Teaching Early Childhood Special Education

For many with disabilities and learning disorders, early intervention is the key to academic success. In early childhood, the brain is still flexible; cognitive and social pathways can still be “rewired” so that children can develop at a pace comparable to that of other children. On the other hand, if a condition isn’t caught early and therapy started as soon as possible, children tend to fall behind in school—and stay there.

When a child is born deaf or hard of hearing, early intervention helps them to communicate effectively and keep up developmentally with other children. Therapy begun early with autistic children raises IQ levels, and improves language skills and behavior; with early intervention, some children can significantly diminish the symptoms of autism, eventually no longer meeting the criteria of a diagnosis. Children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who have the benefit of early education have higher test scores and fewer behavioral problems, because they don’t experience repetitive failures right out of the gate.

Early childhood special education teachers can change an at-risk kid’s trajectory in life. Often, it’s the difference between success and failure, between independence and total (or at least partial) dependence. As one teacher puts it, “It’s like holding the future in my hands.”

What is it like?

When working with young children with special needs, every day is different. Your students will likely have a broad spectrum of abilities and challenges. Your classroom will serve as the educational basecamp for children with physical disabilities, emotional disturbances, learning disorders, and neurological issues. One benefit of this is that you’ll never be bored. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming to deal with 10 to 20 special needs children all day long.

Part of your day will be spent in group activities, such as story time. However, for much of the time during the day you’ll be working with smaller groups of children. You are likely to have at least one teacher’s aide in the classroom; depending on the school district, students with special needs may have their own teacher’s aide, or share one with a few other students. Kids will also likely be receiving various therapies—speech, hearing, reading, physical, emotional—from either yourself or other special therapists and teachers throughout the day.

An early childhood education specialist, therefore, must be well informed about a large number of disorders. They must be on the lookout for cues that point to a given disorder or condition (or even multiple disorders at once), and possess a broad knowledge about the most current therapeutic methods to treat those symptoms.

This can also be a messy job, in a very literal sense. Two- and three-year-olds are often not potty-trained, especially if they’re developmentally delayed. This means diapers, and the changing of them, during school hours. Some students are also unable to feed themselves, which means that either you or an aide will need to perform this service for them. If you’re considering this type of position, you’ll need to ask yourself if you’re okay with performing these responsibilities—or how you’ll feel about delegating them to someone else.

Learning to sit still

Most kids have been told to “sit still,” millions of times. Kids with special needs such as ADHD and autism hear it even more frequently. Yet, often no one trains them how to sit still. Some progressive schools are providing training in breathing and quieting-of-the-mind techniques to help kids control anxiety, and to calm frustration and anger. With simple breathing exercises, or spending quiet time sitting and calming racing thoughts, students’ behavior and academic performance have been shown to improve. Studies also show that yoga also helps students become more mindful and perform better.

Your work extends outside the classroom as well. Early childhood special education teachers are often the beneficiaries of Title I funding, which guarantees every child a public education regardless of disability. The drawback to this federal program, of course, is never-ending paperwork. There are also meetings with parents and various therapists to map out an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student you’ll be working with. Early childhood special education teachers must evaluate the student, propose a plan, and then adhere to the plan.

At any level, special education is a high-dropout career. Fifty percent of all teachers who go into this profession bow out within the first five years; that figure rises to 75 percent after 10 years. It can be extraordinarily stressful. However, leaving special education doesn’t have to mean leaving education altogether; schools and districts generally allow teachers to transition into mainstream classrooms.

Still, some people are called to this type of work. They know, without a doubt, that this is the career for them. They find that they’re gifted with children who have these kinds of challenges, and under their tutelage kids tend to thrive. Perhaps you’re one of those people.

Can I get a job?

With skyrocketing diagnosis rates for many disabilities (especially autism, which has increased 78 percent in the last decade), and the increased emphasis on early intervention by both pediatricians and parents, there is a growing demand for special education teachers. However, federal funding for early education programs ebbs and flows, depending on the administration in power and current economic conditions. Even existing programs can often wind up inadequately funded.

Play therapy

Many special-needs children benefit from play therapy. Simply being able to play with another child or adult is a stretch for many special-needs kids. Those with social anxiety disorders, including many with autism, may appear not to enjoy playing at all. However, play introduces kids to a multitude of life skills, with social skills being only one. Kids with ADHD may need practice in impulse control, sitting still, and patience; play therapy has been shown to help with all of these. Play therapy has also been shown to help kids of any kind recover from traumatic events, such as abuse or the death of a loved one.

Thus, while the demand for special educators is growing, the ability to expand existing programs or create new programs is limited. In fact, the profession of early childhood special education is projected to grow by only one percent between 2010 and 2020. However—and again, given the high turnover rate in this profession—there are certainly jobs to be had.

You increase your odds of landing the perfect job if you’re willing to be geographically flexible. Some cities and towns are simply desperate for well qualified teachers; however, statistically speaking, these schools are in districts with high poverty rates, and unstable family situations. You’ll want to weigh all the factors as you decide how willing you are to relocate.

What does it pay?

Special education teachers make a median salary of $56,460 per year. Starting salaries range between $30,000 and $40,000, depending on the district. Teachers who go on to graduate school will increase their income, as well as their knowledge of the field. Teachers also receive cost-of-living increases and salary bumps based on years of experience.

Those teachers who are willing to relocate to at-risk schools—rural or inner-city schools with high levels of poverty and minority students—can qualify for student loan forgiveness programs. They may also be able to negotiate contract signing bonuses, higher salaries, and relocation allowances.

How do I become an Early Childhood Special Education Teacher?

Again, this is a challenging profession. If you’re not 100 percent sure that this is the right career for you, consider a trial run as a volunteer in an early childhood special education classroom. Most schools, and especially most special education programs, are so short-handed that volunteers are usually welcomed with open arms.

Should you decide that this is the right career path for you, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in special education or early childhood development, or a similar degree. Make sure you understand what your state requires by investigating the teaching certification website prior to entering a program. While not all states require additional certification, it will certainly give you a leg up to have Board Certification in Special Education (BCSE) from the National Association of Special Education Teachers.

Once you’ve completed your coursework, you’ll need to obtain your teaching certificate; learn of the details about your state’s teaching certification requirements, here. You’ll also need to complete one semester of student teaching, where you’ll get valuable hands-on experience.

Serving as an early childhood special education teacher brings a variety of challenges. But for the right person, it is truly meaningful and rewarding work

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