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What Special Education Teachers Do

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. With students who have mild or moderate disabilities, they ensure that lessons and teaching strategies are modified to meet the students’ needs. With students who have severe disabilities, they teach the students independent living skills and basic literacy, communication, and math.


Special education teachers typically do the following:

Special education services are offered in a variety of ways.

Some special education teachers work exclusively in special education classes that include only students who have IEPs. In this setting, special education teachers plan and present lessons and adapt the lessons to meet each of the students’ needs.

In settings with more inclusive models of special education, in which the students receiving special education services attend general education classes, special education teachers may spend a portion of the day teaching classes together with general education teachers. The special education teachers help present the information in a manner that is more easily understood by special education students.

They also serve as consultants to general education teachers to help them adapt lessons that will meet the needs of the special education students in their classes. Special education teachers may have students who visit them throughout the day to get extra help with particular subjects or lessons.

A team that includes special and general education teachers, counselors, parents, and, in some cases, the students themselves develop the individualized educational programs (IEPs). IEPs outline which services each special education student will receive, such as sessions with the school psychologist or counselor and class periods or times when the student will receive individual attention from special education teachers.

IEPs also may list services such as community mental health services, mentoring, and tutoring, which other organizations in the community provide. Special education teachers are responsible for ensuring that the students receive the services outlined in their IEPs.

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide variety of mental, emotional, physical, and learning disabilities. Some students need assistance only in a few subject areas, such as reading and math. Other students need help understanding how they learn and adapting study skills and strategies that best meet their needs.

Some special education teachers work with students who have physical and sensory disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, or with students who are wheelchair-bound. They also work with students who have autism spectrum disorders and with students who have emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Special education teachers work with infants to high school students. Students who have severe disabilities may work with a special education teacher until they turn 21 years old.

Special education teachers working with young children try to intervene as early as possible. Early intervention in the development of language, speech and social and motor skills allows children the best opportunity to improve in those areas.

With older students who have more severe disabilities, special education teachers help the students develop the skills necessary to live independently and find a job, such as balancing a checkbook and managing their time.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition