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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president of development at the Autism Society of America: Our college and graduate-level teacher training programs are outdated.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.

5 Rewarding Career Paths in Special Education (if you’re not into teaching)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the mean salary for special education teachers in 2017 as $58,890. But it is no secret that the burnout and turnover rates for this field are high. Additionally, growth potentials and opportunities for upward mobility are low for teachers alone.

Salaries can be higher for teachers that want to expand their resumes. There are jobs are out there for teachers who want to stay in the field and continue making a difference in the lives of children.

Find out which of these five rewarding career paths in special education will help you change the world.

Behavior Specialists

Behavior specialists are specialists in the field of psychology and social work. They work with individuals with disabilities or impaired learning functions.

In most cases, all that is needed to work in this field is a Bachelor’s degree in the field of social work or psychology or a related field. Study.com notes that licensure may be required.

Licensing requirements vary by state. The field is experiencing a projected 19 percent growth rate between 2012 and 2022.

Job duties will vary according to the work environment. They generally involve the observation and assessment of emotional and behavioral problems with children and adults with special needs. Some duties will be specialized such as those working with the deaf community.

Average pay rates begin around $40,000 but also will vary by state and specialty, and/or the organization you are working for. Those with experience in the field or with advanced degrees are likely to earn at the higher end of the pay scale.

Early Intervention Specialist

The early years for children are considered the years between birth and kindergarten. Children with special needs in this age group need special support. Early intervention specialists provide this support.

They work in a variety of environments from preschool classrooms to inside the home. They also work in the private sector.

The main purpose of this job is to serve as the connection between families and support. The specialist also works directly with children, providing support to improve their area of needs. This could range from cognitive or emotional developmental support to motor and sensory support.

The early years of life are often considered the most critical. As such, this specialist will work in a multidisciplinary capacity to support the child and their family.

In many cases, a teacher’s degree is the only requirement for this career. A Bachelor’s degree is often required, and any additional credentials or education in the area of child development is favored.

Zip Recruiter reports that the national average pay for early intervention specialists is $46,985 annually. Candidates holding a graduate degree or additional credentials are expected to earn at the higher end of the spectrum.

Educational Diagnosticians

An educational diagnostician does exactly what its name implies. This person diagnoses someone with special needs.

This support worker functions within a team setting, assisting all agencies that work with special needs. This is a multi-disciplinary role.

Diagnosticians work every angle of the child’s life to get a complete picture for a diagnosis if necessary. Once a diagnosis is established, the diagnostician works with families to find support.

Depending on their degrees and credentials, and their location, diagnosticians can earn as much as $68,000 to $75,000. Most diagnosticians are not working at the entry level, and have acquired experience and education in the field of special needs.

Instructional Assistant

The job of a teaching assistant is one of the most under-reported jobs, as it falls in the lower end of a pay scale. But it is also one of the most rewarding jobs in special needs. The teacher’s assistant is often the one person that a child with special needs spends the most time with throughout their day.

Relationships are formed, and this enables instructional assistants to perform their job and do it well. Established relationships not only support the child but helps them to achieve their truest potential.

Projections for teaching assistants jobs is good with research showing a potential growth rate of eight percent between 2016 and 2026. The median salary for these jobs is in the $26,260 range.

Special Education Administrator

The special education administrator is not an entry-level position. This is a leadership role where the special needs worker oversees organizations that work with special needs kids. This position usually requires a Master’s degree or a wealth of career experience in the field.

Licensure could be required and will vary by state. Administrators work with everyone involved in the support of a special needs child.

Administrators work with families and caregivers. They also work with government agencies monitoring and overseeing the life of a special needs child. In a nutshell, administrators need to know that everybody involved in a special need’s child life is doing their job.

They will have a large number of children whose needs they need to monitor. If an educational or support matter goes wrong in a special needs child’s life, the administrator will hear about it and deal with it.

Salary ranges typically start in the six-figure mark, due to the depth of their responsibilities. There is an opportunity for upward mobility into advanced administrative jobs.

Employers are looking for someone with experience working with special needs kids. They want someone that is dynamic and innovative in problem-solving and has true leadership abilities.

This is the kind of guy or gal that when he or she walks into the room, a special needs kid feels….even more special.

How Will You Change the World?

If you are looking for a special needs job outside of the teaching realm, that means you have a passion for special work. It also means you are already changing the world.

Keep going, as there are a number of rewarding career opportunities that will give you the ability to fulfill your life and your true potential. Those same opportunities will help you develop the true potential of many special needs kids’ lives too. Start clicking to search open special education jobs today. How will you change the world?