Special Education Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Does it Mean to Study Special Education?

Special education teachers cater to students with special needs. These students, whether because of physical, mental or psychological disabilities, must be taught by professionals trained in helping students in need. Federal and state law mandates that every student with a disability, regardless of that disability's nature, is entitled to an adequate education.

This concept sprang directly from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law enacted in 1974 that sets out special-education requirements with which states must comply. Although periodically revised, this law consistently frames the vital role of the special educator.

To become a special education teacher, students must complete a degree program that prepares them to work with special-needs children. This includes classroom training, coursework and completing proper teacher certification. Each state's Department of Education governs the requirements for average course contents, in-class training, and the various certifications.

Teaching in Special Education Schools & Classrooms

Special education is, arguably, the most diverse curriculum in any given school. Since special education can encompass any academic subject or life skill, the special education major must be well-versed in a number of subjects. Each special-needs student is different and the settings in which a special educator serves is constantly changing. Most education degree in special education majors, therefore, include general coursework on institutional education as well as specialized courses dealing with a variety of disabling conditions.

Federal and state law dictates that every student is entitled to receive their education in the least restrictive manner possible. In the best cases, that means placing a special needs child into a regular classroom in a standard school. The Individuals with Disablities Education Act states that, "To the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities [should be] educated with children who are not disabled."

Unfortunately, the level of need from some students makes classroom integration impossible. Due to these factors, special education majors are introduced to a full range of different environments in which they may be required to teach. For example, a student with severe cerebral palsy may be bedridden. In this case, the special education teacher must provide that student with an education in spite of hospital restrictions.

Do You Have What It Takes to Teach Special Education?

Special education teachers work closely with students and enjoy the unique opportunity to establish meaningful and long-lasting relationships with them. But despite its rewards, this career can drain even the best teachers, both emotionally and physically. Compared to general education teachers, special education teachers give out and grade fewer assignments, but must produce more paperwork, especially a series of highly detailed and individualized progress reports on students. Additionally, in some areas, special education teachers work a longer school year than their general education counterparts. Some schools offer year-round special education assistance, but the majority still adheres to the ten-month school year.

Types of Special Education Degrees

Most special education degrees exist at the master's level, although some undergraduate programs with this particular specialization are available. At the graduate level, online degree programs in special education are increasing in popularity, particularly for working teachers who are required to earn master's degrees within a certain time period (a common practice in public school districts). Online college classes allow teachers to earn advanced degrees without leaving the tenure track at their school. For students who are not yet teachers and want to earn licensure as part of their online degree, in-person student teaching experience is still required and can usually be arranged locally.

Bachelor's Degrees in Special Education

To enter a bachelor's degree program, a successful candidate must have a high school diploma or GED. Generally, a bachelor's degree program covers general education courses in addition to special education coursework over four years. Undergraduate special education majors begin with introductory courses in education or psychology. Sophomore students participate in core courses covering education, psychology and child development. Third-year students begin the specialized training required for special education majors, including supervised experiences and classroom visits. Senior students prepare for certification and graduation with advanced coursework and student teaching.

General studies constitute about 40 percent of the undergraduate program; 20 percent is devoted to education psychology and child growth and development; the remaining 40 percent concentrates on the knowledge and skills needed for the education of students with disabilities. Many universities have instituted a fifth undergraduate year (or post-baccalaureate year) for special education majors, designed to provide additional training in educational psychology, legal issues of special education, and other highly specialized topics.

Browse bachelor's degree programs in special education.

Master's Degrees in Special Education

In some cases where the prospective special education major holds a general education degree, they may participate in further study to meet the special education requirements. All 50 states require public school teachers to hold a bachelor's degree and complete an approved teacher preparation program with a prescribed number of subject and education credits and supervised practice teaching. Many states require special education teachers to obtain a master's degree in special education as well as additional student training in order to become licensed. Compared to general education teachers, special education teachers routinely undergo longer periods of training as well as more intensive student teaching periods.

Browse master's degree programs in special education.

What can you do with an Special Education Degree?

Most positions in the field of special education involve educating young children with disabilities. The education and training level of a teacher usually determines her qualifications to fill a certain position. In most instances, professionals who have earned more advanced degrees earn higher salaries.

Public or Private School Systems

Most special education teachers work for public or private school systems. Always in demand, the special education teacher is an essential part of any school system. Special education teachers at this level are required to have at least a bachelor's degree in special education, and a master's degree is highly desirable. Job seekers must first obtain all necessary certification and licensure from their state.

Special education teachers may also aspire to take on positions as educational administrators. These professionals generally oversee the day-to-day operations of an educational institution. Administrators manage curriculum while directing staff and properly insuring that the institution meets all state and federal standards. In larger or more prestigious schools, this position requires an advanced degree; a bachelor's degree and several years of respected teaching experience may suffice in smaller school systems.

Private Learning Centers

Private learning centers operate on a per-person basis. Though they are better known for providing SAT tutoring and similar services, special education teachers are needed in these facilities as well. Special needs students often need additional help with coursework in subject-specific areas. Since general education teachers have not trained for the challenges of working with special needs students, special education majors can provide essential assistance.

Correctional Facilities

Regardless of a juvenile's legal situation, the same free education laws apply. Special education teachers are generally the only type of educator employed by correctional facilities. Whether the student has a learning disability, behavioral issues or a physical handicap, the special education teacher has been trained to deal with these difficulties.

Mental Health Facilities

Special needs students struggle with mental health issues as well as physical handicaps. With a new wave of attention for mental wellness in America, the expanding mental health industry requires special education graduates to fill some important roles. These facilities include shelters, mental health institutions and some minimum-security correctional facilities. Behavioral problems are a focus of many special education degree programs and many professionals find it rewarding to work with these students.

Special Education Certification and Licensure

In addition to a bachelor's or master's degree (depending on your state and school district), all special education teachers are required to hold a teaching license. Though private schools and other employers may elect to hire an unlicensed specialist, public schools may only hire from the pool of licensed candidates. Because the license normally specifies the area in which the teacher specializes, special education teachers receive that notation on their documents.

In order to apply for a license, recent graduates must prove their competency by passing a set of standardized tests. Competency tests vary from state to state. Many states use the Praxis tests, created by the same firm that runs the SAT. Since standards and requirements constantly change, special education majors should consult their local state education board for more information.

In addition to state testing and licensing, special education teachers may also apply for a national teaching accreditation from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. This license is recognized by all 50 states and in Washington, D.C., but is not a replacement for the state license. By obtaining this license, teachers can benefit in terms of salary and financial aid for continuing education. Applicants must provide a portfolio of their classroom ability and pass an exam demonstrating their general knowledge.

Many states honor reciprocity agreements that allow special education teachers to transfer licenses between locations. Currently, there is no national certification supplanting the state licenses for special education teachers.

Due to the need for special education teachers, many states offer alternative and emergency licenses. Alternative licenses bring qualified college graduates and mid-life career changers into teaching at an accelerated rate. Generally, requirements for the alternative license are less stringent than those for the normal license. In some areas of urgent need, individuals can begin teaching immediately with an alternative license, while earning their regular license by taking additional coursework and teaching under the supervision of licensed teachers. Emergency licenses are issued when the demand for special education teachers far outweighs the talent pool.

Other Special Education Associations & Organizations

General Education Associations & Organizations

Return to the top

Pursue your Special Education Major today…

Refine School Matches
Hide filters
  • SUBJECT Clear All

    See More


    See More



    Please enter valid US or Canada Zip.

Searching Searching ...

Prefer exploring options talking to our staff?
Call toll free now: 1.855.330.6938
Matching School Ads
Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Special Education
  • There's still time to apply to Grand Canyon University and pursue your education. Learn more today!
  • Study on your schedule - GCU offers many programs 100% online to fit your busy lifestyle.
  • GCU offers a variety of opportunities to reduce the cost of furthering your education. Campus students may qualify for scholarships, while online students can take part in limited special offers.
  • A regionally accredited university, GCU also holds specialized accreditations and approvals for some of our core program offerings.
  • Degrees in business, education, nursing, humanities and social sciences, theology and more. Find the degree that fits you.
  • Talk to us today to learn more about financial aid and start dates!
  • Accredited
  • Online Courses
  • Flexible Scheduling
  • Accelerated Programs
  • Financial Aid
  • Transferable Credits
Special Education - Doctor of Education
  • Ranked among the Best Online Bachelor's Programs in 2014 by U.S. News & World Report.
  • Implements a one-to-one teaching model, partnering one student with one faculty member in each course.
  • 100% of faculty members hold doctoral degrees.
  • No physical residency requirements, allowing students to pursue their degree online.
  • Committed to innovation, diversity, excellence, and accountability since its founding in 1996.
  • Offers several programs in business, education, psychology, and more.
Show more [+]
  • Online Courses
  • Financial Aid
  • Transferable Credits
M.Ed. - Program Specialist in Gifted Specialist
  • Ranked among top Regional Universities in the South by U.S. News and World Report in 2015.
  • Ranked 37th among the Best Colleges for Veterans by U.S. News and World Report in 2015.
  • Stands as the largest private, nonprofit university in the nation with 100,000+ students.
  • Offers over 230 programs online, from the certificate to the doctoral level.
  • Has a student-faculty ratio of 25:1, and 42.3% of its classes have fewer than 20 students.
Show more [+]
  • Accredited
  • Online Courses
  • Financial Aid
  • Transferable Credits
Masters in Special Education                                                   

Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1851, Saint Joseph's University (SJU) has been developing the minds and abilities of men and women in a challenging academic environment steeped in the enriching Jesuit tradition of cura personalis (care of the entire person). The strong liberal arts foundation promotes an environment of open-minded investigation and debate and attends to developing students beyond their academic accomplishments, while maintaining high academic standards. The University strives to be recognized as the preeminent Catholic comprehensive university in the Northeast.

  • Online Courses
Master of Science in Education in Special Education

Purdue University offers a strong foundation of tradition and history, an environment of intellectual curiosity and discovery, and a supportive, student-centered approach to learning. Founded in 1869 as a land-grant school, the University is known today for its prolific faculty as well as a record of distinguished research and achievement in aerospace, engineering, technology, science, and math. Our goal is to educate and develop men and women of personal integrity and scholarly excellence.

  • Online Courses
M.A. Education with Preliminary Education Specialist Instruction Credential
  • Founded over 60 years ago on the principles of inclusion and social justice.
  • Offers credit for previous life and work experience.
  • Equipped with over 17,000 titles in their library.
  • Has 3 semesters and 6 start dates a year.
  • Located in Pasadena, CA, with instructional sites in Sacramento, Salinas, Santa Cruz, and Visalia as well as online options.
  • Accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
Show more [+]
  • Online Courses
  • Flexible Scheduling
  • Accelerated Programs
  • Financial Aid
  • Transferable Credits
MS - Teaching and Learning
  • Ranked among the 2015 Best Online Graduate Education Programs by U.S. News & World Report.
  • Awarded 21 institutional scholarships in 2013, totaling over $76,000 in tuition.
  • Offers several certificate programs where students can earn credits without committing to a full degree program.
  • Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association (NCA).
  • Part of the Colorado State University System.
Show more [+]
  • Online Courses
  • Financial Aid
  • Transferable Credits
SPEAK TO AN ADVISOR 1.844.285.6104