How to Overcome Challenges in the Classroom As A Special Education Teacher

Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Special Education Teacher; M.S. SpEd

Teaching is a stressful profession by nature, but it is even more so in the field of special education. Working with special needs students is a challenging situation even for those teachers with a lot of academic and real-life preparation.

High Attrition Rate

High-stress professions are plagued by high burn-out rates, and educators are not exempt from this situation. Teachers who deal directly with the special needs population face situations that challenge their confidence, self-control and personal choices, including that of choosing to go into teaching. The attrition rate in this field is remarkably high compared to other professions. About 50 percent of teachers in special education settings leave their positions in five years. Another 50 percent of those who persevere through the challenges of being a special education teacher during the first five years of their careers will find themselves seeking employment elsewhere in the next 10 years. Both of these factors support the fact that the turnover rate every 10 years is about 75 percent for special education teachers based on a study published in the International Journal of Special Education. Compared to general education teachers, special education teachers are twice as likely to leave the profession based on annual attrition rates.

Identifying the Stressors

Heavy workloads can be a drag on teachers’ time and resources. However, in the case of special education teachers, the emotional aspect contributes to high turnovers in a job that is mentally and physically demanding. Finding a positive, healthy outlet for stress is a key element in relieving the less than positive aspects of a trying career as a special education teacher. Often exercise and creative pursuits (like painting, writing, reading, etc.) are great for helping alleviate stress. Talking with other professionals – like colleagues or even therapists – also helps. Sometimes even taking a “mental health” day or even hour is good at keeping stress under control. And as hard as it may seem, staying positive and in the moment is perhaps a special education teacher’s greatest means of keeping stress at bay.

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Achievement Testing

For students who do not take the same assessment as their grademates, in many cases they take their state’s alternate assessment. It assesses the same standards of the grade level but at a very basic level. Special needs students cannot be assessed on the same standards as traditional students, and special education teachers should not be held to the same measure either. These teachers, as are all teachers, are operating on overdrive to cope with the demands of the children they teach and the system should reward these efforts rather than marginalize them.

Different Skill Levels within a Classroom

In an integrated classroom, special needs students receive extra support through paraprofessionals or teaching assistants who are assigned to the classroom. In a special education classroom, the children will have different capabilities and disabilities. The teacher is expected to create an environment that is conducive to learning and is supportive of all students regardless of their skills and mobility level. Each student has an individual education plan or IEP as required by federal laws. Special education teachers must follow the requirements outlined in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) regardless of the classroom format.

Managing Children with Behavioral Issues

Children with special abilities require sensitive yet firm attention. They are prone to overstimulation and are easily upset over stressors that would be minor annoyances to other children. Make sure to have a calm-down area in the classroom. This section should provide a safe yet comforting atmosphere to allow students to find their balance. It should not seem like a time-out corner but rather one that is cozy and peaceful. This way, teachers can carry on with the rest of the class even in the face of distractions.

Documenting the Issues

Children react differently to different circumstances. Special needs children express anger, sadness, joy and other emotions just as well as other children although the triggers may be less obvious. It is important to document these instances judiciously to understand the factors that may trigger aggression and emotional breakdowns. These records may also be useful to counselors and parents.

Consistent Schedules

Various studies have shown that special needs children thrive in an environment that respects their patterns and need for consistency. A minor change in the pattern of activities can be upsetting to special students. Make sure to create classroom schedules ahead of time and maintain a pattern of activities that children can easily get used to while ensuring a calm atmosphere.

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Parent Engagement

Communication channels between parents and teachers of students with special needs and abilities should be open, honest and supportive at all times. Communicate by phone, email or written notes to provide parents with an update on their child’s progress or an insight into the child’s behavior patterns. Encourage parents to keep teachers informed about any factors that may be affecting their child’s temperaments.

Fostering a Collaborative Environment

Special education teachers are at the front line of a very trying function: educating and nurturing children who have disabilities. This is a task that requires patience, persistence and dedication. Make the most of available resources, including tapping into the expertise of general education teachers, therapists, counselors and administrative support. Collaboration generates creative solutions while lightening the burden on special education teachers.