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Meet a Teacher: Working With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, emotional and behavioral disorders affect 10–15 percent of children globally. Disorders include attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism, bipolar, anxiety and oppositional-defiant. Children experiencing behavioral disorders (BD) and emotional disorders (ED) often struggle with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and learning in a mainstream classroom setting. Special education jobs that include working with BD/ED students present unique challenges.

We interviewed Katrina Wojtasinski, M.S. Ed, a certified special education case manager at Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to learn what it’s like to teach students experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in special education?

As an adolescent I struggled with learning in a traditional setting, and a high school teacher told me I wasn’t “college material.” I was self-aware enough to know this wasn’t the truth and advocated to school administration to receive the support I needed. In college I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and developed the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond. My experiences helped me realize how important special education is for those with disabilities and those who don’t learn best in a traditional classroom. 

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?

I started as a special education paraprofessional. I’m grateful my career began this way because I learned a lot about the field before deciding to further my education. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and my Master’s of Science in Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University. I chose Saint Joseph’s University because it was one of the few U.S. colleges offering a science-based degree in the field.

I obtained certifications in special education, safety care, crisis prevention institute (CPI) and CPR/AED/First Aid.

What is a typical day in your classroom like?

I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day in special education but I have daily routines that help students build their organizational, social and writing skills. I work with students in a resource room for specialized instruction and in an inclusion classroom alongside typically developing students. In my resource classroom I provide children with a visual overview of the day, divided into directed instruction, mini-lessons and one-to-one or group work.

What skills are necessary for a teacher working with BD/ED students?

Patience! Although there’s tremendous gratification that comes with the field there are many, many days that bring challenges that test patience. Strong communication is also key as you’ll collaborate with various personnel involved in supporting students’ learning needs. Versatility and adaptability are also important because the environment and demands are always changing. 

What are some specific techniques educators use when working with BD/ED children?

I’ve had success with “extinction,” which is ignoring or redirecting attention-seeking behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and the behavior intervention plans (BIP) are among several methods for parents, teachers and school professionals to collaborate on identifying, minimizing and replacing negative behaviors.

What are your biggest challenges?

I would say the challenges are more at the legislative level. Special-needs students are on individualized educational plans (IEPs) to best facilitate student learning. Lately they’ve become a source of contention, with court cases increasing constraints on them. 

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

The kids, 100 percent. Everything I do is for the kids. 

Is there anything that surprised you about working with BD/ED students?

How humbling they are. I had a student who was totally self-aware of his behaviors but had a difficult time controlling them. He eventually reached a point where he could seek out a trusted adult for comfort, often crying because he realized he was having a tough day yet couldn’t control his response.

Do you have advice for anyone interested in teaching students with emotional/behavior issues?

Volunteer, network or obtain a position within the field. Most importantly, reflect on why you want to pursue the field. It sounds heroic to tell people “I’m a special education teacher,” or a “behavior specialist,” but at the end of the day the people who excel are the ones who put their heart into everything they contribute.

Katrina chose Saint Joseph’s University for her master’s degree, and through the university’s online degree program you can too! Find out more about other favorite online master’s degree programs.

Inclusion Strategies for Special Education Teachers

Inclusion programs are a hot topic in special education these days. These programs allow students with special needs to learn in classrooms alongside mainstream students. Research from the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) reports that inclusive programming helps students with disabilities become more successful both socially and academically. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 6.5 million students receive special education services, about 13 percent of total enrollment. Students receiving those services have learning, developmental and/or physical disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

Training Holds the Key

A special education teacher who receives specialized training is better prepared to meet the needs of exceptional students within an inclusion classroom. Many collegiate institutions offer certification programs, bachelor’s and master’s degrees for special education jobs. These programs, such as the one at Perdue University, provide instruction on the most innovative techniques to effectively overcome different learning challenges. 

Teachers may choose specific areas of concentration such as: learning how to best accommodate children on the autism spectrum; effective ways to work with students who have visual and hearing impairments (which is among the specializations taught at Saint Joseph’s University); or how to alter teaching methods to instruct culturally and linguistically diverse learners within an inclusive setting (taught at George Washington University, for example).

Programs for special education teachers also demonstrate how to develop individualized education programs (IEP) for exceptional students. The IEP contains goals for a student, customized to the student’s individual needs and abilities. In addition, special education teachers working in inclusive classrooms assist students in the area of emotional development, helping them learn to feel comfortable in a variety of social situations.

7 Top Tips for Inclusion Classroom Success

Classrooms in which students of all abilities work side-by-side can provide a positive and supportive setting for students with learning challenges. An influential study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals and shared by NASET in 2009, was strongly in favor of inclusion, reporting that inclusive classrooms are also beneficial for mainstream students by teaching them to develop empathy and improving their social skills.

Last year, however, Education Week reported on a newer study that found some negative effects on non-disabled and neurotypical students resulting from the practice. Even the study’s author suggested more research is required, adding: “The point is, here is a situation that we have and what systems of supports can improve outcomes for everyone?”

Special education teachers must balance the needs of all their students. Those who successfully integrate their special needs students into a traditional classroom utilize specific strategies to make it all work. Here are seven great tips for inclusion classroom success:

1. Organize: Clear clutter, stabilize furniture, secure any loose cables with tape and ensure there is plenty of space for students to safely move around the room. Post clear signage with symbols that point out exits in case of emergencies.

2. Grouping: Arrange student desks into groups of two to four desks to foster discussion and encourage cooperative learning.

3. Classroom decor: Decorate the classroom in neutral tones. Avoid bright, flashy colors as these can be distracting to some students or lead to sensory overload.

4. Home base: Occasionally the social and emotional challenges of a mainstream classroom may overwhelm a special needs student. Provide a safe space where students can go to reduce stress and regain control of themselves.

5. Transition time: Transition times can be particularly difficult for students with social or emotional challenges, leading to behaviors that may disrupt the entire class. Plan ahead and create a consistent routine for transitioning students from one activity to the next. 

6. Teamwork: Help ensure the success of your inclusive classroom by maintaining regular communication with all members of the instructional planning team. Team members may include parents, paraprofessionals, support staff and other specialists.

7. Break it down: Break down instruction into smaller tasks, starting simple and working your way into the more complex concepts, using a step-by-step approach that incorporates a lot of repetition and practice. 

Preparing Exceptional Students for the Real World

Working in an inclusive classroom setting with students of widely varying abilities may seem challenging, but the right education and training can help educators create a positive and effective learning environment, successfully meeting the needs of all their students. An inclusive learning environments ultimately allow students of all abilities to develop friendships and experience success that will prepare them to enter the world beyond the classroom.

For more articles like this check out SpecialEduCareers.com s blog here!

5 Jobs in Early Childhood Special Education

A career in special education can be both fulfilling and inspiring. Focusing on roles within early childhood special education can be particularly gratifying, as they provide an opportunity to play a pivotal part in a child’s growth and support at a critical time in their development. 

While working as a special education teacher may be the first option that comes to mind when envisioning jobs in this field, there is a range of professional paths both inside and outside the classroom.

Here are some options for professionals exploring opportunities in early childhood special education.

At-Home Teacher/Tutor 

Not all teaching takes place in a formal classroom setting. For some students, individual circumstances may make it necessary or preferable for them learn at home. Students being home-schooled may also need a trained teacher to augment instruction parents provide. This may appeal if you enjoy teaching but prefer interacting with students on an individual basis.

This role typically requires similar education and training to a classroom teacher, although additional home-schooling certification or other credentials may be required. Pay can vary widely depending on location and whether the teacher is employed through the public school district or a private company. 

The distinction between this role and tutoring is mostly a question of scope, breadth and time commitment.

Tutoring is a great option for special educational professionals who want a less rigid or supplementary work situation. Tutors often have considerable flexibility in deciding when and where they work. These professionals provide help to students who need extra support, generally in more specific concentrations than a teacher’s broader subject instruction. The median pay rate for a tutor is $17.66 according to Payscale.com, although rates can be higher for those with additional training or specializations.

Special Education Advocate

Those who find it fulfilling to champion a worthy cause may want to consider a career as a special education advocate. These professionals represent students and their families, ensuring the students receive educational services they need and to which they are entitled. Advocates often function as a liaison between the student/family and the school district and other organizations that provide special education support services. Payscale.com cites anaverage starting pay rate for educational advocates of $27.75 per hour (though that may be a very small number of reports); such numbers also depend heavily on location, qualifications and other factors.

Special Education Administrator 

Serving as a special education administrator or director might appeal to education professionals who prefer to work in a managerial or administrative role. These staff members are responsible for planning, implementing and overseeing special education programs. A position at this level can affect the education of many students, without actually working in a classroom. 

This type of position typically requires a master’s degree, certification as a supervisor of special education, and/or several years of experience as a special education teacher and/or school administrator. The average pay for a director of special education is $74,412 per year, according to Payscale.com.

Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant

Serving as a learning disabilities teacher consultant (LDT-C) involves assessing the needs of special education students and creating an educational plan to ensure their individual needs are met. This role can offer the satisfaction of knowing you are having a positive impact on a student’s educational growth, without requiring you to run a classroom every day. Only some school districts employ these professionals, and the positions typically require completion of a graduate-level program, such as the one offered at Monmouth University.

Special Needs Guidance Counselor

Special education counselors often serve the function of a typical guidance counselor, with additional focus on students receiving special education services. They may also perform some of the duties of other special education professionals, such as a teacher consultant. This professional role helps ensure the student’s needs are being met, and coordinates services and support resources they may need to fulfill their academic potential. According to SalaryExpert.com, the salary range for special needs counselors is $25,000 to 44,000 annually, depending on experience.

Note: All salary information collected in June 2017. 

Researching these special education job alternatives can help broaden your horizons when considering a future in this field, or contemplating a transition out of the classroom. Learn more about alternative special education careers and get ready to look for the school that’s right for you.

Dealing with Bullying: A Teacher Perspective

Dealing with Bullying: A Teacher PerspectiveAs upsetting as being bullied can be for any child, the impact can be even worse for those who require special education. Bullies pick their targets based on perceived physical, mental or emotional differences, resulting in special education students often being popular targets.

According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers. Other studies and surveys have shown that students with physical or emotional conditions, such as autism and ADHD, are also highly targeted.

A special education teacher needs to be able to immediately spot aggressive behavior in the classroom and employ bullying strategies to put an end to the intimidation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Students’ mental health and self-esteem depends on the instructor’s ability to protect them from bullies.

In an interview, Dr. Jackie Humans, author of 15 Ways to Zap a Bully!, said, “Some students have such severe disabilities that they are unlikely to ever be able to deflect bullying on their own. Clearly, these children need and deserve our protection.”

How to Spot Bullying

Physical bullying is probably the most easily recognized type. It can include any sort of violent hitting, pushing, tripping or breaking someone’s personal property.

Verbal bullying occurs when a bully says something to another student with intention to upset or hurt them. This can include name-calling, threats of physical harm, teasing, taunts or verbal abuse because of physical or mental disabilities.

Finally, there is social bullying. With the advent of social media, this can be especially difficult to spot, as it is rarely in person to a student’s face. This category can include spreading rumors about someone, excluding them from group activities or embarrassing them in front of others.

How to Handle Aggressive Situations

It is important to try to end the bullying immediately. According to stopbullying.gov, a federal resource managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, ignoring the problem or hoping the students will resolve it on their own may lead to an escalation.

Separate the students involved and make sure everyone is safe. Address any emotional or mental health needs of the students, especially if they suffer from an emotional or mental disability. And remember to follow through – just because the persecuted student has been removed from immediate intimidation doesn’t mean they are out of crisis.

The emotional and mental state of the bullying student should also be addressed, to reach the root of the behavior. This is also not the time to force an apology, nor is it the time to discipline them in front of the other students. If you need to talk to a student, do it separately, away from the gazes of others, as humiliation and embarrassment could paradoxically make them less likely to follow the rules in the future.

Prevent Behavior From Happening Again

Within the classroom, create rules that give students a positive framework of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Always ask for student input, as this will give them ownership over the rules of their classroom. Any classroom should be a safe, encouraging place for all students. When there is a classroom culture that accepts differences and is inclusive, rates of bullying tend to go down.

Affirming good behavior almost always shows better returns than criticizing poor behavior. Make sure the bullying student knows exactly what they did, why it hurt and why it was unacceptable. Give them a clear path to address their behavior and make amends after the situation has calmed down. Try to find the root of their aggression; are they trying to fit in or impress others? Perhaps they have a learning disability or emotional issue themselves that is causing them to act out. If they are acting out because of external circumstances, such as emotional or physical abuse at home, you may need to bring in additional support.

When to Bring in Parents and Authorities

If no progress is being made with a particular student, the school may need to bring this to the attention of their parents. This should never be used as a threat to try to elicit better behavior from the student. The parents of the bullying student might be unaware a situation even exists, so make sure they understand what the school is doing to address the problem and suggest strategies they might employ themselves. Again, punishment rarely fixes issues of misbehavior and bullying.

If bullying reaches levels beyond what a special education teacher or the school administration can handle, such as extreme physical violence or threats, alerting law enforcement might become necessary. Disability harassment is illegal, as civil rights laws protect students who have physical, emotional and/or mental disabilities.

Special education teachers often have to manage a number of behavioral difficulties within their classrooms. It is important to keep this in mind when addressing bullying behavior. Always be calm, avoid judgment and do not threaten the aggressive student. Instead, teach why that kind of behavior is unacceptable. By fostering a supportive and calm environment in a special education classroom, students will feel both safe and protected.

Becoming a special education teacher includes many difficult and rewarding tasks. Learn more about options for pursuing advanced degrees to strengthen your special education training for situations like this and many others.

Is a Special Education Career Right for You?

Is a Special Education Career Right for You?Becoming a special education teacher is a high and honorable calling. Teaching children with physical, mental or emotional impairments can be difficult but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Many special education teachers find a great deal of fulfillment helping students learn and grow.

However, it’s not just emotionally gratifying. There is currently a huge shortage of special education teachers across the United States. As more children are diagnosed with disabilities and older teachers leave the workforce, the national demand for jobs in special education is only expected to grow, offering more career opportunities.

As expected for such an important endeavor, the requirements for special education jobs are high. As such, determining a clear career path can be complex. For those drawn to special education, this article discusses the training, tools, qualifications and credentials to begin or further develop your career.

Career Path Varies by State

In most cases in the U.S., finding a job in special education requires a bachelor’s degree, state-specific certification and a master’s degree. In most states, a bachelor’s degree is the lowest bar for employment. Having a master’s degree or other specialized certification is particularly important, as working with disabilities such as autism, hearing impairment, vision impairment or any emotional disturbances requires specific training. To become a fully qualified special education teacher, further education as well as state certification are often needed get the necessary skills to help students succeed.

Some colleges and universities, such as Saint Joseph’s University, offer an online master’s degree in special education as well as certification programs, with concentrations in autism spectrum disorder, hearing impairment and the Wilson Reading System. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota offers an online master’s degree in special education with state licensure options. George Washington University also offers both online master’s degrees and certificate programs in special education, focusing on culturally and linguistically diverse learners and those looking to help special needs students transition into post-secondary education. 

Alongside these educational skills, many states have additional requirements. These usually include fingerprinting, background checks, registering with state officials and passing state exams. In California, for example, having a bachelor’s degree and completing a number of assessments will only provide a preliminary credential for special education. For a Level I or Level II Professional Clear Credential to teach special education, completing a fifth year of study is required, as well as approved courses in special education. To get a certificate and license to teach special education in New York state, a number of state-registered programs for students with disabilities are required, along with teaching certification exams, a variety of tests and three years of classroom experience. For specific special education jobs, the requirements are listed on each state’s education department website.

Demand for Skills May Drive up Salaries

Regarding salary expectations, even with the increased demand for highly trained educators, the level of financial compensation for special education jobs varies widely by state, depending on the school of employment and the level of education that an instructor teaches. For example, a special education teacher would earn more at a secondary school than they would teaching at an elementary school.

The 2015 median pay for a special education teacher in the United States was $56,800. In California, the average salary for a special education teacher is $65,370 – $12,000 more than the national average of $53,220, and the need for special education teachers in California is expected to grow by 20 percent over the next two years. In Texas, the salary of $52,283 is slightly lower than the national average, but demand is expected to grow as much as 41 percent by 2018. In Florida, the average salary of $41,741 is quite a bit below the national average, but the demand for special education teachers is expected to grow 19 percent by 2018. Other states that can expect an increased demand for special education teachers are Georgia, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Arkansas.

If you have the right temperament and drive for such a career, investing in a special education path is likely to pay off in terms of both personal gratification and professional opportunities. Having extra training and knowledge will also allow you to better serve your students, guiding them towards their full potential while also meeting the growing demand for special education teachers nationwide.