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Early childhood special education teacher and student
Teaching Careers Updated January 17, 2018

Early Childhood Special Education Teacher: Job Duties, Pay Information

By Robbie Bruens October 4, 2012

Early childhood special education teacher and studentDo you enjoy working with young children and have the desire and patience to reach out to those with special needs? If so, a career as an early childhood special education teacher may be right for you.

As an early childhood special education teacher, you will work with children under the age of 6 who have diagnosed mental, social or physical challenges. You must be committed to helping children reach their learning potential and creative enough to meet the unique needs of each child you teach.

An early childhood special education teaching career is a rewarding and challenging path. The students in your classroom may be newly diagnosed, and you may play a role in determining what services and accommodations they need. Parents may still be coming to terms with their child’s disability and will need your support and advice. This is a chance to make a big impact on a child’s life at a very young age.

This guide will help you understand many aspects of being an early childhood special education teacher. It includes details about responsibilities, salary and career prospects, personality characteristics that point to job satisfaction, and resources that can help you advance in a special education career.

At-a-glance
> Early childhood special education teacher job description
> Who makes a good early childhood special education teacher?

Types of early childhood special education teachers
> Preschool special education teachers
> Kindergarten special education teachers

Professional development
> Continuing education
> What kinds of programs can help early childhood special education teachers?
> Professional associations

Related careers
> Jobs beyond teaching

Best of the web
> Sites and Twitter handles to follow

At-a-glance: early childhood special education teachers

Preschool special ed teachers Kindergarten special ed teachers
Minimum education Bachelor’s degree Bachelor’s degree
Median salary $53,990 (BLS)
$48,589 (Glassdoor.com)
$44,961 (PayScale.com)
$48,000 (SimplyHired.com)
$55,810 (BLS)
$42,870 (Glassdoor.com)
$44,961 (PayScale.com)
Job growth outlook +5% +6%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Special education teacher job description

Early childhood special education teachers work with students who have developmental difficulties such as speech and vision problems, limited motor skills, sensory-processing difficulties or special learning challenges.

If you’re an early childhood special education teacher, your work may include activities like:

  • Evaluating an individual student’s learning challenges and revising the standard curriculum to match the child’s functional capacity
  • Helping a child under 6 suffering from cerebral palsy who needs assistance with motor skills and eating/drinking
  • Providing a quiet, structured learning environment to kindergarten students with sensory-processing challenges
  • Scheduling an after-school parent conference and pulling together recent data so you can talk about the child’s improvement. You might make notes advising the parents on how to work with their child.
  • Teaching three children with similar learning difficulties in a circle so they can progress together and learn from each other
  • Co-teaching a kindergarten class where several students have been diagnosed with ADHD

You’ll carry out these responsibilities with standard techniques such as one-on-one instruction, imitation, repetition and step-by-step problem solving.

Special education teachers also collaborate with other teachers, therapists, preschool supervisors and parents to ensure educational goals are appropriate and that the student is progressing. The job will probably require you to fill out forms with the results of testing/evaluation and notes on student improvements and special challenges.

You will most likely work five days a week, with occasional evenings and weekends for parent conferences and other school functions. If you work for a public school district, summers off are a common perk. Some private preschool programs run all year.

Who makes a good early childhood special education teacher?

Someone who is:

  • Patient
  • Kind
  • Compassionate
  • Well organized
  • Flexible
  • Creative

If these traits describe you, then an early special education career could be your calling. People committed to enriching the lives of young children with disabilities and who can deal with lots of paperwork may have what it takes to succeed as a special education teacher.

Before you devote your life to this career, keep in mind that you may end up spending most of your time working one-on-one with students in specially designed classrooms. Think about whether that appeals to you.

Special education teachers work so closely with students that they can become more emotionally involved than other teachers might. Letting go of these emotional ties is tough enough when a child moves to another school, but it can be excruciating at times (like when a student has a terminal illness).

Interested in becoming an early childhood special education teacher?

Check out this video to get a better sense of what it’s like to work as an early childhood special education teacher.

Teaching at various levels

Preschool special education teachers

Preschool special education teachers teach, coach and mentor disabled children before they enter elementary school. They also evaluate children’s skills and functional capabilities, and modify lesson plans to meet individual needs. These teachers may also work on social skills to help these children enter an integrated learning environment.

Continue reading to learn more about preschool special education teachers

What preschool special education teachers do

Preschool special education teachers work either in a regular classroom or a specially designed classroom, depending on the severity of their students’ disabilities. The special education teacher may be required to teach life skills or social skills, as well as academic learning objectives. The day-to-day duties include:

  • Testing students with disabilities using standard techniques
  • Evaluating disabled students to determine their skill levels and functional capabilities
  • Modifying lessons to match each disabled student’s abilities
  • Co-teaching in integrated learning settings
  • Meeting parents and others to review goals and assess progress
  • Creating materials to assist in teaching

Students in special needs preschools may be diagnosed with a variety of conditions, including autism, Down syndrome and developmental delays. Class sizes are usually under 12 students. Each classroom may have a lead teacher as well as assistant teachers and special education aides. This allows for individualized attention and one-on-one learning.

A preschool special education classroom can be a stressful environment. Teachers are responsible for adapting their learning objectives and classroom management techniques to meet a novel variety of emotional, behavioral, physical and cognitive disabilities. Teaching life skills and social skills can be challenging but extremely critical to student advancement.

The preschool special education teacher may work in a clinical or day care setting, since the children in this age group are too young to attend elementary school. However, many school districts run special education programs for preschool age children, so a special preschool may be contained in a larger elementary school. Private elementary schools and preschools may also hire special-needs teachers for preschool students.

Education and certification requirements

Preschool special education teachers who work in public schools are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate issued by the state where they teach.

Some private preschools may have less stringent criteria, so an associate degree or child development credential may be sufficient, but the pay is often significantly lower without a bachelor’s degree. Most private preschools give priority to candidates with higher levels of education, especially because of the demands of the job.

Having a bachelor’s or master’s degree in special education will give you a huge advantage over others applying for early childhood special education jobs.

Salary and employment projections

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the median income for a preschool special education teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $53,990. The median salary for a preschool special education teacher without a bachelor’s degree sinks significantly to $23,870. Here are more average salaries from some online sources:

  • SimplyHired.com: $48,000
  • PayScale.com:  $44,961
  • Glassdoor.com: $48,589

Because early intervention can have a big impact on a child’s success, being able to identify children with special needs at a young age is a prized skill in the education sector. The continued demand for special needs services makes becoming a preschool special education teacher a stable choice.

Pros and cons of being a preschool special education teacher

As with any job, there are pluses and minuses to being a preschool special education teacher.

Pros

  • Work is engaging and hands-on
  • You can help improve the life of someone who is disabled
  • You may develop a close one-on-one working relationship with each of your students
  • You will work with a group of professionals who are dedicated to helping children with special needs to thrive
  • Short workdays in many cases
  • Good job availability
  • Experience in this role can qualify you for work elsewhere in the education sector

Cons

  • It’s very easy to become emotionally attached to a student
  • Your mission as a teacher may conflict with parents’ goals for the student
  • Responsible for a tremendous amount of paperwork associated with each disabled student
  • Lack of prestige associated with the job
  • Extensive training required

Kindergarten special education teachers

Kindergarten special education teachers instruct students with special needs during the first year of elementary school.

Continue reading to learn more about kindergarten special education teachers

What kindergarten special education teachers do

Kindergarten special education teachers work with students ages 4 to 6 who have learning challenges or physical/social disabilities. Kindergarten special education teachers are the first teachers to work with these students in elementary grade level classrooms.

As a kindergarten special education teacher, you will use patience and creativity to adapt kindergarten lesson plans and learning objectives so students with many kinds of special challenges can progress academically and socially. You will assess each young student to identify their strengths and weaknesses and customize kindergarten activities and curriculum accordingly. You will also communicate your findings to parents, administrators, counselors and other involved parties.

You will also develop individualized education programs (IEPs) for each of your students. IEPs outline how the school will accommodate their unique special needs. You will track your students’ progress and help ensure that each student receives the services described by the IEP. At the end of their enrollment in kindergarten, you will help to transition your students to first grade or to their next school.

As a special education teacher for kindergartners, you have the opportunity to influence the academic future of a child with disabilities. Intervening at this early age increases the chance for children to improve in areas such as social skills, motor skills, language and speech.

Typically, as a kindergarten special education teacher, you will work regular school hours in a public or private school. You may work in the classroom or in private one-on-one sessions with students, or in some combination of both.

In some cases, you may collaborate with a general education classroom teacher. You may help these general education teachers adjust lessons for special needs students or you may co-teach and help them approach a lesson in a way that is more manageable for special education students. You may also teach students with special needs privately to help in particular areas such as math or reading.

In other cases, you may work with a team of teaching aides and assistants to teach a classroom dedicated solely to students with special needs. These classrooms may serve students who share a certain kind of challenge in common, or students with a range of difficulties.

Education and certification requirements

All kindergarten special education teachers need a bachelor’s degree and a license or certification from the state to teach in a public school in the United States. Most private schools also require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, but they may not require them to have a teaching license or certificate.

In addition, you will most likely be required to complete a special education teaching instruction program, including a certain number of hours of special education teaching as an assistant or aide. Each state has specific certification requirements, but some states will honor a certification from other states.

When seeking a bachelor’s degree, you may choose to pursue a degree in special education and learn about specific disabilities and how to teach special education students. You can also choose to major in a general education area, such as math, and then minor in special education.

Acquiring a master’s degree in special education will differentiate you from other job candidates. A master’s degree in special education may include courses covering topics such as:

  • Learning how to identify disabilities
  • Managing different types of behavioral problems
  • Collaborating with administration, parents, agencies, and other professionals
  • Creating an atmosphere conducive to learning
  • Principles of psychology and teaching for exceptional students
  • Current trends in special education

Income projections

Kindergarten special education teachers earn an average annual salary of $55,810, according to the BLS. Top earners make up to $86,990 annually, and the lowest earned $36,900. Factors like work experience, educational qualifications, location and public funding level can affect your salary as a kindergarten special education teacher.

Here are some other salary estimates for this job from online surveys:

  • PayScale.com: $44,961
  • Glassdoor.com: $42,870

Pros and cons of being a kindergarten special education teacher

The rewards of being a kindergarten special education teacher are substantial. But there are also potential downsides.

Here are some of each:

Pros

  • Make a huge difference in the lives of students with special needs
  • Get to know students well and build a bond of trust
  • Public schools offer teachers two months of paid time off in the summer
  • Collaborate with other education professionals to carry out shared goals

Cons

  • You must conduct a lot of testing to evaluate improvement
  • You must complete a lot of paperwork required by administration
  • When a student moves on, it can be difficult to let go emotionally, especially if you are seeing real improvement while working with a student
  • More training needed than for general education classroom teaching

Professional development for special education teachers

Continuing education

Once you have your degree and teaching credentials, you can expand your teaching horizons through continuing education options such as:

  • Board Certification in Special Education: This certification from the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (AASEP) teaches a national standard for professionals who work with children who have learning disabilities.
  • Additional certifications: Special education teachers can earn certification in additional areas such as learning challenges or behavioral disabilities.
  • Master’s degree: Occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists must earn a master’s degree to be certified.
  • PhD or EdD in education: Teachers aiming to become leaders and top-level administrators in special education will find this degree invaluable.

What kinds of programs can help early childhood special education teachers?

Concordia University-Portland has terrific online graduate degree programs that can help give you a leg up for job opportunities as an early childhood special education teacher:

MEd in Curriculum and Instruction: The Inclusive Classroom (SPED)
MEd in Curriculum and Instruction: Early Childhood Education

The Curriculum and Instruction program at Concordia University-Portland has 16 concentrations. Choose a concentration such as The Inclusive Classroom to gain the knowledge and skills needed to work effectively with students with disabilities.

The programs emphasize instructional strategies for differentiating instruction, serving students with disabilities in inclusive general education classrooms, and implementing the Response to Intervention model at the classroom or school level.

Professional associations

These professional associations serve special education teachers:

Related careers

A special education teacher can find many jobs outside the traditional classroom, such as:

  • Applied behavior analysis therapist: Works one-on-one with people to assess behavior and skill levels, collaborating with care managers and family to drive improvements.
  • Board-certified behavior analyst: Works with more severely handicapped patients to test their behavioral levels and creates plans to help patients reach specific goals. Provides recommendations to staff and family.
  • Director of student support: Hires and develops special education instructors. Evaluates instructors. Creates strategic plans to meet ambitious goals for the school or facility.
  • Vocational counselor: Helps students find jobs that are suitable for their disabilities.

Best of the web: our favorite blogs, websites and Twitter handles

The web makes it easy to find and use high-quality early childhood special education resources. Here is a list of our favorite websites and blogs, in no particular order:

Favorite special education teacher websites

Blogs to follow

Who to follow on Twitter

Websites for students with disabilities

Learn More: Click to view related resources.

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