5 Signs you'd excel in educating special needs students

Educators who teach special needs students are more than just instructors. They become advocates for social justice whose mission is to protect the dignity of students with disabilities.


Special education teachers honor each student’s unique abilities by implementing evidence-based classroom strategies that meet students where they are. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in addition to adapting general education lesson plans to fit the abilities of students with special needs, these teachers work with their students to enhance basic skills like literacy and communication techniques. You probably already know that it takes a unique set of qualities and competencies to be a special education teacher. Perhaps you’re wondering if you have what it takes.


In an effort to learn more about the skills and characteristics you need to excel in educating special needs students, we analyzed recent job postings and dug into some data. Take a look at a handful of traits some of the most effective special needs educators share.

5 Characteristics that are essential for teachers who work with special needs students

The teacher shortage has hit our nation hard, and there’s a particular need for qualified special education teachers. We used real-time job analysis software to learn what schools are looking for in the educators they hope will fill these positions.


Using, we analyzed more than 80,000 special education job postings from the last year.* From that analysis, it’s clear that the ideal candidate is one with a wide range of expertise. These include teaching, classroom technology and administration as well as knowledge of mental and behavioral health and emergency care. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor identifies the following five traits as important for an effective special education teacher. 

1. They are active listeners

As active listeners, skilled special education teachers are able to give their full attention to what other people are saying. They take the time to understand the points being made, ask questions and give others an opportunity to be heard without being interrupted. This can be particularly important with special needs students who may feel overwhelmed if their thoughts or needs are not being understood.


Educators also have the opportunity to model active listening skills for their students to learn. These interactions can help students with special needs feel heard, and also help them learn about the impact things like body language, hand gestures, eye contact and voice inflection can have on others.

2. They have strong social perception skills

To be socially perceptive is, according to the Department of Labor, to be aware of others’ reactions and to understand why they react as they do. The Oxford Review says that social perception refers to a person’s ability to make accurate inferences about other people based on their verbal and nonverbal patterns of communication.


Research has shown that teacher expectations can predict student achievement. Consequently, strong social perception skills are of particular importance in a special education classroom, because the abilities and needs of each student can vary greatly. Educators of special needs students are particularly skilled at reading each of their students, observing changes in behavior and then adapting lesson plans to accommodate. They adjust individual expectations on a student-by-student basis.

3. They understand how to support different learning styles

Special education teachers who make a big impact are often well-versed in teaching to accommodate a range of different learning styles. This comes in handy, because they’re often tasked with providing instruction to a classroom filled with different learning styles and comprehension levels.


The active learning approach is common among educators who teach special needs students. This method operates under the belief that all individuals learn best through active participation. It focuses more on developing students’ skills than simply transmitting information.


By recognizing that everyone’s abilities are unique, an active learning approach addresses the breakdowns that can occur because of disabilities and helps students learn to overcome them. In practice, active learning methods result in classrooms that are more inclusive and can benefit students of all capacities.

4. They’re adept at complex problem solving

Students may find themselves in a special education classroom because the way general education lesson plans are delivered simply doesn’t work for their learning style, comprehension level or social interaction abilities. Seasoned educators will tell you there is no one-size-fits-all curriculum that is going to work for every special needs student.


With that in mind, complex problem solving becomes a daily requirement for special education teachers. They are particularly skilled at assessing a number of different moving parts and determining the best path forward. Their day may include everything from calculating the best way to alter a lesson that isn’t sinking in for one student to deducing how to foster behavioral improvements for another student.

5. They are service-oriented 

Working with special needs students is not for the faint of heart. The special education teachers who make the biggest impact are the ones with an unyielding desire to help people. The Department of Labor calls this common special education teacher characteristic ­“service orientation” — the propensity to actively look for ways to help people.


Without that underlying mission, it’s easy to become bogged down with the paperwork, meetings and protective parents that often come with the territory. The best special education teachers are the ones who gain enough motivation from the “aha!” moments when a special needs student makes a new, meaningful connection that they can trek past some of the more stressful aspects of the job.

You could help inspire special needs students

As you contemplate whether you’re the right fit for a career in special education, consider these five characteristics common among educators who work with special needs students. If you can picture yourself at the head of a special education classroom, it may be time to explore your educational options.


University of Massachusetts Global, for example, offers a few different paths toward a fulfilling special education career. Review your bachelor’s and master’s degree options by visiting our School of Education page.





*Source: (Analysis of 83,069 special education teacher job postings from May 01, 2018 – April 30, 2019)

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