9 Things You Need to Know Before Working with Special Needs Students (2023)

9 Things You Need to Know Before Working with Special Needs Students (1)

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you working with special education students can be challenging. There’s paperwork, varying workloads and, some would say, an under-appreciation from others for the difficult work they do.

We asked experts who are experienced in teaching students with special needs to provide a little insight into their daily duties so you have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed in this specialized branch of educational instruction.

What you should know about working with children with special needs

When considering any career path, it helps to have a behind-the-scenes look at the road ahead. Consider this expert insight your test drive to know if you have what it takes to work with special needs students.

1. It will be stressful

Stress is unavoidable in most teaching jobs but particularly so when teaching special education students—no matter how talented you are as an instructor. Students with special needs often require more attention than students without special needs to ensure they’re making progress, so teachers are susceptible to being spread too thin. Also looming large as a source of stress is the potential for a student “meltdown.”

Former special education teacher Jeaninne Escallier wishes an experienced teacher would have shown her the most effective ways to handle these situations before she faced one on her own. “Emotionally disturbed students sometimes lash out at the teacher and other students.”

Escallier says it’s important for special education teachers and administrators to make sure there’s enough coverage for each student in their class to help prevent dangerous situations. In addition to having enough help on hand, you need to be able to remain calm to keep things from getting out of control.

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“Many autistic children express their desires by screaming,” Escallier says. “Adults must remain calm and always in control to make the children feel safe and loved.”

2. You’ll wear multiple hats

“A special education teacher is more than a classroom teacher,” Escallier says. “He or she is a community advocate and liaison for services that will make that child successful in life, not just in school.”

Your job title might read “special education teacher,” but there are plenty of unofficial duties that come with the job. Not only are you a teacher, but you’ll become an advocate, a coordinator and a counselor.

Educational therapist Erin Smilkstein says counseling and communicating with the parents of children with special needs is a huge part of the job. Parents, unlike special education teachers, have no specialized training and may lean on your expertise.

“I counsel parents a lot,” Smilkstein says. “I sit with them and guide them through the process of how to talk and work with their children—sometimes I say I am more of a parent support than a teacher.”

3. Salary information

Life as a preschool special education teacher can be demanding, but they are compensated at a higher rate than other preschool teachers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2017, the median annual salary for preschool special education teachers was $53,640.1 Compare that to the $28,790 median annual salary the BLS reports for preschool teachers, and it’s clear a premium is typically placed on education professionals with the specialized training needed for teaching students with special needs.2

4. Paperwork isn’t optional

Grading assignments and tracking scores is something that goes hand in hand with teaching. When it comes to working as a special education teacher, it’s important to know that you will most likely have more paperwork than teachers of traditional students.

(Video) Small Group Rotations with Moderate/Severe Special Education Students

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with special needs mean you will likely spend a considerable amount of time filling out paperwork that measures student progress. Escallier says the most challenging part of her time as a special education teacher was finding a balance between her work and her private life, especially with the added “homework.”

“I worked late nights and all weekend on these [IEPs] because I still had to teach and maintain classroom control during teaching hours,” Escallier says.

While these individualized plans will require additional work, it’s important to remember their purpose. Special needs students can’t be expected to learn and progress at a uniform pace; these plans help set and track learning goals and objectives that are appropriate for each student’s needs.

5. Employment of special education professionals remains steady

Demand for teachers in general isn’t particularly volatile—barring large changes to government policy, employment opportunities should stay on a steady course. The BLS projects an eight percent growth in employment for K-12 special education teachers by 2026, which is just slightly above the seven percent national average projected growth in employment for all occupations.2

It’s worth noting that preschool special education teachers are an exception, with employment growth projected to increase 11 percent through 2026.2

6. There is no “typical” student

Part of the challenge of being a special education teacher is managing the wide variety of students and their capabilities. For instance, a child who is nonverbal needs an entirely different approach to education than a student with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This requires teachers to be flexible in their teaching styles while keeping realistic the expectations they have for students.

Smilkstein says many people assume students in special education classes just have emotional or behavioral problems and write off their potential or ability to learn. The key for Smilkstein is to keep everything in perspective.

(Video) Special Education Teaching Strategies

“[These] kids work as hard as they can, but they will also protect themselves from pain,” she says. “That can often look like they have behavioral problems or unwillingness to work when they fear another failure is going to happen.”

7. Having fun is crucial

“The emotional component of learning for a student with special needs is so important to address,” says Smilkstein. “You’ll find you accomplish more when you set out acknowledging that education needs to be a good experience for the child.”

In all likelihood, you’ve had to slog through a dull class or two in your lifetime. Boredom saps the energy out of a classroom and can be a real detriment to student learning. It’s important for teachers to embrace fun in their lessons—besides, how many jobs really encourage being a little goofy? Smilkstein says that even though people might think of her job as serious, intensive work, she plays and laughs with students multiple times a day.

8. It can be an uphill battle

Simply put, it takes skill and plenty of patience to explain a concept to a child—whether they have special needs or not! Both students and teachers will have to deal with the frustration of not grasping an elusive concept, but Smilkstein says it’s important to embrace the challenge.

“Something that is very helpful to keep in mind is that kids are trying to do their best,” says Smilkstein. “As much as you may find yourself creating labels like ‘He’s lazy’ or ‘She’s impossible,’ you need to continue to look at yourself as the key problem solver, with learning as the puzzle.”

9. It’s all worth it

“There is nothing more satisfying than watching a child learn something new and the way it changes their self-esteem and confidence,” Escallier says.

Don’t let the frustration and stress that comes with being a special education teacher fool you into thinking it’s all bad—there are plenty of rewarding moments as well. Smilkstein says the most rewarding part of her job are the moments when pupils make a breakthrough. These breakthrough moments are especially sweet for both teachers and students as they know firsthand the hard work and heartache that went into the achievement.

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The reward of the job isn’t strictly coming from the satisfaction of your students, either. Parents of children with special needs have certainly had times of feeling overwhelmed and know how hard-earned progress can be. Because of that, you can expect to receive some truly heartfelt praise and gratitude.

“The most rewarding part of my time in special education was getting children into the right programs for their needs,” Escallier says. “So many parents have called me their savior because I never gave up on their child until they got the care they needed.”

The bottom line

Teaching special needs students is no picnic—stress and paperwork can make even the most cheerful people grumble a bit—but there are plenty of moments that make the job very rewarding. It’s important for would-be special education teachers to be fully committed to their work as this is not a career that lends itself to a halfhearted effort. Here’s the good news—if you have the right attitude and are willing to put in the work, you are well on your way to working in this demanding but gratifying career.

If working with children with special needs appeals to you, you’ll want to check out the Rasmussen College Early Childhood Education Associate’s degree program—which features a Special Needs specialization designed to equip you with the skills needed to effectively work with these students.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2017, [information accessed January 29, 2019] https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes252051.htm. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed January 29, 2019] https://www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

*Graduates of Early Childhood Education programs at Rasmussen College are not eligible for licensure as a teacher in an elementary or secondary school. A Bachelor’s degree and a state teaching license are typically required to work as a teacher in public and private school settings.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2015. It has since been updated. Insights from Escallier and Smilkstein remain from the original article.


What are the 9 principles of learning? ›

Nine Principles of Learning
  • We learn to do by doing.
  • We learn to do what we do and not something else.
  • Without readiness, learning is inefficient and my be harmful.
  • Without motivation there can be no learning at all.
  • For effective learning, responses must be immediately reinforced.

What qualities should you possess to effectively teach students with special needs? ›

The Qualities of a Special Ed Teacher – What it Takes to be Great
  • Adaptability. Classrooms can be unpredictable. ...
  • Collaboration. ...
  • Communication skills. ...
  • Compassion. ...
  • Devotion to improvement. ...
  • Assessment skills. ...
  • Knowledge of theory and practice. ...
  • Listening skills.
17 Aug 2018

What skills do you need to work in a special school? ›

Skills and knowledge
  • knowledge of teaching and the ability to design courses.
  • sensitivity and understanding.
  • patience and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations.
  • the ability to work well with others.
  • the ability to create the best conditions for learning or teaching new things.
  • knowledge of English language.

What are the 10 principles of learning? ›

10 Principles We've Learned About Learning
  • Learning is developmental. ...
  • Individuals learn differently. ...
  • People learn what is personally meaningful to them. ...
  • New knowledge is built on current knowledge. ...
  • Learning occurs through social interaction. ...
  • People learn when they accept challenging but achievable goals.
22 Sept 2014

What are the 8 principles of learning? ›

To ensure the successful transfer of knowledge, online training courses should effectively apply the 8 principles of learning.
Here are some suggestions to get started.
  • Readiness. You can't force anyone to study, not even kids. ...
  • Exercise. ...
  • Effect. ...
  • Primacy. ...
  • Recency. ...
  • Intensity. ...
  • Freedom. ...
  • Requirement.
12 Jul 2020

What qualities do you need to work with people with disabilities? ›

The most important traits to cultivate to be a caregiver of disabled persons are:
  • Empathy. One of the most important qualities of a caregiver is an empathetic nature. ...
  • Patience. Patience is essential when caring for individuals who aren't fully self-sufficient. ...
  • Adaptability. ...
  • Dependability. ...
  • Practical.
17 Jun 2019

How do you work with people with special needs? ›

Applying the following suggestions will assist career services staff and employers in working with an intern or employee with a psychiatric disability.
  1. Be positive and expect the person to do well. ...
  2. Be consistent. ...
  3. Make instructions clear. ...
  4. Reward and compliment good performance on the job.

What qualities do you need to work with autistic children? ›

  • 10 Characteristics of Great Autism Support Teachers.
  • Empathy. Empathy is a must! ...
  • Patience. Patience is a virtue! ...
  • Knowledge. Staying knowledgeable on diagnoses and disorders that students have in a teacher's classroom is important. ...
  • Attentiveness. ...
  • Curiosity. ...
  • Adaptive. ...
  • Creative.

How do you engage special needs students? ›

See Also
  1. Discover your students' strengths. ...
  2. Provide positive role models with disabilities. ...
  3. Develop strength-based learning strategies. ...
  4. Use assistive technologies and Universal Design for Learning tools. ...
  5. Maximize the Power of your students' social networks. ...
  6. Help students envision positive future careers.
9 Apr 2013

What are the 3 most important roles of a special education teacher? ›

Special education teachers typically do the following: Assess students' skills and determine their educational needs. Adapt general lessons to meet students' needs. Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student.

How do you manage learners with special needs in an inclusive classroom? ›

5 Inclusive Classroom Strategies To Build A Safe Community
  1. Get to Know Your Students and Let Them Get to Know You. Establishing a bond with your students takes time. ...
  2. Create a Safe Space for Students to Share. ...
  3. Deliver Instruction in a Variety of Ways. ...
  4. Choose Relevant Literature. ...
  5. Invite Guest Speakers to Share Their Stories.

How do I become a good special needs teaching assistant? ›

Working in this role can be challenging, so empathy, a caring attitude, and a strong understanding of children is vital. In addition, you will need to be good at working as a team, as you will work alongside teachers, parents and carers to ensure the child or children in your care receive the correct support.

What is the role of special needs teachers? ›

Special needs education teaching professionals organise and provide instruction at a variety of different levels to children who have emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties or physical disabilities. These professionals may also work with exceptionally gifted pupils.

What are the roles and responsibilities of a special needs assistant? ›

Their duties and responsibilities involve:

Special assistance as necessary for pupils with particular needs e.g. helping physically disabled pupils with typing or writing. Assistance with clothing, feeding, toileting and general hygiene. Assisting on out-of-school visits, walks and similar activities.

What are the 4 basic principles of learning? ›

Principles of learning, also known as laws of learning, are readiness, exercise, effect, primacy, recency, intensity and freedom. These are discussed below and they should help you in designing and conducting your health education sessions.

What is the most important principle in teaching? ›

The most important principles of teaching are to be passionate about it and help students to acquire the knowledge. It should be all about developing curiosity, knowledge, and a genuine love for learning in the students.

What is the most effective learning strategy? ›

The most effective strategy according to Dunlosky's research is practice testing. It consists of studying and reviewing by answering questions and actively bringing information back to mind. When this is done, information is reconsolidated, new connections are created, and memory and understanding are strengthened.

What are the 5 learning principles? ›

5 Principles of Learning
  • Learning takes Time. It takes time to learn worthwhile academic content. ...
  • Learning is Social. Most learning is an interactive endeavor. ...
  • Learning is Personal. ...
  • Learning is Transferable. ...
  • Effort produces Achievement.
24 Dec 2017

What are the 8 principles of assessment? ›

Principles of Assessment
  • Assessment will be valid. ...
  • Assessment will be reliable. ...
  • Assessment will be equitable. ...
  • Assessment will be explicit and transparent. ...
  • Assessment will support the student learning process. ...
  • Assessment will be efficient.

Why do you want to work with special needs students? ›

Working with special needs students gives you the opportunity to impact the lives of children who have disabilities, learning disorders, and developmental delays. Not only are you making an impact in the lives of students by giving them tools and resources to learn according to their learning style.

How would you deal with a special needs child in the classroom? ›

Teaching Tips for Students with Special Needs
  1. Keep your classroom organized. ...
  2. Remember that each child is an individual. ...
  3. Give your students opportunities for success. ...
  4. Create a support network. ...
  5. Keep things simple.

What qualifications do you need to work with learning disabilities? ›

It might also be helpful to have a social care qualification such as a Level 2 or 3 diploma in health and social care, but this can be done once you start the job. It might also be useful to have experience working in a similar role or with adults or children who need some support.

What is the most challenging part of working with person with disabilities? ›

Stigmatization. Working an office job can be challenging for a person with disabilities, especially if they do not get along with other employees. People with disabilities often face stigmatization, especially if their disabilities are visible, such as the inability to walk.

What are the 5 barriers for persons with disabilities? ›

According to the Government of Ontario, there are five identified barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities. These barriers are attitudinal, organizational or systemic, architectural or physical, information or communications, and technology.

What is it called when you work with special needs? ›

A rehabilitation specialist (sometimes called a rehabilitation counselor), works with people with various disabilities to help them live independently. Much of their work deals with managing the challenges and tasks associated with learning to live with a disability.

What skills will teachers need to work with students who have autism? ›

Here are six tips to help your students with autism thrive in the classroom.
  • Avoid sensory overload. Many unexpected things can be distracting to students with autism. ...
  • Use visuals. ...
  • Be predictable. ...
  • Keep language concrete. ...
  • Directly teach social skills. ...
  • Treat students as individuals.
15 Mar 2016

What do I need to know about working with autism? ›

Here are a few helpful tips that employers can follow when supporting employees who have autism.
  • Provide Clear Directions. ...
  • Bring in Outside Support. ...
  • Provide Reasonable Accommodations. ...
  • Educate and Train Other Employees. ...
  • Designate a Mentor or Buddy. ...
  • Provide Consistent, Constructive Feedback.
15 Nov 2019

How do you approach a child with autism? ›

Communication and interaction tips for ASD
  1. Be patient. ...
  2. Teach the child how to express anger without being too aggressive. ...
  3. Be persistent but resilient. ...
  4. Always stay positive. ...
  5. Ignore irritating attention-getting behavior. ...
  6. Interact through physical activity. ...
  7. Be affectionate and respectful. ...
  8. Show your love and interest.

What is the most important thing to learn in special education? ›

The key to inclusive special education programs is understanding and accepting students for who they are. This means not just helping them overcome their weaknesses but assisting them in finding and developing their talents too.

What makes a good special education teacher? ›

A good special education teacher needs to be patient and understand her students better to help them learn. Acceptance : Special education teachers work with disabled students with various problems. Irrespective of the issues, these professionals must accept all the children and interact with love and respect.

What are the three most important challenges facing special education today? ›

Here are three challenges special education classes present and the ways skilled professionals cope with them.
  • Managing Disruptive Behaviors. ...
  • Differentiating Instruction. ...
  • Collaborating With Parents.
15 Feb 2021

What are the responsibilities of a teacher with respect to learners with special needs? ›

They should be especially tolerant towards special needs children and help them to mould their personality. They should not constantly engage in assessing children but should focus more on their development. The teacher has to deal with various students in the class. Some students are noisy, whereas some are quiet.

What are 5 elements to cater for the needs of your learners? ›

These five elements are:
  • Concepts.
  • Knowledge.
  • Skills.
  • Attitudes.
  • Action.

What are the 5 components of special and inclusive education? ›

Successful inclusive education happens primarily through accepting, understanding, and attending to student differences and diversity, which can include physical, cognitive, academic, social, and emotional.

What is the role of a teaching assistant in a special needs school? ›

prepare learning materials under the supervision of the teacher. work inside or outside the classroom with individuals or groups. adapt support according to needs. look after children's physical, social and emotional welfare.

What makes a good learning support assistant? ›

To be a good fit for a Learning Support Assistant (LSA) role, you will need to be positive, calm, motivational, flexible, creative, and innovative. You must be able to demonstrate that you are trustworthy and ethical, that you have a supportive nature, as well as being assertive, confident, and resourceful.

What is the teachers roles in educating children with special needs? ›

Special education teachers often sit with or near students with IEPs to monitor their progress and provide any special instructions or supplemental learning materials. Students require varying levels of individual instruction and assistance, based on their unique needs.

What is the responsibility of a classroom teacher for a child with a disability? ›

They can provide assistance with: school routines. classroom activities, and. the care and management of students with disability and additional learning and support needs.

What is it like working in a special needs school? ›

Working in special schools means helping some of society's most vulnerable children to explore ways of learning previously unavailable to them. In my experience, a supportive team is always available to answer your questions (don't hold back!) and SLT tend to be very approachable.

What skills does a special needs assistant need? ›

To do well in the work, SNAs should have a caring nature with excellent communication skills. A desire and passion to help students with special needs is a must. This will provide them with the ability and patience to deal with challenging behaviour.

What is SNA salary? ›

The national average salary for a SNA is €27,925 in Ireland.

What are the expectations of a teaching assistant? ›

Your job can include:
  • getting the classroom ready for lessons.
  • listening to children read, reading to them or telling them stories.
  • helping children who need extra support to complete tasks.
  • helping teachers to plan learning activities and complete records.
  • supporting teachers in managing class behaviour.

What are the 7 principles of learning? ›

The 7 principles of learning
  • Learners at the centre.
  • The social nature of learning.
  • Emotions are integral to learning.
  • Recognising individual differences.
  • Stretching all students.
  • Assessment for learning.
  • Building horizontal connections.
13 Oct 2016

What are learning principles in education? ›

Learning principles are guidelines for the ways in which people learn most effectively. The more these principles are reflected in training, the more effective training is likely to be. Research suggests that they apply equally to domestic and international situations.

What are the basic principles of teaching and learning? ›

Teaching Principles

Effective teaching involves aligning the three major components of instruction: learning objectives, assessments, and instructional activities. Effective teaching involves articulating explicit expectations regarding learning objectives and policies.

What is principle of learning in your own words? ›

Principles of Learning in My Own Words  Learning is an on-going process which requires time and diligence. ...  Learning is socializing and sharing ideas with others.  Learning is reflecting, understanding and applying the essence of ideas and meanings in their lives.

What are the 5 learning theories? ›

There are five primary educational learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive, constructivism, humanism, and connectivism. Additional learning theories include transformative, social, and experiential.

What are the 6 learning principles? ›

Let's analyse these six adult learning principles, including how to apply them in an L&D setting.
  • Need to know. First things first, adults must understand why they need to learn something. ...
  • Experience. As a child, everything is fresh and exciting. ...
  • Self-concept. ...
  • Readiness to learn. ...
  • Problem orientation. ...
  • Intrinsic motivation.
7 Jul 2022

What is the four pillars of learning? ›

A central argument is that if education is to succeed in its tasks, curriculum as its core should be restructured or repacked around the four pillars of learning: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be.

What is my role as a teacher? ›

A teacher is responsible for preparing lesson plans and educating students at all levels. Their duties include assigning homework, grading tests, and documenting progress. Teachers must be able to instruct in a variety of subjects and reach students with engaging lesson plans.

What is the most important principle in teaching? ›

The most important principles of teaching are to be passionate about it and help students to acquire the knowledge. It should be all about developing curiosity, knowledge, and a genuine love for learning in the students.

How do you teach students effectively? ›

Give them a reason to remember your class as an important part of their college experience!
  1. POSITIVE. Keep your students engaged with a positive attitude. ...
  2. PREPARED. You should know the course material. ...
  3. ORGANIZED. Have a plan for what you want to teach. ...
  4. CLEAR. ...
  5. ACTIVE. ...
  6. PATIENT. ...
  7. FAIR. ...

How can teachers maintain a focus on teaching and learning? ›

These include: Essential questions, which are used to determine the goal of lessons. Activating strategy, which is a method teachers use to get students excited about and connecting the content to their own lives. Relevant vocabulary, which refers to using vocabulary that students understand.

What are the basic elements of learning? ›

These five elements are:
  • Concepts.
  • Knowledge.
  • Skills.
  • Attitudes.
  • Action.

Who are the teacher that we remember most? ›

Teachers who are kind to us are the ones we remember the most, in my opinion. Another thing is the teacher who has left an imprint on us. Furthermore, the teacher who is capable of developing a positive relationship with us. Also, the teacher who has the patience to explain things to us.


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