public schools, and it is required in many private schools as well.

Florida offers two types of educator licensing. The three-year, non-renewable Temporary Certificate is geared for new teachers who haven’t yet met all the FLDOE academic and testing requirements. The five-year, renewable Professional Certificate is for educators who have already met all FLDOE’s criteria. There are multiple paths to earning a Florida Professional Certificate – including interstate reciprocity if you have teaching credentials from another state – so you might want to review your educator preparation options in this FLDOE chart.

The FLDOE outlines a four-step process to earning your first Florida teaching certificate:

1. Apply

Complete an initial application package and submit it to FLDOE’s Bureau of Educator Certification. The package will include a CG-10 Application Form and the appropriate processing fee. If you’ve never held a Florida Educator’s Certificate or your Florida Educator’s Certificate has been expired for more than one year, the application fee is $75 per subject. (Check the FLDOE certificate application fee schedule for additional information.) Your application must also include official college transcripts listing all degrees and credits you’ve earned and, if applicable, copies of teaching certificate(s) you hold from any other U.S. states or territories.

2. Determine Eligibility

The Bureau of Educator Certification evaluates your application package, determines your eligibility for a Florida certificate and mails you the results, known as an Official Statement of Status of Eligibility. Valid for three years, this statement serves two functions. It officially says whether you’re eligible for a Temporary Certificate or a Professional Certificate in the subject area you requested, and it provides you with a customized list of the requirements you must complete to receive full state certification in Florida.

3. Seek Employment

With 67 public school districts, Florida offers a wide range of teaching possibilities in elementary and secondary schools. For traditional public schools, each district employs teachers eligible for certification. For Florida’s 650+ charter public schools, the relevant district may help with certification for teachers. Florida also offers instructional options through its online public schools – Florida Virtual Schools – and through several non-public schools. For a one-stop job-hunting portal visit Teach in Florida.

4. Submit Fingerprints

For employment and certification purposes, the school district requires fingerprints from employees at Florida’s traditional and charter public schools.

In addition to this certification process, FLDOE requires four endorsement areas for teachers of students with specific disabilities including severe/profound disabilities, orientation and mobility disabilities, pre-kindergarten disabilities and autism-spectrum disorders.

If you already know you are interested in teaching in this state, and as you decide to pursue a master’s degree in special education, check with your university’s education department to confirm your graduate program complies with the most current FLDOE regulations and licensing requirements.

Top Challenges Facing Today’s Special Educators

Top Challenges Facing Today's Special EducatorsEver since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was introduced in 1975 – guaranteeing students with exceptional needs access to free and appropriate public education – the field of special education has changed substantially. One thing has remained constant: special education is a charged topic. From concerns on how to attract high-quality teaching candidates to optimizing curriculum and teaching techniques, best practices continue to be hotly debated among experts and educators.

To learn more about the most pressing issues facing today’s special educators, we spoke with four leading experts in the field.

Special education jobs and pedagogies are constantly evolving. What’s the biggest change that you’ve witnessed since starting your career?

Mikki Garcia, president at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC): The push towards educating students in the general education environment. Putting the kids in the environment was easy; making sure they are getting a quality education is more difficult. If implemented correctly, this service delivery model is much more expensive, and without adequate federal funding the responsibility is put on the local education agency. The biggest challenge though lies in the general education environment itself and the willingness of administrators and teachers to do their part. Constant training and monitoring has helped but attitudes are hard to change.

Dr. George Giuliani and Dr. Roger Pierangelo, executive directors at the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)There’s been a greater awareness of general education teachers, administration and staff. That being said, there’s a need for more undergraduate and graduate school coursework for future general education teachers in special education classroom management.

Matt Asner, vice president of development at the Autism Society of America: Our college and graduate-level teacher training programs are outdated. Special education is still an unfunded mandate, meaning federal law requires states to make sure school districts provide students who have disabilities with a free and appropriate public education, but the federal government does not provide funds for them to do that.  

What are the greatest challenges facing special educators, students and their families?

Dr. Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS)The biggest challenge is effectively engaging general educational administrators and instructional peers to include and provide high-quality support to students with a diverse range of disabilities. Special educators also frequently struggle with inadequate resources, specialized personnel shortages and cumbersome paperwork that can require substantial quantities of time.

Garcia: The shortage of highly trained special education teachers is an alarming reality. It’s a very difficult job and we just don’t have enough teachers out there to meet the very specific needs of students with exceptionalities. 

Giuliani and Pierangelo: There are also issues pertaining to the budgets of school districts relative to making sure the needs of students are met as dictated by federal, state and local laws. For families, the challenge is ensuring teachers are aware of children’s IEPs [individualized education programs] and that they’re being delivered. Additional special education trends include addressing the needs of English-language learners who are also students with disabilities, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), best practices for teaching and medication management, and research-based interventions.

Assistive technology such as iPads, text-to-voice devices and digital pens are increasingly popular in the classroom for special education and general learners alike. What are the benefits and challenges of these technologies and what can we expect to see in the future?

Garcia: The special education field is always looking for ways to provide access to students who have varying needs – from communication devices for those students who have difficulty speaking to mobility devices for students who have ambulatory issues. Districts are obligated to perform assessments and determine what types of assistive technology devices will help a child best access the curriculum. There is nothing better than seeing a child, who has previously had difficulty with some aspect of access, be able to function more easily because of assistive technology.

Asner: Assistive technology is revolutionizing education but unfortunately schools are way behind the curve in terms of learning how to use it. As we saw recently with LAUSD and the iPad debacle, even when there is money to spend on devices and hardware the knowledge base isn’t there to know how to use it. Especially for students and adults who use augmentative communication, technology has completely changed the terrain. Now almost everybody communicates by typing out what they want to say, by texting and tweeting. The digital revolution has put this in everybody’s hands. Now we have to use it to create space for open and effective communication for people with communication-related disabilities.

From the shortage of special education teachers in nearly every state to classroom integration and new technologies, there’s no question that today’s special education issues will continue to shape the role of future special educators.

Learn more about current special education career opportunities. Or if you’re interested in deepening your specialty and pursuing advanced education, explore our favorite online degree programs.

The SCERTS Model and Your Classroom

The SCERTS Model and Your ClassroomWhen developing an inclusive teaching approach for your classroom, do you struggle with which method to implement? If you’re teaching both neurotypical students and children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), consider the SCERTS Model, which stands for Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support.

This research-based method takes a multidisciplinary approach and outlines individualized strategies to help children develop communication, social and emotional skills. While the SCERTS Model incorporates best practices from well-established ASD approaches (such as TEACCH, Floortime and Social Stories), it differs from traditional approaches by cultivating the capacity of emotional regulation within the student rather than relying on external factors around the student. 

Brief History of the SCERTS Model 

Pioneered by a team of collaborators including Barry Prizant, Ph.D., Amy Wetherby, Ph.D., Emily Rubin and Amy Laurent, the SCERTS Model taps into 25 years of research and clinical/educational practice. These four experts bring combined experience from their work in clinical, university, educational and hospital settings in areas including special education, speech-language pathology, family-centered practice, behavioral and developmental psychology and occupational therapy. 

Now widely used around the world, this approach focuses on the core challenges faced by children with ASD and their families – namely, social communication and emotional regulation. The SCERTS Model uses a cooperative framework that draws a variety of partners together in a team effort. Rather than families, educators and therapists working independently, they work collaboratively and adopt a holistic, person-centered focus.

Appropriate Settings

Appropriate across home, school, community and workplace settings, the SCERTS Model is in line with recommendations by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The ultimate goal is to foster child-initiated communication in real-world activities across a variety of contexts. In a school setting, for example, this means implementing this method in inclusive classrooms so children with ASD can learn with and from neurotypical students who model good social and language behaviors.

“The goal of SCERTS is being able to put these supports into place and embed them in naturally occurring routines for students or naturally occurring activities to increase their active engagement and their ability to learn,” explained Laurent in an interview posted on Presence Learning.

Benefits ASD Learners and More

Designed for all ages and varying developmental abilities, the SCERTS Model benefits individuals with ASD and those who struggle with communication disorders, developmental disabilities and sensory processing disorders. This model can be used with children, teens and older individuals, making it a long-term, flexible approach that spans the challenges faced by different age groups in a variety of settings.

“This is not just about students with autism, it’s about students who have challenges in other developmental capacities, especially social communication and emotional regulation,” Prizant said in the Q&A interview following his Presence Learning webinar.

Key Elements and Implementation

To provide the necessary framework, this comprehensive model focuses on three critical areas

·         SC: Social Communication – developing skills in communication, emotional expression and relationships

·         ER: Emotional Regulation – controlling emotional highs and lows

·         TS: Transactional Support – providing supports to foster communication and learning 

For maximum effectiveness, an integrated team approach works best. Within this cohesive process, parents, educators and service providers partner together from start to finish, including the initial assessment, goal-setting interventions, progress measurement and transactional supports and techniques. This method embeds these elements in the student’s everyday routines and activities across multiple settings, boosting engagement, interpersonal interactions and learning. 

It’s best to have professionals from different disciplines collaborate in this process, including psychologists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists. In school, this means SCERTS-trained educators such as special education teachers and general education teachers are part of the team. Educators can either seek official SCERTS training or self-study SCERTS Model texts.

When mainstreaming children with ASD into inclusive classrooms, the right strategy pays big dividends for all students. The SCERTS Model offers these dividends in the form of a comprehensive method developed and delivered through a team-based effort that fosters the development of communication, social and emotional abilities in every child.

For information curated for special education professionals and families, visit our Resources page. To learn more about education and training available for educators in this specialty, working both inside and outside the classroom, visit our Careers section.

 

Special Education Roles Beyond the Classroom

Teaching is a profession that is both rewarding and challenging – particularly true for special education teachers. Working with students who need additional support can be satisfying yet emotionally draining, which likely contributes to the high turnover rate. Some sources estimate a 75 percent turnover rate for special ed teachers every 10 years, with 50 percent leaving their jobs within five years. Fortunately there are a variety of ways for people with special education experience and training to make a difference outside the classroom. 

Here are some special education jobs that don’t involve teaching:

Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant (LDT-C)

Key elements:

  • Assess/diagnose students with learning difficulties, assist in the development of IEPs (individualized educational programs) and plan or implement instructional programs.
  • Support special education students by identifying their specific needs and ensuring they are met.

Prerequisites:

Requires completion of a graduate-level program, usually 24 to 33 credits – in addition to a master’s degree and often several years of teaching experience. (Note: This role is not found in every school district; research opportunities in your specific area.)

Special Education Advocate

Key elements: 

  • Advocates represent students (and their families) and speak on their behalf in the educational setting.
  • Plan, implement and monitor an educational plan for the student — serving as the student’s voice if any problems or concerns arise.

Prerequisites:

No specific training or certification is required by law but it is a good idea to pursue additional training with a specific focus on advocacy and special education regulations. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates has a variety of helpful resources and training opportunities.

Educational Consultant

Key elements:

  • Share your expertise or experiences related to a specific educational topic or challenge.
  • Package your services in the format you prefer. Options include seminars, workshops or as-needed support.
  • As a self-employed consultant, you decide when and where you want to work.

Prerequisites: 

No additional credentials are required beyond a special education teaching background. 

Tutoring

Key elements:

  • Work as a self-employed freelancer scouting your own clients or sign up as a contractor providing services through a company such as Sylvan or Tutor.com.
  • Flexible schedule: You decide when and where you want to work.

Prerequisites:

Teaching experience and credentials are usually all you need — but some companies/clients will pay higher rates for tutors with special training or advanced education.

School Administration

Key elements:

  • A good option for those who are comfortable staying in the traditional school setting but don’t want to teach students directly.
  • Job titles range from special education administration to more general education roles such as vice principal.

Prerequisites: 

A master’s degree – including degree programs offered online – is a good start. You may then need to bolster your degree with specific administration-related training or certifications, depending on the position.

Fundraising Specialist

Key elements:

  • Lead fundraising efforts at organizations that assist children or education-related causes.
  • Good fit for those with persuasion skills or those motivated to use their winning personalities toward a positive goal.

Prerequisites:

Skills and experience are usually more important than educational degrees but training specifically related to fundraising is a valuable asset. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis offers certification programs in areas such as Fund Raising Management as well as customized training options.

Publishing 

Key elements:

  • A big departure from an educational environment, this is an attractive option for those with specific expertise who are eager for a major change.
  • Various career paths including writing training guides for teachers, developing curriculum materials and training educators (high potential for business travel).

Prerequisites:

Varies based on role and hiring company. Employment notices will offer details.

Teachers who feel the need for a change can pursue a number of career paths that still allow them to provide valuable contributions to children’s education beyond the classroom. For those who want to support children with special needs in a non-teaching role, these special education job alternatives may provide the perfect solution. Learn more about alternative special education careers.

3 Valuable Pieces of Special Education Career Advice

At any stage in your career, everyone can benefit from a solid piece of career advice. In the field of special education careers, these three individuals have excelled in their respective paths. Psychiatrist and ADHD specialist Dr. Ned Hallowell, classroom teacher and behavioral therapist Tim Villegas and speech pathologist Carrie Clarke all offer their wisdom regularly. Even if you’re not looking to build your career in their specific specialty, special education professionals should take their valuable advice to heart.

1. Dr. Ned Hallowell

Dr. Ned Hallowell, a New York Times bestselling author of more than 20 books, advises special ed professionals to “look for a mentor — a person in your field but not necessarily at your workplace — who can guide your career and point out trouble spots before they become barriers to advancement.” In all careers and lifestyles, he says: “What is most important is to work with what we have and recognize and accept ourselves for who we are. No amount of money or prestige can make us happy without self-acceptance. Love who you are and it will be easier to love what you do.”

2. Tim Villegas

Special education teacher Tim Villegas draws on his nearly 15 years in the field to advise those seeking jobs in special education on his blog. “Find a support system,” he says. “It is so important to be in contact with people who feel the same way about education as you do. For me, it was finding like-minded bloggers who were talking about the same issues in the same way. Second, you need to stop being afraid of change.” He encourages special ed professionals to ask: “Have you stopped growing as an educator? Have you stopped learning new things? Have you lost interest in refining your craft? Even if it means taking a class or joining a professional learning network, you may have to do something to change your situation.”

3. Carrie Clark

Carrie Clark, speech-language pathologist and blogger, encourages those pursuing special education careers to find ways to magnify their impact while avoiding burnout. She encourages educators to consciously collect their own success stories. “Before you leave your office each day, pull out a sticky note or a scrap of paper and write down one win that one of your students had. You don’t have to write their name. Just write down something awesome that happened for one of your kids in speech. The simple act of writing down these wins will help to keep you in a grateful and positive mindset. Plus, when you’re having a rough day, you can always look back through your jar to show you how much of a difference you really are making in these children’s lives.”

These strategies and mindsets helped these three experts excel in their work. While pursuing jobs in special education, use their tips to carve out your own path to success and more effectively help the children you work with – now and in the future.

Meet more special education professionals in our blog.

A Closer Look at Autism Spectrum Disorders

Working with students on the autism spectrum can pose unique challenges for teachers, which is why many educators decide to pursue a Master’s of Special EducationAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a wide range or “spectrum” of strengths and differences in social, communication and behavioral challenges. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children has been identified with ASD.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association folded all subgroups of autism (formerly considered separate diagnoses) into one umbrella grouping of ASD in its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Mainstream and special education teachers, however, should understand the characteristics of these previous subgroups, as well as the teaching challenges they present, because the level of disability for students with ASD can range from mildly impaired to severely disabled. Here’s a breakdown of the subgroups.

Asperger Syndrome

On the milder end of the spectrum, students with Asperger syndrome struggle with social interactions, have limited interests and exhibit repetitive behaviors. As some experience delayed development of motor skills, they might appear clumsy and display awkward mannerisms. According to theAutism Society, “what distinguishes Asperger’s Disorder from classic autism are its less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays.”

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified), aka PDD-NOS

Students with PDD-NOS exhibit some (but not all) of autism’s characteristics or have relatively mild symptoms, which is why some experts even refer to PDD-NOS as “subthreshold autism.” According to Autism Speaks, “its defining features are significant challenges in social and language development.”

Autistic Disorder

Research Autism characterizes autistic disorder, also known as classic autism, as a pervasive developmental disorder that appears before the age of three and is defined by abnormal functioning in all three ASD areas: reciprocal social interaction, communication and restricted, stereotyped, repetitive behavior 

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

As the rarest subgroup and most severe end of the spectrum, childhood disintegrative disorder describes children who develop normally for the first few years and then quickly lose many social, language, motor and other skills, usually between ages two and four. Often these children also develop a seizure disorder. 

Teaching Challenges

Since many of the characteristics overlap from one ASD subgroup to another, they present some common teaching challenges. For example, because of struggles with communication and social skills, students with ASD might lack eye contact and social reciprocity, resulting in one-sided conversations or giving the appearance of being aloof. They might miss nonverbal cues, struggle to “read between the lines” or see things from someone else’s perspective, making it hard to predict or understand the behavior of others. While some students with ASD might have terrific rote memory, they might find it difficult to understand abstract verbal concepts such as idioms and sarcasm.

The Organization for Autism Research points to common school situations that might cause stress and behavior problems, such as handling transitions, understanding directions, interacting with peers and feeling overwhelmed by stimuli (i.e., noises, lights, etc.). This means students with ASD might struggle with making friends, interpreting facial expressions, working in groups or adapting to a change in classroom routines. Due to the stress (and perhaps as a coping mechanism), students with ASD might exhibit repetitive behaviors (such as rocking or hand-flapping) that could be disruptive to other students. 

The Autism Society says that “some children need help understanding social situations and developing appropriate responses. Others exhibit aggressive or self-injurious behavior, and need assistance managing their behaviors.”

Each student with ASD has individual strengths and challenges, so targeted training helps teachers tailor programs to their unique needs and abilities.While a dedicated classroom might be a great fit for some students with ASD, an inclusive, mainstream classroom might work best for others. By understanding both the characteristics of ASD and the teaching challenges they present, teachers will be better equipped to help all their students succeed.

Learn more about career opportunities in this important specialty, and if you’re ready to pursue advanced education options then check out our favorite online degree programs.

Meet a Teacher: Insights From a Pre-K Special Education Teacher

Are you passionate about a career working with exceptional children? Educational requirements for special education jobs typically include a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or master’s in special education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a special education teacher in 2016 was $57,910. Academic and monetary aspects aside, how do you know if you’re cut out for this type of work? One of the best ways to gain insights is asking someone who already works in the profession. 

We recently spoke with Lois Shell, a pre-K special education teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. Lois has worked with elementary-age students with special needs for more than 16 years, focusing on the pre-K population for the past 12 years.

What inspired you to go into special education?

I babysat for a two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She was my little inspiration for teaching special-needs kids. I also volunteered at a hospital when I was younger, which developed my interest in medical issues related to special-needs children as well.

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today? 

I received my degree in special education with a concentration in early childhood from the University of South Florida. While working on my undergraduate degree I worked at a preschool to get toddler and early childhood experience. I also did internships and had practicum experience where I assisted a teacher in a classroom. I completed my graduate degree through an online learning program. I was working full-time so I took one class per semester. Eleven classes later, I had a master’s degree! 

What does a typical day in your classroom look like? 

In my class I have a paraprofessional and a “unique needs assistant” who helps students with physical disabilities. After the kids arrive we have breakfast together and work on feeding skills. Back in the classroom we do a greeting and circle time. Then we move into center time, small groups and table time, working with students one on one if needed. Later we play outside, have story time, lunch time, music and movement, and rest time. Math, science and social studies are covered within circle time and small groups. Table time is where we do manipulative activities – handwriting if they’re ready for it and pre-handwriting skills if they’re not.

Describe the specific skills a special-needs teacher should have?

Patience. Patience. Patience! You also need to be able to think quickly on your feet. Every child, whether they have special needs or not, is different. You need to be ready to adapt, modify and think outside the box to accommodate each’s child’s specific needs. For example, I had a little girl who would always throw her spoon. The occupational therapist came up with the idea to put a cotton glove on her hand with Velcro that attached to her spoon handle. The next time she tried to throw her spoon it didn’t move, and her reaction was priceless!

What are your biggest challenges? 

Meeting all the students’ varying needs. They are all on different levels with different challenges. To handle them all, first and foremost, you need to love and have a passion for the child. No matter what the disability is, you embrace it and move forward without feeling sorry or having a pity party for them. My goal is to keep them safe, care about them and provide them with the best education I can.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Seeing the children’s reactions to their successes and the smiles I’m able to put on their faces. I’ve always loved all the kids. I still keep in contact with one of my former students who is now 31 years old!

Do you have any tips or advice for anyone considering becoming a special education teacher?

Get as much hands-on exposure as you can with the special-needs population. Volunteer with organizations like the Special Olympics. Another valuable thing you can do is to talk with the parents of a child with special needs. They are one of the best sources of information.

Lois got her master’s degree online, on her own time, and you can too! Learn more about some of our favorite online degree programs for advanced degrees in special education.

Meet a Teacher: Working With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, emotional and behavioral disorders affect 10–15 percent of children globally. Disorders include attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism, bipolar, anxiety and oppositional-defiant. Children experiencing behavioral disorders (BD) and emotional disorders (ED) often struggle with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and learning in a mainstream classroom setting. Special education jobs that include working with BD/ED students present unique challenges.

We interviewed Katrina Wojtasinski, M.S. Ed, a certified special education case manager at Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to learn what it’s like to teach students experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in special education?

As an adolescent I struggled with learning in a traditional setting, and a high school teacher told me I wasn’t “college material.” I was self-aware enough to know this wasn’t the truth and advocated to school administration to receive the support I needed. In college I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and developed the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond. My experiences helped me realize how important special education is for those with disabilities and those who don’t learn best in a traditional classroom. 

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?

I started as a special education paraprofessional. I’m grateful my career began this way because I learned a lot about the field before deciding to further my education. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and my Master’s of Science in Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University. I chose Saint Joseph’s University because it was one of the few U.S. colleges offering a science-based degree in the field.

I obtained certifications in special education, safety care, crisis prevention institute (CPI) and CPR/AED/First Aid.

What is a typical day in your classroom like?

I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day in special education but I have daily routines that help students build their organizational, social and writing skills. I work with students in a resource room for specialized instruction and in an inclusion classroom alongside typically developing students. In my resource classroom I provide children with a visual overview of the day, divided into directed instruction, mini-lessons and one-to-one or group work.

What skills are necessary for a teacher working with BD/ED students?

Patience! Although there’s tremendous gratification that comes with the field there are many, many days that bring challenges that test patience. Strong communication is also key as you’ll collaborate with various personnel involved in supporting students’ learning needs. Versatility and adaptability are also important because the environment and demands are always changing. 

What are some specific techniques educators use when working with BD/ED children?

I’ve had success with “extinction,” which is ignoring or redirecting attention-seeking behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and the behavior intervention plans (BIP) are among several methods for parents, teachers and school professionals to collaborate on identifying, minimizing and replacing negative behaviors.

What are your biggest challenges?

I would say the challenges are more at the legislative level. Special-needs students are on individualized educational plans (IEPs) to best facilitate student learning. Lately they’ve become a source of contention, with court cases increasing constraints on them. 

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

The kids, 100 percent. Everything I do is for the kids. 

Is there anything that surprised you about working with BD/ED students?

How humbling they are. I had a student who was totally self-aware of his behaviors but had a difficult time controlling them. He eventually reached a point where he could seek out a trusted adult for comfort, often crying because he realized he was having a tough day yet couldn’t control his response.

Do you have advice for anyone interested in teaching students with emotional/behavior issues?

Volunteer, network or obtain a position within the field. Most importantly, reflect on why you want to pursue the field. It sounds heroic to tell people “I’m a special education teacher,” or a “behavior specialist,” but at the end of the day the people who excel are the ones who put their heart into everything they contribute.

Katrina chose Saint Joseph’s University for her master’s degree, and through the university’s online degree program you can too! Find out more about other favorite online master’s degree programs.