Early Childhood Special Education Certification

Learning begins at an early age and few people can have as big of an impact on a child’s life as their first teachers. Studies show that a child’s most formative years occur between birth and five years old. The years prior to kindergarten are among the most significant in shaping the foundation for learning and school success for most children.

However, for others, early education needs to go beyond just traditional pre-kindergarten learning. Children with special needs require additional time, attention, and expertise in helping them overcome learning disabilities and to develop essential life skills. More importantly, they need a champion, mentor, and an inspiration; they need someone specially trained to harness a child’s natural curiosity and lead them down the path of lifelong learning, despite hardship and learning obstacles.

Certified Early Childhood Special Education teachers are uniquely qualified to provide learning experiences to help children with a host of special needs—cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and others—develop emotionally, cognitively, and socially. They complete rigorous certification and licensing programs, emerging with in-depth knowledge of how to identify and overcome special needs challenges. Certified teachers learn accepted best practices in special needs education and, perhaps most importantly, develop the interpersonal skills that help establish a real emotional connection with their student at a very early age and become a trusted adviser throughout the child’s lifetime.

Getting Certified

Teachers wishing to become certified as Early Childhood Special Education teachers have several options for attaining credentials. After obtaining your bachelor’s in education or special education, you have the option to get certified in Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE). If your currently enrolled in a college that doesn’t offer an ECSE teacher certification program, another option is to get dually certified in both Special Education and Early Childhood Education.

Colleges and universities also offer graduate-level programs in education, with specialty certifications such as Early Childhood Special Education that can be completed concurrently. While requirements for admission into an early childhood special education master’s program or certification cohort vary by state and by school, prospective teachers can expect to first complete a bachelor’s degree program in elementary or general education.

Similarly, teachers can pursue a degree in special education with a certification in early childhood special education online through virtual universities and the online campuses of well-known traditional universities. Online programs typically follow a similar certification process as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, aligning their programs with state and federal standards for early childhood special education.

As credential requirements vary by state, learn about requirements from you state by exploring the teaching certification requirements map.

The importance of early childhood special educators

During childhood, traditional pre-school and kindergarten students begin to learn to interact with others, develop increased language comprehension and body language awareness, and experience new emotions. For children with special needs, the development of one or all of these skills is considerably slower.

Luckily, certified early childhood special education teachers have developed an array of unique skills in their coursework and student teaching assignments, and are backed by a robust early learning model to guide them and their students toward success. Certified teachers are able to connect on an emotional and personal level with their students to gain their trust and free the students to express themselves in ways that are productive and contribute to the learning process. They understand the frustrations and challenges the students face, and design games and other activities to remove barriers in learning that are found in more traditional curriculums.

Similarly, teachers serve as consultants and trusted sources of information for parents of special needs children. The early learning teaching model provides systems for facilitating screenings and arms teachers with an extensive referral network to health and mental health specialists. In addition, the model offers age- and developmentally-appropriate curriculum and assessments used to align teachers’ curricula with state and federal teaching standards, while keeping parents informed of how their child is progressing. The result is a highly effective support network for students with special needs that ensures they’re not left behind and will receive an educational experience that will substantially improve their standard of living later in life.

Learning through play

Regardless of the disability, most early childhood special education programs rely on play in conjunction with other methods to facilitate lessons and development. The concept of play for learning was popularized by noted psychologists Piaget, Erickson, and Vygotsky, who each agreed that children use play for self-teaching and self-actualization. Children play through situations much like adults think through situations. Play offers children the opportunity to learn through first-hand experiences by touching, tasting, smelling, and later through actual hands on experiences with materials, equipment, and ideas.

According to the Association for Childhood Education International, (ACEI) play encourages children to learn self-control, and helps them learn the social skills while building creativity, improving attention, and enhancing logical reasoning skills to varying degrees.

During certification, teachers learn the importance of play in the development of children and how to apply varying methods of observing and assessing play. They also develop skills enabling them to establish a safe physical environment for play interventions, use toys and playthings, assess the role of non-handicapped peers in play, and include parents and other adults in play sessions.

The links between play, learning, and social development grow stronger each day. Play tests children’s ability to develop ideas around objects, places, and people. Pretend play—fantasy or imaginative scenarios—helps children develop crucial evaluative and critical thinking skills, as it teaches them to think abstractly and view a scenario from a different point of view. More importantly, play is fun, so it’s a natural motivator for children to want to continue learning.

For example, a teacher may use what’s known as “floor time” to help develop a child’s emotional and interpersonal engagement skills. Joining the student on the floor, a teacher may engage a child with two sets of colored building blocks. Using his or her own blocks, the teacher will build a house, tower, or other recognizable structure and ask the child to do the same. The structured lesson helps teach the child color recognition and challenges their fine motor skills and imitation skills.

Similarly, simple board games are effective learning tools because they teach children turn-taking, waiting, and socialization skills with other students or adults. Board games can even facilitate language development, as a teacher may provide a child with simple verbal cues like “I go” or “you go” to begin building more effective communications skills.

Growing opportunities for early childhood special educators

Recent studies from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as reported in the New York Times (March 29, 2012), suggest that the likelihood of a child being given a diagnosis of autism, Asperger syndrome or a related disorder increased more than 20 percent from 2006 to 2008. The report estimates that in 2008 one child in 88 received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders by age 8, compared with about one in 110 two years earlier. The estimated rate in 2002 was about one in 155.

In response, the need for certified early childhood special education teachers has dramatically increased and is ranked among the fastest growing occupations nationwide. The Council for Exceptional Children notes that recent legislation has provided for more jobs, with many grants being awarded to non-profit agencies targeted at "seeking out" this population of children and serving them more effectively.

Prospective teachers should have a natural interest in teaching and in children in general. More importantly, special education teachers must be patient, be able to motivate students, understand their students' special needs, and be accepting of differences in others.

Teachers must be creative and apply different types of teaching methods to reach students who are having difficulty learning. Communication and cooperation are essential skills, because special education teachers spend a great deal of time interacting with others, including students, parents, school faculty, and administrators. 

Determining which students need special education

Certified early childhood special education teachers focus on providing personalized learning and development experiences for developmentally challenged students. But how do students get enrolled in special curriculums? In short, they’re evaluated by a number of licensed and registered professionals who determine the best education pathway at the request of parents, doctors, and teachers.

It is important for certified early childhood special education teachers to have the skills necessary to identify the signs of potential special needs in students. From there, they may refer the students for assessment to any number of professionals in their network. Assessments are performed according to the guidelines established in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the U.S.’s special education law that guarantees a free education for eligible students in the least restrictive environment.

Early intervention—especially at the infant and toddler stage—is vital to helping students with special needs develop the life skills required to thrive. In an early intervention program such as the one offered in New York State, evaluations are performed by a cross-disciplinary panel of licensed experts that help design an individual family service plan specifically geared toward the individual child’s needs. This includes selecting an early childhood special education program for them to attend.

After six months, the panel reconvenes to evaluate the child’s progress, re-testing their cognitive, social, and verbal abilities, as well as reviewing reports from the student’s teachers. Teachers play a crucial role in the process. Besides having daily contact with the child, the teacher is the best source of evaluative information for the panel. An accurate, detailed account of a child’s progress—possible only through a special education teacher’s extensive training—provides key insight into the effectiveness of a prescribed program. Based on the teacher’s evaluation, changes can be made to a program that accelerates a child’s development and helps build new skills and confidence for children as they get older.

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