Kindergarten/Elementary Special Education Teacher  What They Do

Just the Facts


Special Education Teachers, Kindergarten and Elementary School Career Video



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dotAccording to the Schwab Foundation for Learning, as many as one of every five students in the U.S. may struggle with schoolwork because of learning disabilities. The job of a special education teacher is to understand what the difficulties are, and understand the tools and techniques that can help students learn.

dotNot all students require the same tools for learning. Special education teachers design and modify instruction to meet a student's special needs -- traditionally for children who have mental or physical challenges.

Mental challenges can range from mild to severe learning impairments. Physical challenges include speech, hearing, vision limitations and students with orthopedic impairments.

dotSpecial education teachers also work with gifted students and with students with emotional and behavioral difficulties.

"Over a long period of time, these students have difficulty forming relationships with peers or adults, and their behavior is severe enough that it disrupts their learning," explains Larry Cantlin. He teaches emotionally impaired students in Jackson, Michigan.

dotIn some areas, special education teachers are itinerant teachers. That means they offer individualized help to children in general classrooms. In other areas, special education teachers work with special needs students in a separate classroom.

"Where we can, we integrate them," says Nancy Mendonca. She is a special education teacher. She works with trainable mentally impaired people in Fennville, Michigan.

dotSince special education students often learn less quickly, their teachers have to tailor a program to meet their individual needs. In fact, special education teachers are legally required to participate in the development of an individualized education program (IEP) for each special education student.

The IEP sets personalized goals for each student and is tailored to their individual learning style and ability. "They will get it," says Mendonca. "It just takes longer. And some are never going to learn as much as other students."

dotDepending on the disability, teaching methods can include individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments and group or individual work.

dotSpecial education teachers are also more involved with a student's behavioral development than general education teachers. For example, they help their students develop emotionally, be comfortable in group situations and be aware of socially acceptable behavior.

Preparing special education students for daily life after graduation is another important aspect of the job.

dotSpecial education is often a team effort involving the student, parents, principal, general education teachers and other professionals. Obviously, special education teachers need to have good communication skills and an ability to work well in this environment. They also need to be patient and accepting of differences in others.

Special education teachers must be creative and apply different types of teaching methods to reach and motivate students who are having difficulty.

dotSpecial education teachers work a 10-month-on, two-month-off schedule like general classroom teachers. Most say they work more than 40 hours a week, taking into account homework and class preparation.

dotSpecial education teachers suffer a high burnout rate. "By the end of the year, I say, 'I don't know if I'll do this next year.' But I do," says Cantlin.

Like many special education teachers, Cantlin finds the emotional and physical needs of students very demanding. It's also hard to keep up with the substantial amount of paperwork and records needed to document each student's progress.

Just the Facts

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At a Glance

Guide students with special needs on a learning journey

  • Preparing students for life outside school is an important part of the work
  • You're working in schools, so you'll work 10 months, then take two months off for the summer
  • In some states, you'll need a master's degree