Special Education Teaching Certification

special education teacher

Teachers of special education often say there isn’t a more rewarding field, a profession that directly impacts the lives of so many by providing those with a disability a chance to learn, succeed, and adapt or modify their situations to live life as richly – and with as many opportunities - as all other people.

The opportunity to learn, both the federal and state governments state, is the right of all individuals. Federal and state laws ensure that all children with disabilities are provided a free and appropriate public education - individualized according to their respective needs.

Certification in special education prepares future teachers to individualize lesson plans and instruction to meet the needs of those with varying disabilities. All states have standards related to this type of certification, and the process for how to get certified varies from state to state.

Most states require at least a bachelor’s degree plus the passage of certain state certification tests. A few states now require a master’s degree to become certified as a special education teacher.

For those wanting to become special education teachers, they might be interested in teaching those with any of the following disabilities or conditions:

  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Multiple learning disabilities
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Mental retardation
  • Emotional or behavioral disorders
  • Hearing impairments
  • Orthopedic impairments
  • Visual impairments
  • Autism
  • Combined deafness and blindness
  • Traumatic brain injury

Certified special education teachers instruct students at all developmental levels, usually starting at the preschool level and moving through secondary school.

At each level, special education means taking the standard general education curriculum and modifying or individualizing it for children with specific disorders and disabilities. Certification also means knowing what to look for in children with special needs so that early identification of any other disorders or disabilities leads to early intervention programs.

Preschool through grade 12 – General Content Knowledge

Regardless of the disability or disabilities that a special education professional addresses, basic content knowledge about teaching special education is required for certification. This content knowledge applies to all children from preschool through grade 12.

Special education teachers must be:
  • Organized, patient, able to motivate students, understand their students' special needs, and accepting of differences in others.
  • Licensed (also called certification). Traditional licensing requires the completion of a special education teacher training program and at least a bachelor's degree. Some States now require a master's degree.
  • Kind, compassionate, desiring to help both students and families.
  • Willing to complete an alternative licensure programs for college graduates who do not have training in education.
Source: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Special education teachers must know the basic principles of teaching in this field, principles centering on human growth and development. Those teaching children of special needs must first know and understand normal developmental patterns and milestones, and know when a child doesn’t meet these norms.

Certification requires knowing the proper assessment tools to measure developmental functions and capabilities. It also requires knowing how to interpret results from commonly used assessments.

In addition, certification tests address the basic characteristics for each of the major disability areas, and how these disabilities affect individuals, families, and society across the life span.

And special education teachers must know how to design and maintain a safe and appropriate learning environment or classroom for their disabled students.

But preparing a safe classroom is only the first step. Individuals seeking certification in this field must know how to prepare good lesson plans that include measurable learning objectives. And they must know the instructional strategies and techniques appropriate for students’ abilities and ages given their disabilities.

These lesson plans must be tailored to meet the individual needs of those with disabilities, and are guided by the parameters set out in the individualized education plan (IEP) required by law for each disabled student.

Individualized Education Plans

Special education teachers help to develop an IEP for each student receiving special education. The IEP sets personalized goals for each student. Where appropriate, the IEP includes a transition plan, outlining specific steps to prepare students to move from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school or, in the case of older students, from high school to a job or college.

Those wanting to become certified to teach special education for any grade level, preschool through high school, must know the federal law governing the rights of those requiring an IEP. They must know how to establish an IEP, working with other teachers, the student's parents, and school administrators, and the student's general education teachers.

These future teachers must also understand what their responsibilities are under the law regarding an IEP, and keep current with legislation and new standards guiding the rules and regulations for IEPs. They must know how to assess students against the goals set forth in the IEP to assure progress and achievement.

Early childhood special education

While most states require a general-knowledge certification test for special education teachers of grades preschool through grade 12, many states also require additional certification for those wanting to teach early childhood special education.

Some states call this an additional “endorsement” if an individual is already certified to teach special education for grades K-12.

One reason for this additional certification stems from requirements stipulated by federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, regarding the education of children of preschool who have an established IEP.

The IDEA requires all states to provide data on the functional and developmental progress of young children with an IEP. The law requires two assessment periods for these children: when first evaluated for a disability and an IEP is established; and at exit from preschool when entering kindergarten.

The law stipulates that the child’s primary special education teacher conduct these assessments.

For this reason, knowledge of how to assess and evaluate young children is especially critical, and those desiring this additional certification must thoroughly understand all aspects of typical and atypical development, including cognitive, physical, motor, social, emotional, language, play, and perceptual.

For this age group, special education teachers also must know how to work with family members as well, becoming parent trainers as well as a support system for families learning about disabilities, and they must be able to inform parents of legislation governing disability rights. They also must know how to modify lesson plans according to the child’s special needs, and consider issues such as possible integration and mainstreaming into regular classrooms.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports excellent job prospects for special education teachers. It states that the number of special education teachers is expected to increase by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018 - faster than the average for all occupations.

The reasons for job growth stem from rising enrollment of special education students, and a reported shortage of qualified teachers.

To find out how to become certified to teach special education in your state, check your state’s requirements here.

Because some states and regions are experiencing a shortage of special education teachers, some states now offer provisional certificates to get started in this field.

Sensory Integration Issues Confused With ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most common learning and behavioral disabilities, is at the top of the list for being misdiagnosed, according to Pathways Awareness.

In a survey of more than 500 pediatric occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language pathologists, more than 68% of children between the ages of 3 and 8 had been misdiagnosed with the wrong disability. And of that 68%, more than 90% had been misidentified as having ADHD.

The survey reported that the misdiagnosed children actually had sensory processing deficits rather than ADHD.

“Knowing that sensory processing and integration deficits may be expressed in ways similar to ADHD, it is understandable that mistakes can occur,” said Angelica Barraza, OTR/L, an advisor to Pathways Awareness and an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration. “It’s critical for parents, teachers and health professionals to consider sensory processing and integration deficits before labeling a child with behavioral issues.”

Sensory processing and integration issues, sometimes referred to as dysfunction of sensory integration (DSI) or sensory processing disorder (SPD), are characterized by an inability to discriminate, organize, and interpret sensory inputs.

In school-age children, sensory processing and integration issues can translate into having delays with coordination, balance, focus, organization, and fine motor skills. Some children displaying sensory deficits might appear to have behavioral issues similar to ADHD.

For example, sensory disorders also result in fidgeting, frustration, clumsiness and an inability to focus – all conditions also prevalent among those with ADHD. Teachers who witness these behaviors often quickly suggest that an evaluation for ADHD take place.

However, experts warn that other possibilities must be investigated, particularly sensory processing and integration issues.

The behaviors of a child with sensory processing and integration disorders are extremely varied. Some children become overwhelmed by everyday sensations while others seek out these sensations. Some appear aggressive while others are extremely withdrawn.

These experts advise parents and teachers to seek out an evaluation by a qualified therapist who has received postgraduate training in sensory integrative disorders. Other studies estimate that one in 20 children have sensory difficulties.

Pathways Awareness, a national not-for-profit that educates parents and medical professionals about the benefits of early intervention for children with delays in sensory integration, conducted the study between May 2009 and Nov. 2010.