Online Degrees Blog Exploring special education teacher certification: Requirements and exam preparation

Exploring special education teacher certification: Requirements and exam preparation

30 May
Special education teach giving individual attention to a young student.

The teacher shortage is real and students with disabilities, including those in less wealthy and rural districts, are often the most impacted.

Take the case of Nico Mossa, a seventh-grader with disabilities in Wake County, N.C.

Nico is a fun-loving kid with autism and a seizure disorder who requires necessary accommodations.1 However, when school started in July 2023, his class didn’t have a qualified special education teacher for five months.

While the district launched a search to fill the position, his mom worried that mandated services, which were outlined in his individualized education plan (IEP), were not being implemented. If Nico had a seizure in class, there was no guarantee the instructional aide or substitute assigned to his class would know where to find his medication or how to administer it.

Additionally, the certified special ed teacher next door had to juggle lesson planning responsibilities, their class, and Nico’s class—which resulted in a fragmented learning experience for students.1

In this guide, we cover the career outlook for special education teachers. You will also learn about the steps to obtain special education certification, including exams and state requirements.

Career Opportunities

The career outlook for special education teachers is exceptionally promising, as indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics which projects around 33,500 new job openings between the years 2022 and 2023.2

However, experts emphasize that this estimate may be conservative, given the demand; the United States currently serves over seven million students requiring special services or accommodations, highlighting a significant need for skilled special education professionals.3,4

Although some challenges exist, including financial support gaps in certain states, the overall trend is toward increased awareness and early identification of disabilities, leading to a foreseeable surge in the demand for qualified special education teachers.4

This growing recognition of the importance of special education services is paving the way for exciting opportunities in this rewarding field.

Unlocking the path: Essential steps for special education certification

Embarking on a career in special education is a profound commitment to empowering lives and shaping futures.

The journey to becoming a certified special education teacher requires dedication, compassion, and hands-on training.

Individuals who join the profession often teach the same cohort of students for multiple years and find they develop positive relationships with their students, families, caregivers, and community.

The importance of special education teachers like Brian Skinner

By the time students land on special education teacher Brian Skinner’s caseload, they have often convinced themselves they cannot excel at subjects like reading and math and decide to give up.

As 2023 Kansas Teacher of the Year, Skinner is driven to instill a belief that his students can succeed, and they do.5

If you pursue a path toward special education certification, you, too, can become a champion of educational equity for students with special needs. Through advocacy, specialized instruction, and interventions, you will be able to create inclusive learning environments where your students will thrive.6

Your role could include various settings, from resource rooms to mainstream classrooms where special education and regular students learn together. Crafting Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) under federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), you'll ensure each student receives a free, appropriate education tailored to their needs. For instance, a student with ADHD might get extended time on learning activities or a modified exam.1

Types of special education certifications

Because your students’ needs will vary greatly, you’ll want to consider gaining additional expertise in the areas you want to impact most.

Many online master’s degree programs offer specializations in areas, such as autism spectrum disorders or transition services for graduating students with disabilities.

Another option is to choose a specialization after teaching in a special education classroom for a few years and complete a certification program offered through organizations like the National Association of Special Education Teachers.

Other certifications include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: Acquire strategies in behavior management and social skills development tailored for individuals across the autism spectrum7,8
  • High Incidence Disabilities: Support students with learning disabilities and ADHD
  • Low Incidence Disabilities: Specialize in supporting students with less common disabilities such as traumatic brain injuries7,8
  • Inclusion in Special Education: Learn how to integrate students with disabilities into general education settings effectively7,8
  • Secondary Education Transitions: Prepare students with disabilities for life after high school through vocational training and independent living skills7,8

Earning these qualifications can set you apart from other candidates and enhance opportunities for career advancement.

Prerequisites for certification

Fulfilling the prerequisites for special education certification mandates a robust educational foundation:

  • Educational Background: Complete a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution with an approved teacher preparation program. You may need to include official transcripts with your job applications 9
  • Cumulative GPA: A GPA of 3.0 or higher demonstrates academic rigor and commitment 9
  • Professional Resume or CV: Showcase your qualifications, achievements, and any education-related work experiences. Then, apply to special education teaching positions for which you are qualified 9
  • Pass Required Exams: Most states require teachers to take and pass a standardized exam before earning their initial special educator teaching license 9

Field experience and student teaching

Gaining practical experience is one of the best ways to prepare for a career in special education and complement what you learn in a degree program. In fact, most states require you to complete student teaching before you become a certified special education teacher.

Under the supervision of a seasoned educator, you get the chance to teach students in special education programs, get feedback on your teaching strategies, and gain insights into how various technologies are used to support learners.

If you want to expand your knowledge of diverse learning needs and strategies, consider an assistant teaching role in a special education classroom.7 This can help bridge gaps between classroom theory and actual practice.

Finally, volunteering with programs that serve individuals with disabilities also provides valuable hands-on training.7

Through these experiences, you will build essential skills, confidence, and empathy, all of which are crucial for success in the field of special education.

Background checks and clearance

School districts seek to hire the most qualified special education teachers, with a demonstrated commitment to child safety and ethical conduct. Background checks enable employers to assess whether job candidates are highly qualified and eligible to work with children.

According to Checkr, every U.S. state has laws mandating criminal background checks for K-12 teachers, while 38 states extend this requirement to other school employees who directly interact with children but without supervision.10

To gain additional information about job candidates, schools may conduct screenings, such as:10

  • Criminal background check
  • Education verification
  • Verification of previous employment
  • Professional license checks
  • Driving record checks

Some states require teachers to undergo background checks every few years to ensure no disqualifying convictions have occurred since their initial pre-employment screening and that any professional licenses remain active.9 Employers must follow local, state, and federal regulations when conducting these background checks.

Certification exams

Each state has its own guidelines concerning these exams. You can check with your state Board of Education to find the licensing requirements for your state. Many states use the Praxis II exams, which test your knowledge in specific areas.

The special education Praxis II exam tests core knowledge and applications. You have two hours to complete 120 questions that cover the following content categories: 11

  • Development and Characteristics of Learners
  • Planning and the Learning Environment
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Foundations and Professional Responsibilities

State-specific requirements

Prospective special education teachers must research the specific certification requirements in their state or the state where they plan to teach. They should be sure to research what exams are mandatory, the passing scores needed, and any additional coursework or practical experience requirements.

Besides the Praxis exam, you may have to take tests covering topics related to hearing impairment, American Sign Language, mild to moderate disabilities, or early childhood.

Other state assessments include:

  • Content Exams: If you want to work in a high school, you may be required to take exams covering content areas such as English, social studies, or math
  • edTPA: The Education Teacher Performance Assessment evaluates a teacher candidate's readiness for the classroom, including planning, instruction, and assessment practices. As of Fall 2017, 18 states have either adopted statewide policies requiring a performance assessment for aspiring teachers or are actively considering such a step12

After fulfilling certification requirements, you'll be on your way to a fulfilling career as a special education teacher, where you can impact students' lives and help shape the future of education.

Take the first steps toward special education certification

If you’re passionate about inclusive education, you could help alleviate the teacher shortage and ensure that students like Nico Massa receive the high-quality instruction and support services mandated by federal law.

The University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences offers top-ranked special education master’s and certificate programs that can help you become the qualified education specialist that each of your students needs.13

With a committed faculty and progressive curriculum that keeps up with the changing demands of the modern and inclusive classroom, KU’s online master’s is an unmated opportunity that offers tremendous career benefits for those in the field.

Schedule a call with a KU admissions outreach advisor today to learn how joining a KU special education online master’s-level program can help you excel and make a true difference.