Becoming a Special Education Teacher

There are few populations in need of advocates and dedicated professionals more than special needs children. Parents who are coping with the unique and sometimes challenging needs of these children in the home feel an incredible sense of support when their kids have great teachers. Moreover, children who might otherwise be denied their full potential have an opportunity with a special education teacher. This group of students needs dedicated professionals – learn how to be one of them.

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The Right College Education

Special education teachers are licensed in all 50 states, although the license goes by several names and might be called a “certificate” or “credential” depending on the state where you live. A bachelor’s degree is required in all states to apply for a license, but the type of education that’s required varies widely from state to state.

Some states simply require a regular teaching license or certificate and the special education provision is granted by passing an examination. In some states, the license requires a bachelor’s degree in teaching individuals with disabilities. Others require a bachelor’s degree in education with a specified number of coursework hours in the area of special needs instruction. Check with your state’s board of education to research the type of degree necessary to work with children with disabilities.

Passing the Examinations

All states require that examinations be passed in order to become a special education teacher, and each state establishes what test is necessary. Basic skills tests assess proficiency in general areas of instruction (reading, writing, mathematics) and are generally required in order to teach younger grades. Subject area tests are often required of teachers of later grades, and these exams assess competency in a primary area of instruction. Many states, as well as Praxis, the national teacher examination organization, have examinations that assess the abilities of special education teachers. Praxis offers tests for all special needs areas and distinguishes between the knowledge required to teach younger children with disabilities, and older children with disabilities.

Your state will decide which tests – basic skills tests, subject area tests and/or subject area tests in the areas of special needs – are necessary in order to receive a special education teacher license. Many states require passing several tests in order to apply for a special education teaching license or certificate.

Special Education Licensure, Credential, or Certification

All states regulate and oversee teachers, including teachers in special education. While the document issued by the state might be called a “credential” or a “certificate,” they all mean the permit issued to teach children that ensures that the right education has been completed, the proper tests have been passed, and the application process has been completed to the state’s satisfaction. The application will generally include registering fingerprints with the state and completing a background check, as well as paying a fee.

Exact requirements vary by state in regards to education requirements and examinations, and some states have multiple tracks to allow a candidate to reach his or her goals of becoming a special education teacher. Shortages in the area of special education have motivated states to look for multiple methods for dedicated professionals to fulfill the requirements that allow them to meet the needs of these special populations. Check with your state to ensure that you are following a path that will lead you to the license you want.

Licenses need renewal in almost all states, and this may require completing continuing education hours. Many national and state organizations offer classes, and these courses allow teachers to stay up-to-date and current research and theory, and learn the latest strategies for optimal education delivery.

Becoming an Exceptional Needs Specialist

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards ( offers a specialty certificate in the area of special education called “Exceptional Needs Specialist.” The NBPTS offers this certificate in six specialty areas: deaf/hard of hearing, early childhood, gifted and talented, mild/moderate disabilities, severe and multiple disabilities, and visual impairments.

Several states recognize the NBPTS certification as demonstrating the necessary competency for becoming a special education teacher, and pairing this credential with a bachelor’s degree entitles a candidate to apply for a special education teaching licenses or certificate.

The NBPTS develops specialty certifications as ways to demonstrate advanced ability or competency, and many professionals dedicated to a lifetime of professional advancement complete them.

The Different Populations

There’s a wide array of need when it comes to providing services for children with special needs. Challenges can be physical, emotional, cognitive or a combination of the three. Some special needs populations have unique learning requirements, and coursework and student teaching placements address these areas. This means you may need to make a choice about the population, age, or instruction type you’re most interested in while you’re still pursuing your instruction.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the following special education areas: specific learning disabilities, hearing impairments, visual impairments, combined deafness and blindness, speech or language impairments, mental retardation, orthopedic impairments, emotional disturbance, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury and other health considerations. These designations cover most of the areas where special needs are identified, and learning what these children need for optimal development and learning is integral to the special education curriculum.

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC – organizes educators for special needs populations into several categories:

Early/Pre-K to 12 Teachers offer instruction throughout the grade spectrum to kids with mild to moderate disabilities by adapting the regular curriculum.

Teachers for High-incidence Disabilities work with children with the most common disabilities and may do this in the child’s regular classroom collaboratively with the regular teacher, or may bring the child into a more structured environment. High Incidence disabilities, according to the CEC, are learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and speech-language disorders).

Teachers for Low-incidence Disabilities work with children who have more severe conditions and require greater accommodation or adaptation. These children generally need more structured education in a self-contained classroom. Instruction for these children may be less organized by district curriculum and more oriented towards basic skills.

Teacher/Specialist: Emotional or Behavioral Disorders and Teacher/Specialist: Autism Spectrum Disorders designate those education professionals who are specialists in the needs of children with these more pervasive conditions. Special education teachers in these areas may work with children in their regular classrooms, work with them intermittently through a pull-out programs, or offer support services in a special day class or resource class. Districts may look for candidates with advanced educations or specialty credentials to work with these unique populations.

Many individual states roughly follow these organization categories and special education teacher licenses may be specific to the populations or ages that the CEC recognizes. Other states may organize instruction by these designations, but issue general licenses that allow a special education teacher to work in any of these classifications.

The Qualities of Special Education Teacher

While all teachers need to be organized and have a desire to mentor, those who seek to enhance the lives of special needs children need to have additional skills to excel in their professions.

Communication skills need to be diverse, as communicating with a child with learning or development challenges is only one part of the equation. Special education teachers must also be able to communicate inter-professionally, with other teachers and support personnel, and offer communication and instruction to parents and caregivers who are responsible for the child all the hours he or she isn’t in school.

Creativity is essential to a good special education teacher. While general instruction principles are founded in research, applying those theories to children who may have unique sets of needs requires adaptation and flexibility. An educator who can adapt, accommodate and engage in new ways to reach a child with severe learning impairments gives that child opportunity that he or she might not otherwise have had.

Acceptance and tolerance are also key to successful special education instruction. Unusual behavior and atypical appearance are common with children with special needs, and their teachers need to be fully accepting of those differences and celebrate each child as a unique individual with potential.

Special Children, Special Professionals

The variety of needs, environments, disabilities and educational demands that special needs children have almost defy listing. Each child is a unique combination of all their skills and all their challenges, and what works for one child may need to be adapted for another. Professional educators who can offer these children what they need are in demand. While challenging, the work is some of the most rewarding a teacher could ever do.

Please choose your state or find a variety of online Special Education Degree programs here.