What Is a Special Education Teacher and Does Their Work Intersect with Applied Behavior Analysis?

More and more, students with autism and other cognitive and developmental challenges are welcomed into mainstream classrooms based on research that clearly shows how full inclusion in the least restrictive learning environment possible results in the best outcomes.

Any special education teacher can tell you that students with special needs are as individually unique as everybody else, so there is a huge variation in the types of behaviors that need to be managed – many have no noticeable or disruptive behaviors at all, while others have extreme behavioral issues that require frequent interventions. The spectrum of behaviors is broad, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to managing them.

Being a good special education teacher is all about getting to know each one of your students so you can better understand their needs and behavioral challenges and guide them toward meeting the goals of their Individual Education Plans (IEP). You will do a lot of detective work to figure out what makes each student tick so you can tailor your approach. This requires you to access your professional instinct, in combination with having the right set of skills for promoting positive behavior and minimizing behaviors that are problematic.

You know you want to set yourself apart in some positive way in your career as a special education teacher, but even more importantly you are driven to create positive change in the lives of the students that come through your classroom.

Learning more about applied behavior analysis could be the perfect way to accomplish both.

What Does A Special Education Teacher Do?

It isn’t as much about what special education teachers do as much as it is about the kind of people they are.

My sister is a special education teacher in the Midwest. Her 11-year-old son is on the autism spectrum and several times each week she takes him to see a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) for ABA therapy.

One recent evening, as my sister was waiting for her son’s session to end, a mother and son entered the clinic.  The son, also on the spectrum, did not want any part of therapy and he was making it known. All that mattered to him was going home. Once he was in his session, my sister saw the mother standing alone in the coat room, softly weeping.

Recognizing the familiar emotions washing over the woman, my sister offered her a tissue and some kind words. The shared emotions and experiences built a bridge between them, and a friendship was born.

Like my sister, special education teachers often have family members or dear friends with disabilities. And even if not, they all seem to have a deep and abiding compassion for helping the vulnerable. Being a special education teacher is about seeing each student as an individual and meeting them on their level. It is about getting to know the parents and families of students and letting them know that you understand their struggle, and that you are there for their child.

On a practical level day-to-day, special education is about working with students who are identified with one or more of the 13 disabilities categorized in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), connecting with them, and getting them to their IEP goals.

You will monitor and document the progress of each student, adjusting and differentiating instruction as needed. Special educators are advocates for their students and key players on the IEP team, working with parents, administrators, counselors, and therapists.

As a special education teacher, you can expect to work with students one on one, and in small or larger groups. Your day could be spent almost exclusively in the resource room setting as groups of mainstreamed special needs students with IEPs cycle in throughout the day for an hour of individualized attention before returning to their general education classrooms.

Alternatively, you may work in a self-contained classroom with the same group of students all day who might not be quite ready for the general education classroom.  In some districts, special education teachers travel between classrooms supporting special needs students who have been mainstreamed in general education classrooms.

If you feel strongly about making a significant, positive difference in the lives of students and their families, becoming a special education teacher will certainly give you the opportunity to do just that.

You need exemplary writing skills, solid organizational skills, and a lot of tenacity and patience to make it in this field. You’ll find that at many times you’ll  be relying on your creativity to work through challenges, so you need to be solutions-oriented and capable of thinking outside the box.  You need to be able to smile on tough days and be flexible enough to modify and adapt curriculum and accommodations to meet the specific needs of each child.

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How ABA Skills Will Help You Help Students Achieve IEP Goals

As the population of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other cognitive impairments continues to grow, there is a growing need for professionals who are well-prepared to implement positive behavior intervention strategies. Classrooms around the country need teachers who are adept at observing and assessing behaviors, and able to take the lead in developing IEPs based on those observations.

Applied behavior analysis is the only evidence based treatment widely recognized as effective in promoting positive behavioral change among students with ASD. It also provides the tools for effective interventions that address the social, behavioral, and academic needs of students with other developmental and cognitive issues unrelated to ASD.

Schools have struggled to adapt to the diverse and changing needs of the special needs population, but ABA is one thing that has consistently been shown to promote positive behavior, better scholastic outcomes and social development, producing well-adjusted kids who are better prepared to thrive in mainstream classrooms, and in life.

ABA training can prepare you to create plans tailor-made for each student’s unique behavioral needs, and perfectly aligned their IEP.

With formal training leading to the master’s degree-level Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), or bachelor’s-level Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) credential, you will be qualified to perform behavior  assessments, write functional behavior plans, and coach others on how to best serve students with special needs.

Your expertise will also make you the go-to person in developing IEPs and BIPs (behavior intervention plans), something that will make a tremendous asset to your school community.

The fundamental methods used in ABA have a place in any special education classroom. Things like discrete trial training, pivotal response treatment, and natural environment training help optimize student behavior and learning.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher with ABA Certification

The skills you need to use applied behavior analysis in the classroom can be developed at the bachelor’s or master’s level, either as part of a degree program or through separate certificate programs available to teachers that already hold a bachelor’s or master’s in education. The credentials you need to be recognized by both your state and the school district you work for are granted through the Behavior Analyses Certification Board (BACB), which offers both bachelor’s and master’s level credentials that are becoming increasingly common among special education teachers:

Initial Teacher Preparation – If you’re just getting started on your path to becoming a special education teacher and you’re interested in developing the skills you need to apply ABA in the classroom, you’ll find no shortage of bachelor’s-level initial teacher preparation programs in special education that incorporate the curricular elements required to qualify for the BCaBA.

The specific blend of courses required to meet these requirements are rereferred to as the Verified Course Sequence (VCS) and are often either built right into the degree program curriculum, or can otherwise be added as an ABA certificate that con be earned concurrent with your degree.

Currently Certified Teachers – If you’re already a certified special education teacher interested in building your ABA expertise and earning the BCaBA credential, you’ll find plenty of schools offering the VCS as a post-bachelor’s stand-alone program that can be completed in less than a year, and often online.

If you’re a certified teacher who has been considering a master’s degree as a way to earn advanced teaching licensure through your state’s Department of Education, that’s a move that could accomplish more than you might have thought. By earning a master’s in special education with an ABA emphasis that includes the right blend of courses, you’ll simultaneously be meeting the educational requirements for the full-authority BCBA certification.

Universities often offer master’s programs in special education with the appropriate VCS, or otherwise allow you to take the courses as a stand-alone post-master’s certificate program in the event that you already earned a master’s in education, but one that didn’t include the necessary ABA curriculum.

Both credentials and all the paths available to earning them also require a period of supervised fieldwork, but that can typically be completed on the job in your resident classroom.

How ABA Certification Can Boost Your Salary as a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers with the BCaBA or BCBA credential are a rare find, and as a result, they are in very high demand. With one of those respected credentials, the job market and advancement prospects would certainly be in your favor. As an applicant for an open special education teaching position, school districts would be quick to give your resume a second look.

But what exactly are the income prospects given the apparent need for special education teachers with ABA backgrounds and board certification?

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Special Education Teachers 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 Teachers 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 Teachers, 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

Many school districts offer a small bump in pay above the traditional step scale to those who hold one of the BACB credentials. Others might offer a stipend much the same way they would for teachers and coaches performing additional duties for things like after school programs.

Often, districts and schools are open to negotiating additional pay for certification of this sort, and when you sit down at the negotiation table you can be confident that your skillset and credentials will command a premium.

If you’re interested in earning some additional income on top of your teaching salary, picking up extra work in the private sector could be a solid add-on opportunity. The national average pay for a BCBA is $102,900 annually with a high of approximately $133,200 for full-time practitioners. Most private agencies have a waiting list of potential clients, and many hire part-time BCBA’s and BCaBA’s to provide services both in-clinic or in client’s homes.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Special Education Teachers, All Other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.