What skills and traits make an excellent special education teacher?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7 million students in the US (or around 14 percent of all public school students) received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the years 2017-18. These programs are targeted at addressing the needs of children with special health care needs, which are defined by the US Maternal and Health Bureau as “those who have or are at increased risk for a chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional condition and who also require health and related services of a type or amount beyond that required by children generally.”

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Specific conditions included learning disabilities, general health impairments, sensory disturbances, autism spectrum disorders, and developmental delays. Children who have these kinds of disabilities may find it hard to keep up with traditional modes of instruction and may have a difficult time reading, listening, writing, or understanding their teachers. Because most of these children also have a hard time understanding basic social cues and mingling with their peers, they are also more likely to be bullied and discriminated against.

With these needs in mind, these children are in need of a safe environment and special types of instruction to help maximize their potential. Every year, the projected number of students with special needs is expected to increase, pressing the need for individuals specifically trained in this field to step up and take on the challenge of caring for these individuals.

Special Education: What is it?

The field of special education (SpEd) focuses on meeting the needs of students with identified conditions, which may be difficult to meet under mainstream instruction. This unique program emphasizes the opportunities open for these children, as they are taught to navigate the world with special tools and attention to areas that may need assistance from trained and licensed professionals. In the US, schooling and related services that may be required by the student to access educational resources (including individualized instruction, hospital or institutional instruction) is provided free of charge under the IDEA.

According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, there are 13 disability categories that could qualify children and youth aged 3 through 21 for special services under IDEA, specifically:

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  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairments
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairments (including blindness)

The conditions stated above more-or-less encapsulate the specific group that the special education system and its instructors focus on, meeting the personalized needs of their students and helping them deal with their daily lives.

Special Education: A Promising and Fulfilling Career

Today, special education remains to be one of the most promising and fulfilling careers in the US. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for special education teachers in 2019 was $61,030 per year, with the highest 10% in the profession earning more than $98,530. The top industries for teachers in special education include working in both local and private elementary and secondary schools.

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The majority of all special education teachers work in public school settings (86% of employers), catering to a spectrum of age groups starting from preschool to high school. A significant majority of people with special needs consist of elementary children. A 2016 disability reports state that in the US, around 15% of children have special needs, which may greatly influence the distribution of educators in this specific part of the cohort.

Educational and Professional Requirements of a Special Needs Educator

In order to enter a career in special education, there are required fields that interested candidates may enter to get experience and/or certification.

Entry-level positions in this field, such as special needs aides, teaching assistants, and paraeducators, usually do not require any form of certification but generally don’t pay as well as licensed practitioners. This path is usually a step into a future career in special education, and are filled by volunteers and part-timers who want to gain meaningful experience.

In earlier years, special education teachers usually began their path in general education, obtaining certifications in Early Childhood, Elementary or Secondary Education. This is still a valid option for teachers who want to get a basic understanding of core subjects (Maths, Science, English/Language Arts, Social Studies), apart from special education studies. Additionally, requirements under these programs may vary depending on state regulations.

Today, interested candidates can pursue a bachelor’s degree in special education, which offers a more specialized undergrad curriculum as well as a teaching preparation program. After completing this step, they can pursue a master’s degree in special education, choosing between a Master’s in Teaching (MIT) and a Master of Education (MAEd) degree. Please note that this is a requirement in some states, so be sure to check with them before deciding a specific path.

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For both academic tracks (general education/special education baccalaureate programs), make sure that you are enrolling in programs duly accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teachers Education.

Additionally, if you’re looking to further your career down the road, there’s also an option to earn a doctorate degree in special education. You can choose between a Doctorate in Education (EdD) or Doctorate of Philosophy in Education (PhD), with both options bearing the same standing in academic and professional circles.

Specific Duties of a Special Needs Educator

According to Project IDEAL in Action, an initiative spearheaded by the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD), special needs educators have essential roles in the academe that specifically support students with disabilities and their parents/caregivers.

Additionally, the TCDD emphasizes the scope of their duties, which include but are not limited to the following:

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  • Working as case managers, “responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of the students’ IEPs” (Individualized Education Programs), according to IDEA.
  • When deemed qualified and the assigned student is brought into the mainstream group, special needs educators provide necessary information to the teacher in charge regarding the child’s unique needs and how to meet them (about the disability or any medical concerns, treatment, medication or assistive devices).
  • Adapting the curriculum and modifying them as needed in collaboration with the general education instructor, with continuous monitoring and assessment of the special needs student’s progress in class.
  • Scheduling and planning duties for paraeducators.
  • Completing and monitoring student records, including progress reports and other necessary documentation.
  • Collaborating and contacting the student’s parents or primary caregiver/s.
  • Collaborating effectively and maintaining professional relationships with general educators.
  • Maintaining a specific teaching load, whether in small groups or a whole class.

In addition to addressing basic academic requirements that these students may need, special needs educators may need to fulfill related services. According to Understood.org, these include the following:

  • Positive behavioral interventions, developing ways to promote good behavior and proactively work with students and their families
  • Social work
  • Therapeutic modalities, including psychological debriefing, speech, and occupational therapy
  • Counseling services for children and parents
  • Transportation needs to school and possibly, to venues where extracurricular activities are held

Skills and Traits of an Exceptional Special Needs Educator

In a general sense, every child needs a whole lot from their caregivers at home and in school. They may need constant monitoring, reassurance, and a close watch, as they have their own limitations in various aspects of their lives. Children and youth with special needs aren’t exempted from this – they even require tons of it! If you’re seriously considering this career, you must know the specific skills and traits of an exceptional special needs educator.

A passion for sprinkling tons of love and acceptance

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If you’re considering a career in special education, you must be able to relate with children and the youth at a basic level, making them feel accepted and loved regardless of the extent of their background, disabilities, and other limitations. If you are able to see outside of their conditions and look at them as people with endless potential, this will help you become a better educator. This will also be a source of encouragement and inspiration for these students, who are known to be more receptive to positive reinforcements and kind words.

Vulnerability and sensitivity to the needs of the students

Don’t be afraid to tap into your vulnerable side; you will need to do this in order to act with tact and emotional intelligence. Additionally, you must be sensitive to the feelings and possibly, the idiosyncrasies of these age groups. They may be more likely to throw a tantrum or two because they couldn’t express themselves well, which means you must be one step ahead of their needs.

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They may also be able to pull on your heartstrings with just a simple look or incoherent expression, especially when they feel uncomfortable or can’t get what they want. Be sure to brace yourself (and expect some tears), but be professional enough to look past these emotional episodes and treat them well.

Extending patience and resiliency in spite of challenges

Children with special needs require tender and knowledgeable care, which your special education bachelor’s or master’s degree already equips you with. However, a college education can only do so much; patience and discipline can be a lot harder to learn than lessons on behavioral theories or teaching methodologies!

Coupled with children’s high energy levels, your patience will be tested almost every day. It usually takes many days or even weeks for them to perform a specific action or activity satisfactorily and this means more time, more effort, and much more patience is required from you.

If you aspire to be a special education teacher, you need to have patience and resilience to the challenges of teaching these vulnerable groups. Because your students have special needs, you must be patient enough to deal with frustration and difficult times. It’s not an easy path, but it’s truly rewarding when you’re able to handle challenging situations with grace and maturity.

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Adaptability and calmness are also necessary attributes of a special education teacher. Children with special needs require an environment where they can express their sometimes-chaotic behavior and hyperactive energies. Children can act differently every day and it takes someone who is calm and persistent to adapt to their mood and create a comfortable environment for them. Your calmness in handling situations involving children with special needs earns their trust and respect.

Organizational and analytical skills (with doses of intuition)

With organizational and analytical skills, teachers are able to develop synchronized programs and comprehensive curriculum programs that could address the needs of students under their care. And since the discipline is evolving towards the direction of personalized education, we’re eventually leaving behind a one-size-fits-all model which we usually see in traditional, mainstream classes.

Essential skills also revolve around language, interpersonal development, and communication. All of these traits and skills can be acquired and developed in college through volunteer and internship opportunities. More often than not, your Special Education college will send a trained specialist for hands-on sessions.

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In addition, having a strong intuition and keen attention to detail are traits that go perfectly together for special education students. Intuition helps you see if a child is comfortable or not, tapping within to observe and examine different cues that may hint at these feelings, while attention to detail is immensely vital in checking their physical and mental health.

Creativity and imagination

Your Special Education training usually includes opportunities to work with special kids under direct supervision, so most graduates are aware of what the daily sessions entail. Being in close contact with children and youth groups will push you into creative overdrive, devising new ways to teach and make concepts understood. As a special needs educator, you must be on your toes and act quickly, improvising most of the time especially if you notice that the students aren’t responding well to your lessons. Nobody wants to sit in a boring class, even students with special needs!

When you are able to put complex lessons and interpret it effectively in a fun, innovative way, you’re pushing personal and professional boundaries, mastering the art of teaching with every session. That may seem lofty at the beginning because it’s quite hard to achieve this even in mainstream classes, but when you’re out to give the children a great time, your goals evolve.

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Going the extra mile, preparing audiovisual materials and games may seem like the norm in most classroom set-ups, but when there are thoughtful planning and consideration involved, these activities will foster learning and retention, even in children with learning disabilities.

Active listening and good communication skills

As for skills, language and communication play very critical roles. In most cases, special needs teachers have to be more active when teaching but more reactive when talking to students. If you are adept in listening and adaptive communication, the job becomes a lot easier for you. Not to worry though, these skills can be learned!

Because you will be working with individuals who have a difficult time fully expressing themselves, you will be trained in context clues as well as body and non-verbal language so you could understand what it is that they are trying to tell you. Most of these students cannot speak or comprehend, which could make it difficult for their teachers and families to address their needs. There are even students who are distraught and frustrated because of limitations in communication, which could make them difficult to deal with.

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Sign language is, in some situations, the only mode of communication, so you may need to take additional training to master this skill. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the functions of different assistive devices, such as hearing aids and crutches, which students may often use in class.

Extensive theoretical and applied knowledge

Those hours you spent in class? The stress that came with studying for exams? They aren’t for nothing! It actually pays to know about the science behind what you do for a living, and even if it’s normal to take our education for granted at times, special education majors should take every lesson seriously.

For example, when you deal with special needs students, knowledge about interpersonal development with the aid of a personalized curriculum can help you create structured learning sessions. Think of it as a spring that flows forth into everything that you do as a special needs educator – these lessons are meant to foster interpersonal growth, social awareness, and social maturity.

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Social and organizational skills, paired with a good academic background comes a long way. A SpED teacher should have ample knowledge of important psychological theories like BF Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, and other pedagogical principles. In other words, there’s no substitute for a good theoretical foundation. Also, don’t forget the value of your practical training – this is where you learn the ropes of the profession.

Utmost dedication and positivity

Although working in the special education field entails adhering to the usual school schedule, teachers are expected to spend more hours preparing reports, planning activities, and working together with their families. This may involve a huge chunk of effort on your part, on top of the actual teaching sessions, and routine assessment of students’ learning needs.

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Special needs educators are required to understand the amount of effort required on the job and possess the willingness to always go the extra mile for the kids. In spite of the hardships and trials tied with the job, it’s one of the most fulfilling and exciting ones out there. Teachers are also expected to convey a positive attitude at work because these kids need to feel encouraged the most.

Teamwork and collaborative skills

As previously mentioned, special education teachers are expected to collaborate with general education teachers, especially if the student they are handling would qualify entry into mainstream classes. SpEd teachers should try to accommodate questions about the requirements of these students, and work hand in hand with their colleagues for the good of the children.

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Aside from their co-teachers, special needs educators need to work hand in hand with the families of children with disabilities. Open communication and teamwork are important factors in making sure that the kids have a positive experience at home or in school. Teachers can also make suggestions on how to foster learning outside of the classroom.

A good sense of humor and social maturity

Working in a classroom setting, there’s always room for bloopers and a good laugh. Special education teachers must recognize the appropriateness of certain remarks and know when to shift the mood to stimulate a positive atmosphere. When the timing is right, it certainly changes the dynamic of the whole class, making the lesson more engaging. This will also make it easier for children to express themselves without fear or shame of their conditions.

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Teachers are also expected to possess social maturity, especially in the event that minor slips or aggression in class happens. Sometimes, it all gets too stressful, especially in mixed classes where different learning situations take place. Depending on the age group and condition, students may make a huge mess and not know how to clean-up after themselves. It’s possible that the room would experience a variety of spills and stains, or kids urinating in their pants. Teachers must know how to handle these kinds of scenarios.

Humility and willingness to learn

When the going gets tough, it may be hard for teachers to keep up with the demands of the job. Sometimes, it will be too emotional and physically draining, but educators must keep their feelings in check and act with the utmost professionalism. They must accept that they are far from perfect and that there are always areas to improve on.

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Continuous, lifelong learning is a concept that’s also applicable in the field of special education, with different theories and techniques emerging every few years. A good example of this is investing in special training even at the undergrad level or pursuing further studies (master or doctoral degree) to hone your capabilities and open doors for the improvement of your practice.

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As a final word, special education teachers are an integral part of the whole system, especially for children and their families who have lived (and will continue to live) with these challenges. As solid support systems and partners in improving the quality of life of students with special needs, they are truly indispensable.

As you decide to pursue this path, your special education degree will focus on the cultivation of both your mind and your spirit by learning compassion and wisdom. When you graduate, you will be equipped to guide, care for, and nurture individuals with special needs.