Special Education Careers

10 Tips for a First-Year Special Education Teacher—Survival Guide

Between lesson planning, IEPs, meetings with parents, and getting to know your students, your first year as a special education teacher can be overwhelming. Knowing how to manage it by planning ahead can help you have a successful first year. While you can’t avoid some challenges, these tips can help you avoid burnout and be the best teacher for your students.

In this survival guide, I give you everything you need to know for your first year in special education. I talk about planning lessons, being prepared, and staying on top of your schedule so that your students get the most possible benefit from your class. I also help you avoid getting overwhelmed in the face of some of the biggest challenges you’ll face.

First-Year Teacher Tool Kit

  • Why Should You Prepare for Your First School Year?
  • 1. Stay Flexible
  • 2. Plan and Have Backups
  • 3. Review Student IEPs
  • 4. Communicate with Parents
  • 5. Prepare for IEP Meetings
  • 6. Create a Realistic Schedule
  • 7. Make Tasks and Lessons Easy
  • 8. Have a Team Mindset
  • 9. Network with Other Teachers
  • 10. Take Care of Yourself

Why Should You Prepare for Your First School Year?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teaching experience doesn’t always equal better preparation for meeting student needs. As a first-year special education teacher, you’ve got more current knowledge and skills than many more experienced teachers, which can give you an advantage in the classroom.

Preparing for your first school year can make learning your way around the classroom and curriculum easier. It also means that you’re more organized, efficient, and helpful to your students. 

When you prepare well, your students benefit as much as you do. If you’re less stressed about lesson plans and meetings, you can understand their needs, have more patience, and work with them to meet their academic goals successfully.

Preparation also helps you connect with your fellow teachers, parents, and other school staff. Forming positive relationships with these people can mean receiving help when you need it, as well as improving outcomes of meetings with parents and colleagues. When you know what to expect and how to prepare for it, you can avoid getting overwhelmed, which in turn makes your students look forward to coming to your classroom.

1. Stay Flexible

Over the course of any day, you may have to deal with everything from behavioral problems to keeping students engaged to being short staffed in the classroom. By staying flexible, you make these challenges more manageable, which becomes especially necessary in special education. 

Students all have individual needs, and learning how to meet those needs with lesson plans you can change can make it easier to stay on track. Sometimes, your best laid lesson plans will be derailed by a bad day. 

You might also have an unexpectedly productive day where you can do another activity or cover more material than you thought. If you’re prepared for both scenarios, you’ll have everything you need to keep your class on track. Flexibility helps you avoid extra stress due to changing schedules, curriculum alterations, and classroom disruptions.

2. Plan and Have Backups

Planning early and creating backup plans will help you avoid having too much time at the end of a lesson or not getting through all the material you want to cover. It also helps with staying flexible when you know you have another activity or more material lined up. If you can plan your lessons for the first couple of weeks before school starts, you’ll have enough material to stay ahead of the game while you settle into your new routine.

Plan more than you need to at the beginning. Having too much material to cover is better than having too little and then wondering what to do with the rest of your class time. Plus, when you have plenty of material to cover early on, you can continue planning future lessons and avoid falling behind.

Backup plans are just as important as your regular lesson plans. When you run into those bad days, it can help to have some tools you keep in your classroom for when you have to create an on-the-spot lesson.

Save the lesson plans you make during your first year. They’ll make it easier to plan for your second year and beyond, and you can make changes to those plans as needed without having to start from scratch. If you do fall behind on planning in your first year, you can avoid it in the future.

3. Review Student IEPs

Before the school year starts, review every student’s individualized education program (IEP). Know their academic goals, accommodations, modifications, and service minutes, if you teach elementary school or teach in a resource room. This will make it easier to remember each student’s needs and work with them toward their goals from day one.

When you review each IEP, write a summary of the document that fits on a single page. Most IEP writing software used in school districts have an option to print a one page IEP highlight. The summary helps when communicating with the student’s other teachers and professionals involved in their education. 

You should also keep all student IEPs in one accessible place, like a binder or folder, for quick reference. Remember, these documents must be kept in a locked location as it is legal information that must be kept private. Having this information on hand can help you tailor your plans to the student’s service minutes and the general curriculum.

4. Communicate with Parents

Building positive relationships with your students’ parents leads to better collaboration and cooperation. You can send an email to your students’ parents or call them before the start of the school year to ask any questions you have and answer theirs, as well as talk about any concerns or goals for the year.

This proactive approach shows parents that you care about their children and lets them know you want to work together to benefit their child. Positive relationships with parents lead to better results in IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and other situations where the child’s parents may get involved.

5. Prepare for IEP Meetings

If you’re leading an IEP meeting, you might feel intimidated by the process as a first-year teacher. To minimize stress and keep the meeting organized, create an agenda, so you don’t forget any crucial topics you want to discuss in the meeting. You’re working as part of a team, so while you aren’t the only one making decisions, your plan shows professionalism on your part.

You should also know the student’s IEP and know which services and accommodations you’d like to talk about at the meeting. When you participate in these meetings, be open to feedback from the child’s parents and collaborate with other professionals at your child’s school. 

6. Create a Realistic Schedule

You will inevitably bring work home and stay late at work to get everything done. However, sticking to a schedule as much as possible for when and how much you work can help you maintain a healthier work-life balance.

You typically won’t have a lot of time alone in your classroom to review IEP data, plan IEP goals, create new materials, and plan lessons. To make doing some of this work at home more manageable, make a schedule that still allows you time with your family and to meet your own needs. Having a realistic schedule rather than bringing home as much work as possible every night and weekend will help you avoid burnout.

7. Make Tasks and Lessons Easy

While you should challenge students, you’ll want to have some easier lessons and activities lined up, especially early on in the school year. These types of activities help you determine each child’s strengths and where they can improve, as well as allowing students to adjust to their school routine.

Having some easier activities throughout the school year also allows students to get positive reinforcement. If you only give them difficult work, they may get frustrated, whereas offering assignments you know they can do offers encouragement and lets you focus on learning about the students’ individual needs and capabilities.

8. Have a Team Mindset

As a special education teacher, you’re part of a team that includes aides, paraprofessionals, IEP team members, general education teachers, parents, and others involved in your students’ education. It’s essential to collaborate with these people to reduce your own stress and give your students the best possible education.

Your paraprofessionals and aides can help you do some daily tasks and set up for lessons when needed. When you have questions, find people who can help you and turn to them for information and experience you may not have. You may also want to create a list of responsibilities for paras that you can also give to substitutes.

9. Network with Other Teachers 

As a first year teacher, you may have an assigned mentor. If you don’t, network with other teachers and form positive relationships, so you know who to ask for help when you need it. These are the people who can answer your questions about IEPs and IEP meetings, and who can give advice on handling difficult situations.

To network, you can meet other special education professionals online, meet others at your school for coffee, or go to conferences. Networking helps you grow as a teacher, and you can learn faster when you have support in your career. 

10. Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of your mental and physical health keeps you more attentive, patient, and prepared. You may find it difficult to get enough sleep or stick to a schedule, but it’s important to have a workable balance between your career and your life outside of school. 

Teaching special education requires a diverse set of skills, including problem-solving, empathy, patience, and creative thinking. Those skills suffer when you’re exhausted and depleted. Developing healthy habits like getting enough sleep, managing your time well, setting boundaries, and taking time to destress will help you become a better teacher.


You can’t avoid every challenge that comes with your first year as a special education teacher, but you can reduce and manage them. By following the advice in this guide, you can make your year successful and continue helping your students reach their goals with everything you learn.

I hope this guide helps you not only survive your first year teaching but make it fun for you and your students. If you have questions or other tips, leave them in the comments or send me an email! I’d love to hear about your experience!

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.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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