If you’re passionate about working with children of all academic abilities, majoring in special education is the route for you. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education careers are expected to grow by 3% in the next decade, and many school districts currently lack the number of special education teachers necessary.
Through a curriculum that combines education foundations and specializations, this major prepares you to help people thrive within their own abilities.
What You’ll Be Doing
Special education majors learn how to create learning programs for both children and adults with special learning needs or disabilities. The coursework prepares you for state certification exams necessary in order to become a special education teacher. “I knew I wanted to go into special education early in high school…until you get into the classes in college you don’t realize how much there is to learn before earning your certification,” Arizona middle school special education teacher Melissa Becker said. Majors in special education craft individualized education programs (IEP) for a wide range of students with different learning capabilities. Alongside classes such as human development and learning and assistive technology, special education majors learn through hands-on classroom experiences to monitor and support students directly.
Classes You’ll Take
As a special education major, you’ll begin your coursework with introductory education classes such as education foundations and child psychology. These courses lay a foundation for becoming an educator, teach the history of education and present different ways to interact with students. As you progress through the major, you’ll take specialized classes like assistive technology, behavioral management and differentiated instruction. These classes allow you to learn about different disabilities and methods for teaching students with different needs. “We want them to be able to teach all students…good strategies and interventions that you would learn are helpful to all kids, not just kids with disabilities,” University of Kansas special education Assistant Professor Deborah Griswold said.
Throughout your time as a special education major, you’ll enroll in multiple practicums to gain hands-on experiences with students in a classroom. In each practicum, you’ll work with different students to gain a comprehensive learning experience in working with various needs. You’ll also spend your final semester student teaching, where you’ll get to combine all you’ve learned in your coursework into a full teaching experience.
Alongside hands-on experiences in practicum classes, special education majors can find internship experiences outside of schoolwork. The Boys & Girls Club of America, a national youth after-school program, offers spring, summer, and fall internships at various locations throughout the country. “I’ve worked and volunteered with Boys & Girls Club for the last few years…there’s nothing better than seeing the kids you mentor grow through the program,” Michigan State University sophomore Allison Jennings said. Volunteers and interns get the opportunity to work with school-aged children and teenagers from a variety of different backgrounds, which helps prepare future teachers for new teaching environments.
If you’d like to hold a once-in-a-lifetime internship, you can intern as an educator in developing countries. In this role, you’ll work alongside a teacher and assist in leading lessons, managing the classroom and mentoring students. To land this internship, you’ll usually apply through a placement company like IES Abroad or Máximo Nivel. These companies will match you with an education program and you’ll travel with a group of education students from different colleges. Study abroad programs usually require out-of-pocket travel expenses and program costs, but the experiences you’ll gain will be priceless.
1.Special Education Teacher
Becoming a special education teacher is probably the most obvious–and most popular–career choice for special education majors. Special education teachers typically work in schools and deliver educational instruction to students with special needs. As a special education teacher, you’ll create student IEPs and track their progress through their education. Teachers often work with other professionals from occupational therapists to speech pathologists in order to allow students to become the best they can be.
2. Early Intervention Specialist
If you enjoy working with young children, this career path may be for you. Early intervention specialists work with special needs children during preschool and kindergarten ages. Those in this career path primarily work with children either in school or at home to focus on a child’s early developmental skills. Specialists work with children and their families to develop their physical, cognitive, communication, social and adaptive skills before they enter elementary education.
3. Transition and Vocational Coordinator
Coordinators typically assist special needs teenagers with the transition into adulthood. “An important part of special education we sometimes forget about is transition…students with disabilities need the skills to become active citizens in their community,” Griswold said. Most transition coordinators begin working with students as they enter high school. Transition coordinators work with the student’s teachers in creating a portion of the IEP that focuses in vocational skills. In this career, you’ll help students reach their career or living goals.
4. Occupational Therapist
In this career, you’ll work with special needs children and adults to become as independent as they can in their everyday life. Occupational therapists help their patients overcome physical mobility and sensory challenges they face. To become an occupational therapist, you’ll likely need certification through a master’s degree program. However, getting an undergraduate degree in special education will help you understand how to work with individuals with different disabilities.
5. Education Lobbyist
While this career won’t utilize all the hands-on experience you gain in the special education major, the role is vital to education in America. Education lobbyists are usually employed by lobbying firms. As a lobbyist, you’ll meet with local and state legislators to influence their decisions. You’ll work on behalf of your firm in order to persuade legislators to pass and enact laws that favor teaching unions, universities and other educational institutions. Successful lobbyists need a thorough knowledge of education issues, history and legislation. Through your special education major, you’ll gain this knowledge and the communication skills to network with politicians.
“What we find is a lot of our students… thought about coming and being a special ed teacher from their experiences in high school. If you’re interested in special education, I would say to try to volunteer. Best Buddies is a national organization and there’s usually a chapter at most colleges. It’s a super rewarding organization,” Griswold said.
“Getting to visit and shadow in classrooms is definitely my favorite part…getting to feel what it would actually be like as a teacher helped me know I’m in the right major,” Jennings said.
“Some days it’s really hard. You know, you get tired and the days can be exhausting…but the kids, they make it so rewarding. They’re so amazing and they remind me it’s worth all the stress,” Becker said.