Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Early Childhood Special Education

There is currently a high need for early childhood special education teachers – very high in some states! These teachers serve more children than one might imagine. Children with disabilities typically enter the public school system at age three. Many receive intervention almost from birth – they have been diagnosed early with conditions that affect development. Young children may receive educational diagnoses such as intellectual disability. Many states, though, also have an early childhood developmental delay or non-categorical classification. (Children who continue to need services beyond early childhood are eventually placed into other categories.)

A person can, in most states, become a special education teacher with a bachelor's degree. Requirements are set at the state level. The special education coursework may be on the level of a major or a minor. The scope, as well as the requirements, will vary. An early childhood special education teacher may be certificated for all ages up to about eight (or third grade) or may have a narrower grade band. Some states offer an early childhood unified (or other similar) credential; this denotes qualification to teach typically and atypically developing populations.

Some credentials only authorize special education teaching up to about age five, though they may authorize general education teaching beyond that. The early childhood credential is typically necessary only for the youngest age groups. General special education endorsements typically authorize teaching of special needs students from kindergarten on.

Teachers typically take multiple assessments. The number of tests can be a little higher than if one was a general education teacher at the elementary or early childhood level. Many states use the Praxis series. Candidates may take one or more of the following: Special Education: Core Knowledge and Applications, Special Education: Preschool/ Early Childhood, or Interdisciplinary Early Childhood Education. Some states require a general early childhood or elementary subject assessment. A number of states require the Foundations of Reading Test for all early childhood, elementary, and special education teachers. Many require some type of professional knowledge or pedagogy assessment for all individuals seeking initial licensure.

Early Childhood Special Education Careers

Employment options are varied. One teacher's day will look very different from another's. Some public school teachers support children who need resource; they have a caseload of children. Sometimes they "pull" students for support; other times they "push in" to the general education class to support children with special needs for subject where they need extra support. Other special education teachers have self-contained classrooms. Even here, needs may be relatively high or relatively low. In some classes, the children are doing more or less the same curriculum as the general students, though they may not be at the same level and may need far more one-on-one to be at the level they're at. There may be multiple instructional assistants helping to provide the one-on-one and small group attention. The special education teacher has a role in directing instructional assistants.

Some early childhood special education teachers work in blended preschool settings where children with known disabilities are educated alongside their nondisabled peers.

Special education teachers typically have greater paperwork requirements than general education teachers.

Early childhood special education teachers work with children with a range of disabilities -- indeed many children have some level of difference in multiple areas. However, the endorsement does not prepare a teacher for all populations. Children with particular certain types of disability – e.g. visual impairment – may be served by teachers with specialized PK-12 credentialing. Some teachers hold multiple endorsements.

In some states, a teacher may have the option of adding supplemental endorsements such as autism. Supplemental endorsements reflect additional expertise.

Early Childhood Special Education Salary and Career Outlook

The average salary for special education teachers at the kindergarten and elementary levels is slightly higher than it is for general education teachers at the kindergarten and elementary level. This doesn't mean that teachers automatically receive higher salaries for teaching special education. Salaries show that special education teachers tend to be well credentialed, and they are compensated for it. Teachers are typically on a salary scale that takes into account educational level and years of service. (Having even 15 semester hours beyond a bachelor's degree often translates into a higher salary, a master's into a higher salary yet.)

In limited cases, there can be a stipend attached to special education service. In Utah, for example, early childhood special education is among the teaching fields where an educator may qualify for the state Teacher Salary Supplement Program (TSSP). The supplement applies only to teachers with majors in special education. Other designations that appear on a transcript (for example, “concentration”) don’t qualify a person.

Preschool special education teachers make, on average, far more than general education preschool teachers. This largely represents the difference in opportunities available to them. The majority of preschool special education teachers work for public schools. Some who work in less common settings actually average more. They are in positions that demand a high level of education and they meet or exceed it. Preschool general education teachers typically have less education. Moreover, they are less likely to be on salary scales where high levels of education are fully rewarded.

There is still a lot of variation from one state to the next. In many states, salaries of preschool special education teachers are roughly on a par with elementary school and kindergarten teachers ( There are some where the averages fall notably above or below that of elementary teachers. (Utah is among the states where preschool special education teachers average higher.)

Colorado, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, and West Virginia were among the other states that listed early childhood special education or preschool special education/ special needs as a shortage area for the 2017 to 2018 year. There were others. Additional states listed special education PreK-12 or just special education.

The nation doesn’t just need special education teachers, though. It needs well-qualified ones – one reason some jurisdictions are employing targeted recruitment strategies, whether in the form of loan repayment, stipends, or paraprofessional to professional programs.