What is a Special Education Assistant?

Mounds of paperwork, growing caseloads, and shrinking numbers of special education teachers have created a dismal special education trifecta that threatens the quality of the education our nation’s children with special needs receive. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2017-18 school year, the number of students (between the ages of 3 and 21) enrolled in special education in the U.S. grew to about 7 million, which is about 14% of students enrolled in public schools – that’s an all-time high.

Special education assistants are the reinforcements many special education teachers so desperately need. These paraprofessionals work alongside and under the supervision of a certified special education teacher to provide support services to children with disabilities. They may also perform duties under the instruction and supervision of physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and behavior therapists. Beyond general classroom support, special education assistants lend their assistance to the lunchroom, the playground, and other settings within the school.

Special Education Assistant Job Description: What Special Ed Assistants Do

Special education assistants work in self-contained special education classrooms, independent learning classrooms, PACE classrooms, resource rooms, and BASICS classrooms in both public and private school settings. They also work in residential facilities and specialty schools.

They work with children who may have any number of mental, physical, behavioral, and emotional disabilities, such as:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Neurological disorders
  • Visual/hearing impairments
  • Dyslexia
  • Down Syndrome
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Auditory processing disorders
  • Emotional/behavioral disorders
  • Seizure disorders
  • Aphasia/dysphasia

With direction and supervision from a special education teacher, special education assistants help students with autism, physical disabilities, and other challenges complete lessons and meet established IEP (Individual Education Plan) goals. Their job duties include:

  • Reinforcing skills and concepts
  • Monitoring and checking student work
  • Assisting with testing modifications
  • Overseeing a group of students engaged in a particular task
  • Assisting with computer-assisted instruction
  • Reinforcing the goals and objectives of the student’s IEP

Special education assistants also help students with eating, personal hygiene, and mobility. They escort students from one area of the school or classroom to another, assist students with mobility devices and adaptive equipment, help students on and off the school bus, and tend to personal care issues, such as diapering, toileting, and hand washing.

In other words, they are the right hand person of the special education teacher, helping and supporting students with special needs to ensure a safe and positive learning environment for all students. Their support and assistance is invaluable within the special education classroom, as it frees up the special education teacher to provide direct instruction.

The duties of special education assistants are aimed at one, primary goal: to help students reach their academic, behavioral, physical, social, life skill, and emotional goals as outlined in their individual education plans.

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How to Become a Special Education Assistant

The path to becoming a special education assistant tends to be different from one school district to the next. A look at recent job posts reveals that many employers require only a high school diploma for special education assistants, while others require a minimum of an associate’s degree in a related field.

There are a number of special education degrees at the associate’s level (AAS); these degrees include two years of full-time study and related field experiences. Many career schools also offer special education assistant certificates/career diplomas for aspiring special education assistants that can be completed in a few months.

State certification as a special education aid/assistant varies by state, although CPR certification and first aid training are constant requirements for this profession. Some districts also require candidates to pass a basic skills and/or special education knowledge test.

Salaries for Special Education Assistants

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Special Education Assistants earned a median salary of $61,720 annually.

  • 25th percentile: $48,350
  • 50th percentile: $61,720
  • 75th percentile: $82,230
  • 90th percentile: $104,370

Special Education Assistants earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • New York: $102,960
  • Massachusetts: $92,330
  • Delaware: $89,090
  • Oregon: $87,990
  • Wisconsin: $83,560

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Special Education Assistants, according to mean salary, were:

  • New York (also includes Newark and Jersey City), NY-NJ-PA: $108,070
  • San Jose (also includes Sunnyvale and Santa Clara), CA: $99,270
  • Boston (also includes Cambridge and Nashua), MA-NH: $95,590
  • Portland (also includes Vancouver and Hillsboro), OR-WA: $94,650
  • Riverside (also includes San Bernardino and Ontario), CA: $94,350
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Community and Social Service Specialists, All Other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.