Special Education Counselor Careers

What is Special Education Counseling?

Special education counseling is a specialization of school counseling that is concerned with the success of special needs students. The essential purpose of special education counseling is to ensure that special needs students and their families have access to the appropriate supports and interventions in order to facilitate improved achievement in a school environment.

In addition to facilitating academic and intellectual growth, special education counseling is concerned with improving a student’s ability to function in social, emotional, and behavioral capacities. Special education counseling is a multi-modal discipline in that special education counselors must be well versed in counseling theories and techniques, as well as educational theory, educational law, and special education regulations.

What Does a Special Education Counselor Do?

Special education counselors work with special needs students in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, to ensure they have the support services they need in order to achieve their highest potential in the areas of academics, personal and social growth, and career development. This is accomplished by working with students with social, emotional, behavioral, and physical disabilities in a variety of settings, including in one-on-one counseling, group counseling, in special education classrooms, as well as in regular education classrooms.

Another essential duty of special education counselors is to work with special education and general education teachers and staff members to ensure that the needs of each special needs student are being met. Special education counselors do this by advocating on the child’s behalf, collaborating with teachers to develop more effective support services for the child, or working with teachers and staff members to develop a better understanding of the interventions in place to help the child succeed. Much collaboration and consultation is also undertaken with other special services workers, such as school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and the like.

Special education counselors work extensively with families as well. In this context, they might serve as a go-between, helping families understand school policies and procedures, or helping inform families about their rights concerning special education services. Special education counselors also often work with families to improve their ability to meet their child’s needs at home. This might involve offering parents and guardians insight into effective strategies for improving their child’s functioning. It may also involve referring families to outside resources, such as child and family counselors, vocational training, or non-profit organizations that specialize in working with families of special needs children.

What is the Role of a School Counselor in Special Education?

The role of a school counselor is to help all students, including those with special needs, to achieve their full potential. Introducing an appropriate individualized education program (IEP) at an early age can make all the difference, not only in these children’s academic learning, but in their emotional health and social adjustment and ultimately in their ability to become productive, contributing members of society.

However, the population of children who are referred to special education classes is very diverse. So simply pigeonholing them into broad categories won’t work. It is important for each child’s particular strengths, weaknesses, and special needs to be adequately identified and addressed. The school counselor is one person who can help by actively advocating for these children. The following are some of the other important services that school counselors provide.

  • Counseling sessions with special education students.
  • Encouraging family involvement in the IEP. It helps immensely if the parents or other responsible adults understand and are on board with the services that have been recommended, including possible referrals to outside organizations. The special education counselor can also address specific questions or concerns and inform parents and guardians of their rights.
  • Consulting with and working with other school staff to better understand the child’s special needs and what support systems, adaptations and modifications may be necessary.
  • Collaborating with other school and community professionals, including but not limited to teachers, school psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language pathologists, in the delivery of services.
  • Identifying other students who should be assessed to determine eligibility for special education.

What is the Job Outlook for Special Education Counselors?

The job outlook for special education counselors is good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates 12 percent growth in this field of work through the early part of the next decade. While this represents only modest growth, there has been a rapid increase in the number of special education students over the last 30 years. In fact, the special education population in U.S. public schools increased by 37 percent between 1980 and 2005, as compared to 20 percent for the general education population. This growth is not expected to slow, meaning, the job outlook for special education counselors could very well be far more robust than experts estimate.

Local spending on special education impacts opportunities for jobs as well. New Hampshire spends, by far, the most on special education services. Hawaii, Connecticut, and New York likewise have large estimated special education budgets as well, making jobs for special education counselors more likely to be found. Conversely, Mississippi, Washington, D.C., Florida, and Oklahoma spend the least amount of money on special education services, therefore, jobs in those states may be difficult to come by.

How Much Does a Special Education Counselor Make?

Specific wage information for special education counselors is not available. However, using information from closely related occupations, a relatively clear picture of potential earnings can be formed. School counselors that do not have a specialization in special education earn, on average, $45,975 per year according to PayScale, as of April 2015. Meanwhile, the BLS estimates that school counselors earn an average of $56,040 each year, as of May 2014. Because these occupations are highly similar to special education counseling, one can reasonably assume a median wage in the mid-40s for special education counselors.

Because they are employed in a school setting, the wages a special education counselor earns depend on their level of education and years of service. Movement up the pay scale both horizontally and vertically will result in an increasingly large annual wage.

What are the Education Requirements to Become a Special Education Counselor?

The educational requirements for special education counselors are quite different from those for counselors that work outside the school system. It is highly recommended that students begin their studies not in counseling, but instead with a bachelor’s degree in special education and gain experience as a special education teacher. To achieve this goal, students must complete a four-year special education program, including a student teaching placement in a special education setting. Upon graduation, students will need to pass a written examination and fulfill the requirements of obtaining teaching licensure in the state in which they live.

After a few years in the classroom as a special education teacher, prospective special education counselors should then pursue a master’s degree in school counseling, which is most often the terminal degree in this field of work. Courses in master’s degree programs revolve around developing a deep understanding of human behavior, educational policies and principles, and topics related to working with special needs populations. Human development, research methods, evaluation and assessment procedures, and statistics are common areas of study as well.

Master’s degree programs in school counseling also include practicum and internship experiences, which are much like student teaching experiences. Counselors go into school settings for an established period of time to get real-world experience in applying their knowledge to a special education setting under the watchful eye of a supervising counselor.

Upon graduation with a master’s degree, students must obtain certification as a school counselor, which is most often handled by the department of education in the state in which an individual will be employed. Some states may require further certifications to work with special needs populations. Additionally, licensure may or may not be required. It is recommended that prospective special education counselors consult with the governing bodies in their state of residence to determine exactly what the certification and licensure requirements are.

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