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Career Information for a Degree in Special Education

Degree programs in special education generally prepare teachers to work in a variety of settings with children and adults who have special needs. Find out about the curricula of these programs, and learn about career options, job growth and salary info for special education graduates.

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With a degree in special education, it is possible to pursue a career as a special education teacher, recreational therapist or speech-language pathologist. Special education teachers may identify students with disabilities and develop individual education programs for those students. Recreation therapists use games and activities to help address physical challenges or emotional issues, while speech-language pathologists work with individuals with a cognitive or physical impairment that affects their ability to communicate.

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Essential Information

Special education degree programs are offered at the undergraduate and graduate level. They're designed to develop the specific pedagogical skills required to work with students who suffer from cognitive and emotional disabilities, as well as physiological problems such as speech or hearing impairment. Earning a bachelor's degree in special education can lead graduates to enter master's degree programs in fields like special education instruction, recreational therapy or speech-language pathology. Many public school special education teaching positions require bachelor's degrees, though some positions require graduate degrees in special education or a related area.

Career title Special Education Teacher Recreational Therapist Speech-Language Pathologist
Educational Requirements Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree Master's degree
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 6% 12% 21%
Median Salary (2015)* $53,990-$58,500 annually $45,890 annually $73,410 annually

*U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers work in school systems to provide individualized instruction to students with unique needs. They work with teachers to identify disabilities early in a student's school career and to develop individualized education programs to help meet the student's needs. Depending on the level at which they teach, special education teachers may also be responsible for helping students develop life skills, such as money management.

Teaching special education requires licensure, a bachelor's degree and sometimes a master's degree. Some states offer post-baccalaureate certification programs for individuals with bachelor's degrees in areas other than education. Such programs cover coursework typically offered in special education undergraduate programs, such as reading and math instruction for students with special needs, assessment methods, student evaluation and behavior management. Each state has specific standards for obtaining and renewing teacher licensure.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), special education teachers working at the preschool level made a median annual salary of $53,990 in May 2015. Those teaching at the kindergarten or elementary level earned a median salary of $55,810 per year, while special education teachers at the middle school level had a median annual salary of $57,280 (BLS). Lastly, special education teachers at the secondary level earned a median salary of $58,500 per year, as reported by the BLS.

Recreational Therapist

Recreational therapists with a background in special education work with clients to improve a variety of physical capabilities or to reduce symptoms of emotional disturbance. They typically use games and other physical activities to increase a client's range of motion and motor skills and also to increase their socialization abilities. Basic life skills, such as dressing and bathing, are sometimes taught by recreational therapists, as are more advanced concepts, like stress management. Some recreational therapists might also help teach a client certain job skills.

Recreational therapists are generally required to have bachelor's degrees in their field, though master's degree programs are available. Only some states require licensing, and certification is voluntary. These therapists work in schools, day cares, hospitals and camps. Some therapists have a specialty, such as art, aquatic or equine therapy. In May 2015, the BLS reported that the median salary for recreational therapists was $45,890 annually.

Speech-Language Pathologist

Speech-language pathologists with undergraduate degrees in special education typically work with children who have a cognitive or physical disability that prevents them from communicating well. They help children improve verbal communication or learn to communicate without words. Their patients' disabilities can range from very mild (such as having a lisp) to very severe (such as the inability to swallow).

Having a master's degree is usually the minimum requirement for employment as a speech-language pathologist, and it can lead to licensing and certification in the field. Most states require licensure, though options such as the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) offered by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association are voluntary. Speech-language pathologists often work in schools, private offices or hospitals. The BLS reported that the annual median salary for these professionals was $73,410 in May 2015.

In addition to a degree in special education, teachers need to be licensed, and speech-language pathologists need a master's degree in their field. They may also need to be licensed. Some states require licensing for recreational therapists, although certification is voluntary.

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