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While a career in special education is challenging, it is also very fulfilling. How does one get qualified and what are the career opportunities?
By Sangitha Krishnamurthi
Special Education is a field of specialized teaching where children with different educational needs are supported. It is now called Special Needs Education (SEN) to emphasize that a) all children are special; and b) it is the educational needs of the child we’re working with, not labeling the entire child in any way.
A SEN educator is a teacher who only works with children with different educational needs. These needs could be learning difficulties like dyslexia (reading/spelling), dyscalculia (math), dysgraphia (writing) or disorders caused by differences in brain development like Autism Spectrum disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), intellectual difficulties or cerebral palsy.
A child with different needs comes to a special educator with specific, diagnosed difficulties. Any person working with them has to understand these and choose learning methods that work around these issues. Specific methods that address the child’s difficulty and work to bypass it are required. A degree or diploma in Special Education is required to learn these methods. Other personal qualifications include being open, patient and flexible, willing to try whatever is required to help the child achieve his/her goals.
A person with passion to enter Special Education can do so after a bachelor’s degree/B.Ed. Some colleges offer a Master’s course in Special Education. There are specific post-graduate diplomas in specific areas: autism, learning difficulties, visually impaired, intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation), etc.
The Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) certifies SEN professionals. When choosing a course, a student should check to see if the course is accredited by RCI. RCI certification means that a person is certified to practice anywhere in the world. Organizations like the Spastics Society (in several cities in India) offer certified 2-year diplomas in specific areas related to special education. Other organizations like KPAMRC, Brindavan Education Trust (both Bangalore based organizations) offer diplomas in special education/degrees in inclusive education.
After the initial degree, continuing education in areas that educators feel the need to learn is in the form of workshops and short term courses. With online education (Coursera, Stanford/Harvard, etc.) at high-quality for free, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are good options to get educated on specific topics. Going to a few workshops gets professionals into networks that help with information on workshops and further learning.
To get super specialized in areas like Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), there are separate certifications like BCBA and BCaBA from the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board.
Progress in this field is often a slow process. Children are definitely better off for having SEN support. However, based on the intensity of their different needs, the mainstream might be a distant dream for some children. Every SEN professional sets goals and works to help the child achieve these goals. The pace at which children show progress is variable. The professional working in this field has to accept the child as they are, have suitable expectations and be willing to be players in the long run.
The pace of progress can be frustrating, analyzing a problem behaviour is often difficult, problems that you thought you had solved can resurface in the same form or differently, some solutions you have provided might themselves become problematic, motivation fluctuation/absence in children to learn is the educator’s issue; behavioural challenges have to be handled as they arise, in whichever form they arise; parents need to be brought on board the team – they might not have accepted their child’s different needs and a SEN educator can’t clearly delineate their area of responsibility to exclude any area.
Also, the demand for special education services far exceeds the number of SEN professionals. Over-committing is a very real fear, special educators burn out fast if they don’t pace themselves. The lack of many professional networks to get support and information is another challenge.
The benefits of a career in special education are many – from making a concrete, measurable difference in a child’s life to seeing to a child’s long term independence, SEN professionals have the satisfaction of sharing children with their parents for some time and leaving a lasting impact on a family. A breakthrough to a child’s world, especially in the case of disorders like autism where children are imprisoned in their bodies, is hard earned and inspiring. That makes all challenges completely worth it.
SEN professionals work in special schools that work only with children with different learning needs. They may also work in inclusive schools that admit children with different needs in their classrooms, with support given in the form of pull-out support in a resource room with or without in-class support in addition.
SEN educators also work with behaviour modification since children with different needs can end up with challenging behaviours for various reasons. Those who specialize in specific techniques like ABA, Floortime, etc. can work either as consultants attached to schools or start their own therapy centers, after the required certifications.
There are also home therapy options, where SEN professionals visit and train parents while working with children. Since rapid progress is only possible when parents work as co-therapists, doing enough repetitions to achieve set goals, this arrangement works to the benefit of the child.
Educators work against many odds, the prime one being the nature of the different abilities. Children who have developmental delays can have low motivation in addition to uneven skills development. Keen observation of what the child is able to do and had learned, flexibility to change goals and methods as needed and the ability to take the parents along in this journey are essential skills required for success as a SEN professional. A wise teacher once said, “If it has not worked, you have not done enough!”
*Photo credit: Live Earth (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
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