Special Education Careers

10 Tips for Student Teaching in a Special Education Classroom

To someone without training and experience, special education classrooms can seem like very challenging places to work. Truthfully, these classrooms do have challenges associated with them. Teachers must undergo significant training and education to be able to meet the needs of their students and to follow state and federal regulations in the process.

One of the best ways to figure out if you are ready for the challenge of teaching in a special education classroom is through a student teaching assignment. As a student teacher, you will receive first-hand experience with these amazing children, but you also can rely on the expertise and calming influence of a successful special education teacher.

Having plenty of energy and excitement about joining the special education classroom is a good starting point for a student teacher. For additional help for you, I have come up with 10 tips for the student teacher joining a special education program.

Helpful Tips for Special Education Student Teachers 

Before I began working as a Special Education Teacher, a Special Education Program Specialist, and an Autism Specialist in a large school district near Seattle, I spent time as a student teacher working with children with special needs. I had days where I wasn’t sure about my future path, but I had many more days where I was certain I had found my lifelong calling.

Ultimately, student teaching in a special education classroom showed me how important these students are. I learned so much from the other staff members and mentors in the classroom during my days as a student teacher. I still make use of some of the things I learned in those early days!

Through my years of subsequent work in the special education classroom, I have developed numerous tips and pieces of advice that I like to share with those considering joining the profession. I appreciate the chance to help new special education teachers, just as educators and mentors once helped me. Here are my favorite 10 tips for student teachers looking to work in special education.

  1. Create Organization and Structure in the Classroom
  2. Focus on the Individual
  3. Don’t Be Afraid to Communicate
  4. Work on Your Listening Skills
  5. Carry a Positive Outlook and Attitude
  6. Show Students They Matter With Your Patience
  7. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Students Academically
  8. Take Notes Regularly
  9. Find Balance in Your Life
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

#1. Create Organization and Structure in the Classroom

One of the most valuable skills special education instructors can have is the ability to create a sense of structure in the classroom. Sometimes, the special education classroom can seem like the most chaotic room in the entire school. You can do a few things to control the chaos, though, and to use it to your advantage.

Come up with a routine to follow each day. Some teachers actually prefer to schedule the routine down to the minute. Many students with special needs crave this structure and routine, so give it to them! 

Having a routine in place helps the students stay calm. Reducing stress among the students can help them have more success. Should you be instructing several students at the same time in the classroom, having a routine helps you feel confident that all of them are completing their assigned tasks.

Be Flexible

As you go into this process, however, understand that no organizational structure will be perfect from the start. You may need to adjust the routine occasionally. On certain days, the routine simply will not work because of other activities you must tackle or because a certain student is having a bad day. Always be open to changes as needed.

When starting your stint as a student teacher, you may join a classroom that already has an organizational structure in place. You may need to adjust the routine to better fit your needs and the individual needs of the students. However, you may want to wait several days, spending time observing the classroom and determining which changes could be beneficial. The primary teacher in the classroom can help with making changes to the structure too.

#2. Focus on the Individual

For a student teacher who spent time in a general classroom before working in the special education classroom, understanding the importance of treating each student as an individual can be a challenge. General classroom students typically all do the same assignment or all follow the same schedule. This is not the case in the special education classroom.

Federal laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require an individualized approach to special education students. Each child with special needs in the special education classroom will have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that you will need to follow.

Additionally, it is important to look at each student as an individual. Although it can be challenging, avoid seeing each student as someone defined by his or her disability. Each child has a unique personality and enjoys various activities that have nothing to do with the disability. Focus on these traits, and you will have more success making a connection with each of these amazing children!

#3. Don’t Be Afraid to Communicate

Special education teachers must work closely with multiple people who have a vested interest in the well-being of each student. These people can include parents, special education administrators, special education paraprofessionals, therapists, psychologists, and others. 

Working toward the best result for each student in the special education classroom requires constant communication and collaboration. 

As a student teacher, you may not have full responsibility for overseeing meetings with all of the child’s stakeholders. However, your opinions and observations as you work with each student are important. Attending these meetings is a good opportunity to work on your communicative skills. 

Keep Parents and Guardians Informed

As a student teacher, you may initially feel uncomfortable speaking with the parents or guardians of the students in the special education classroom. However, because parents are such an important part of the educational experience for special education students, keeping them in the loop about the student’s activities in the classroom is a vital part of your job.

Parents appreciate hearing about both successes and struggles for their students. Be as specific as possible when communicating with the parents. Rather than telling parents that a student “always” behaves a certain way, focus on the particular circumstances that lead to a certain behavior. 

If you are nervous about speaking with parents, ask one of the veteran teachers for some tips. Ask if you can attend some of the veteran teacher’s meetings with parents to gain a feel for how the process should go. 

#4. Work on Your Listening Skills

Always remember that part of being a good communicator with others involved in the child’s special education journey means taking time to listen. Listening to others may help you gain insight into a child’s particular type of behavior or disability. 

For example, you may learn something you did not know about the student through listening to the parents or guardians during your regular communication sessions. Parents spend a lot of time with their child and will have unique insights about things that may or may not work to keep the child engaged. 

It takes an entire team to come up with the best plan for each student. Even as a student teacher, your voice is important, but so are the voices of others who play a role in the child’s life. Knowing when to speak up and when to listen are important skills for a special education teacher, and you can begin developing them now as a student teacher.. 

By taking the time to listen to everyone involved, and by meshing those ideas with your own, you will have the best chance of creating a plan that truly meets the needs of the student. 

#5. Carry a Positive Outlook and Attitude

Many times, special education students will quickly form a bond with the student teacher. They will look up to you and seek guidance from you. They will look for cues from you about the types of behavior and attitude they should have.

This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect every minute of the school day. Instead, focus on creating a positive atmosphere in the classroom. As long as the overall vibe in the classroom is upbeat and positive, students will enjoy their time in school. During times where you may be feeling a little bit of frustration, the overall positive feelings should keep the students engaged and moving forward.

One way to create more positivity in the classroom is to focus on the accomplishments of the students, no matter how small. When a project seems too daunting to complete all at once, focus on the positives, such as the student completing one or two steps in the project. 

Rather than carrying a negative attitude in the classroom where you feel like you are constantly correcting the behavior of the students, work on being helpful and positive. This isn’t always easy, but it is one of the best pieces of advice I can give a young special education teacher or a student teacher. 

#6. Show Students They Matter With Your Patience

Patience goes a long way when working as a student teacher, a para, a special education director, or a full-time teacher in a special education classroom. When a student is struggling or is feeling anxious about trying to complete a task, you can show patience by providing extra one-on-one help or by allowing the student to have more time.

Occasionally, you may have a student who tries to take advantage of your kindness and patience, as he or she seeks to avoid having to complete an assignment. But in the end, showing a positive attitude will convince the students that you care about them, and they will eventually come around to the idea of wanting to do their best work for you.

#7. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Students Academically

As you learn more about each of the students, you will gain a greater ability to know when to provide help for them and when to challenge them. To make progress in their educational journeys, special education students need challenges. 

As a student teacher, you may feel uncomfortable challenging students by giving them tougher assignments. You may worry about seeing them fail and how that will affect your relationship with the students. 

It takes practice to gain a feel for when you should give each student a challenging assignment and when you should give the student a better chance at having success. But it is an important skill to develop.

One way to challenge students while focusing on the individual involves creating group activities for several special education students, but modifying the tasks involved to accommodate the individual needs of each student. As the students watch each other work on the task, they may have extra motivation to work hard to keep up with their peers.

#8. Take Notes Regularly

One thing that I found extremely helpful at the time I was student teaching was creating documentation about my experiences. During my early years of working in the special education classroom after I graduated, I found myself referring to these notes, helping me repeat some of the successes I had as a student teacher … and avoiding some of the mistakes I made!

Use your smartphone to take photographs of projects you complete or a calendar with the daily routine you developed. Some student teachers prefer to create a journal or a personal blog where they document everything that happened in the classroom on a particular day. 

Be certain to take notes about both your successes and failures in the classroom. You sometimes can learn more from a failure, so it is important to document these occurrences too.

What you may find is that taking the time to record what happened to you during the day helps you come up with new ideas and approaches. The act of reliving the work you did during the day can provide a spark. 

Regardless of how you want to record the information and organize your notes, if you are like me, simply having this information close at hand will be invaluable for you for years into the future.

#9. Find Balance in Your Life

One of the ways mentors and veteran special education teachers can help you is through figuring out how to create balance in your life. 

When you are doing everything possible to try to help your amazing special education students, thinking about the techniques you should use can almost overwhelm your life. You may find yourself thinking about them during your time in school and at home. You may feel like you can solve a problem by just putting in a few more hours.

This is not always healthy, however. You need to take time to enjoy your favorite activities and to relax. Having a healthy balance between your work as a teacher and your life outside the classroom will help you have more success as a special education teacher in the long run. Sometimes, walking away from the problem for a few hours and spending time to yourself will give you a fresh perspective and will spark a new idea for a solution.

#10. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Even as a student teacher in a special education classroom, you will have quite a bit of responsibility. There will be times where this responsibility feels overwhelming. You are trying to learn as much as you can about the field of special education, but you’re also responsible for the well-being of several children with special needs.

When these feelings start to overwhelm you, it is not the time to try to handle things on your own. Seek help from veteran teachers and administrators who have experience in the field of special education. They nearly always will be more than happy to help you. 

By seeking help from mentors and other teachers, you as the student teacher can relieve some of the stress you may be feeling. Others can give you advice or can let you know that they also went through many of the same challenges you are facing. 

The tips from others in the profession can give you techniques that will work once you are teaching in your own classroom. The real-world, hands-on knowledge you gain when other instructors help you work through problems is more valuable than reading about potential problems in a textbook.

Learning to Be Part of a Team

One of the greatest things about becoming a special education teacher is having a sense of camaraderie with your fellow educators. Each of you can understand the challenges other teachers are facing. You will have many of the same experiences.

Having others available who can commiserate with you about rough days and can celebrate accomplishments with you on good days is invaluable. Being part of a team always feels great, in large part because all of the team members are more than ready to help each other. Some of the relationships you make as a student teacher may last for dozens of years into the future.

Conclusion

If you have some additional tips for helping student teachers in the special education classroom, please share them by email or in the comments section. Teachers helping teachers sparks some of the best ideas! Please leave me a message if you have any questions about my tips as well.

I understand the tips presented here may seem a little overwhelming. Do not feel intimidated, though! You do not have to apply all of these tips in the first hour of your first day as a student teacher in the special education classroom. Many of my tips should give you a general idea about how to work in this field and about how to take advantage of this amazing opportunity you have.

The best advice I can give is to treat each child and each staff member in the classroom with respect and compassion. Becoming a special education teacher is not an easy process, and I can guarantee that there will be challenging days. But remembering to treat everyone fairly and with patience will go a long way. Having a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either! And I can guarantee that working with these amazing students will bring a smile to your face daily.

  1. Create Organization and Structure in the Classroom
  2. Focus on the Individual
  3. Don’t Be Afraid to Communicate
  4. Work on Your Listening Skills
  5. Carry a Positive Outlook and Attitude
  6. Show Students They Matter With Your Patience
  7. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Students Academically
  8. Take Notes Regularly
  9. Find Balance in Your Life
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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