Guide to Special Education Degrees Online

Education is more than a career. It’s a calling.

You’ve dedicated yourself to this path because you care about your students and you want to be there for them, making a difference in their lives and the lives of their families. Pursuing a career in special education takes that calling to the next level.

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As a special education teacher, you could be the one to provide students with the support, resources, and assistance they need to thrive alongside their peers and throughout life. But this unique career isn’t without its challenges!

That’s where a solid online special education degree program comes in. Whether you’re already a licensed teacher, or you’re still taking your first steps into the classroom, different types of special education degrees may prepare you to help your students.

What Is Special Education?

Special education is a unique branch of teaching that focuses on working with students who fall within one of the thirteen categories of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, or IDEA. IDEA is a law that guarantees all students access to free appropriate public education with reasonable accommodations for their unique needs. The disability types covered under IDEA are listed below.

  1. Specific Learning Disability
  2. Other Health Impairment
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder
  4. Emotional Disturbance
  5. Speech or Language Impairment
  6. Visual Impairment (Including Blindness)
  7. Deafness
  8. Hearing Impairment
  9. Deaf-blindness
  10. Orthopedic Impairment
  11. Intellectual Disability
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Multiple Disabilities

Some Special Education programs may also cover gifted students, as well as students facing other unique challenges that impact their classroom success. For example, English Language Learners—especially those new to the community adapting to a new culture—may require specialized services to help them adapt and succeed, even if they do not technically have a learning disorder. Universities may offer different types of special education degrees designed to focus more closely on one or several of the categories listed above.

Special education teachers may serve in a variety of capacities within a school community. This includes acting as a primary classroom teacher, co-teaching in a blended classroom, acting as push-in or one-on-one support, or as a resource outside the classroom to help provide important services like extended test times or homework support.

Special education teachers may also serve on Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams and in the identification, intervention, and evaluation processes.

Special Education Certification & Requirementsi

To work in a public school setting, special education teachers typically need to fulfill certain special education certification requirements. These requirements are typically issued at the state level. Students typically need at least a bachelor’s degree, wherever they are. Beyond that, the amount and level of special education-specific coursework required may vary.

In some cases, one might only need to take certain classes alongside another bachelor's level teaching certification in another area. In other places, one might need to complete a formal special education degree program. Some areas may even offer disability category-specific licensure that reflects your preparedness to work with a specific population. Additional certification types and requirements may also vary by state.

New and experienced educators alike who are interested in special education may opt to pursue an online masters in special education or higher, even if it’s not required for initial certification. This could include those interested in moving into education from an unrelated field, teachers who want to move into a new work area, and experienced special education professionals. Depending on the types of special education degrees chosen, these programs could help teachers enhance skills in the classroom and expertise surrounding learning disorders and disabilities, support potential advancement, and potentially help aspiring teachers work toward licensure.

Types of Special Education Degrees Offered

Just like students come in all shapes and sizes, so do special education programs. Depending on your level of education, experience, and your professional background, you might earn anything from a bachelors through doctorate in special education. And any of those programs might come in a few different varieties.

One primary distinction is whether the program is designed to facilitate licensure, or if it’s aimed at experienced teachers who already hold an active license. Additionally, many special education programs allow you to focus on working with one specific population or in a certain professional role.

Below, we’ve listed some examples of the types of special education programs you might find. Each program listed is at the master’s level. However, if you’re not looking to earn a master's in special education online degree, additional options may be available at the bachelors or doctorate level, at these and other schools. Program type, level, and availability may vary.

General Special Education

Generalized Special Education programs may not be labeled as such. Sometimes they’re just called “Special Education,” with no qualifier at all. Programs in this category are designed fairly broadly, aiming to equip students with the expertise to serve in all different areas. Rather than centering on one skill set or disability type, generalized special education programs are likely to cover the essentials across the board. In most cases, these programs are teaching-oriented to support classroom teachers and other student-centric roles, rather than leadership or administration.

Colorado Christian University: Master of Education in Special Education

The Master of Education in Special Education program at Colorado Christian University is designed for students looking for a generalist endorsement. The program has options for those seeking licensure as well as experienced teachers already holding a license. The majority of coursework is offered online, to accommodate the needs of working professionals. However, there may be some in-person requirements, particularly with respect to student teaching.

Because the university is based in Colorado, the program is designed with Colorado’s licensure and endorsement requirements in mind. If you’re living and working in a different state, make sure you follow up with the appropriate parties regarding any additional licensure requirements.

Gifted Education

Gifted education programs focus on strategies and techniques to help students thrive when they otherwise may not be challenged in a gen ed classroom. Often, these students test well, learn quickly, and have high IQs, but may still underachieve due to boredom and lack of engagement. Gifted education programs focus on how to:

  • Design curricula to meet the needs of gifted students 
  • Differentiate a lesson for a range of ability levels
  • Identify and test students 
  • Oversee the implementation of gifted programs in schools and districts

Liberty University Online Masters in Gifted Education

Liberty University offers an online Gifted Education masters program. It’s designed primarily for students who already hold their initial teaching licensure, but wish to either move into a gifted education role, or expand their skill set.

Liberty’s Gifted Education program covers topics like exceptionality in education, educational assessment, learning theory, curriculum development, organization and design of gifted education programs, and more. Liberty Online was recognized by US News & World Report 2018 in multiple categories including Online Graduate Education.

Note: Because the school is based in Virginia, if you’re licensed in another state, it’s possible there may be additional prerequisites if your state’s licensure requirements do not align with those in Virginia.

Disability or Disorder-Specific Programs

Many online special education degree programs focus on working with a specific type of population. One common example you might find are special education degrees focused on working with students on the autism spectrum.

However, that’s not the only option. Other programs might allow you to study a range of developmental disabilities, including intellectual disability, pervasive developmental disorders, ADHD, dyslexia, processing disorders, and more.

Whatever the specific focus, these types of programs would design their curriculum to center on the research, challenges, teaching and intervention strategies appropriate for those students in particular.

Saint Joseph University Masters in Special Education with Autism Spectrum Disorders Endorsement Track

Saint Joseph’s University’s Masters in Special Education offers an Autism Spectrum Disorders Endorsement track to students who are already enrolled in the program. In addition to covering more generalized special education topics, this concentration focuses on identifying students potentially on the spectrum, evaluating those students, and meeting their educational needs in and out of the classroom.

That includes communication and socialization strategies, behavior support and modification, and instructional differentiation. St. Joseph’s University has been recognized in multiple categories by US News & World Report 2018, including being ranked #11 among Regional Universities North.

Behavior Intervention

Behavior intervention special education programs focus on identifying behavior issues in a classroom and honing in on their potential causes, performing functional behavior assessments, developing and implementing behavior plans, and providing classroom support. Often, behavior plans are developed as part of or in conjunction with IEPs, meaning that behavior intervention programs may also cover how IEP teams function, how to write an IEP, special education law, and other relevant topics.

Some special education degrees that are focused on behavior intervention may also center on a certain type of behavior issue or cause, such as behavior intervention for students on the autism spectrum. Special education graduate programs concentrating on behavior intervention and analysis are generally distinct from behavior therapy programs offered by psychology schools.

George Mason University Applied Behavior Analysis M.Ed

George Mason University offers a Master of Education in Applied Behavior Analysis. It’s designed for experienced educators interested in developing, implementing, and maintaining behavioral treatment and intervention services in schools and other education settings.

This program could be a great fit for licensed teachers with classroom experience, as it focuses on behavior analysis and intervention rather than the skills and other requirements for initial teaching licensure. Plus, it can be completed fully online in only 18 months, making it a convenient option to balance with classroom responsibilities.

The program is approved by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, and satisfies the prerequisites to sit for the Behavior Analysis Certification Exam.

Communication & Hearing Impairment

Special education programs may offer concentrations in communication and hearing impairment. Depending on the focus of the program and how the curriculum is designed, they may cover a range of issues related to hearing, auditory processing, and verbalized communication.

Programs like this cover issues like language development and literacy, and how those are adversely impacted by hearing loss and processing disorders. They may also discuss identification and assessment, assistive technology, behavior support, differentiation and instructional techniques in the classroom, and more.

University of Arizona: Special Education: Deaf & Hard Of Hearing (MA)

The University of Arizona offers a Deaf/Hard of Hearing Master of Arts through their Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies. They have options for licensed teachers looking to move into Deaf/Hard of Hearing Education, as well as new teachers seeking their initial licensure.

The University of Arizona DHH program focuses on the education and rehabilitation of Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals, language development, language and literacy assessment for deaf and hard of hearing students, audiology, oral language development in deaf or hard of hearing children, and issues and challenges faced by DHH students in public school environments.

Reading Specialization

Special education programs with a focus on reading or literacy are generally classroom-centric. They’re likely to focus on how to help individual students with learning disabilities, developmental disorders, processing issues, or other challenges develop their written communication skills.

However, some literacy programs may instead focus on curriculum, pedagogy and best practices, helping to prepare enrolled students to educate the other teachers in their school or district. Not every special education program may support earning a reading specialist license endorsement, however, so if that’s what you’re interested in, double check the requirements in your state and compare them to the programs you’re interested in attending.

UMassOnline Master of Education in Reading & Language

The University of Massachusetts offers a Master of Education in Reading and Language through UMassOnline. The program is designed for students who hold either their initial or professional teaching license in Elementary Education, ELL, Early Childhood Education, or Moderate Disabilities.

This classroom-centered program discusses topics like diversity in education, reading and language research, assessment, language acquisition, reading for content areas, and even program evaluation.

The University of Massachusetts was recognized in 2018 by US News & World Report on their list of Best Online Graduate Education Programs.

Curriculum & Instruction

Curriculum and instruction graduate programs may also be offered outside the realm of special education. When offered as a special education concentration, they generally focus on designing and differentiating a curriculum to meet the needs of gifted students and those with special needs.

Often, curriculum and instruction-focused programs focus primarily on administrative type roles, overseeing school or district-wide curriculum development and instruction practices, rather than application in an individual classroom. However, this may vary on a case by case basis, so follow up with your selected program for more details.

Salem University Curriculum & Instruction M.Ed with Special Education Leadership Specialization

Salem University’s Curriculum and Instruction: Special Education Leadership Specialization masters program is designed to help experienced teachers move out of the classroom and into administrative roles. The skills developed could support overseeing curriculum development and instructional practices in a building or district, particularly with respect to special education programs and services.

Example course topics include curriculum development, instructional leadership, public school finance and administration, learning assessment, teaching analysis, educational research, and more.

Find the Types of Special Education Degrees for You

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You can also use the menu to select your preferred major and degree level to find a list of options. Click on the names of programs you’re interested in for more information or to get in touch.


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