Early Childhood Special Education Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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Master's degrees and PhDs in early childhood special education can lead to careers in teaching, administration or social work. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Study Early Childhood Special Education: Programs at a Glance

As a special education teacher, you might teach an entire class, work one-on-one with special needs students or work in tandem with a general education teacher. You'll also be called upon to consult with parents, administrators and other teachers about the needs of your students.

All states require public school teachers to be licensed or certified and have at least a bachelor's degree in education; some states require special education teachers to possess a master's degree. With a PhD, you'll be qualified to teach at the college level or work in an administrative capacity.

Due to increasing enrollment and continued demand, careers in early childhood special education are expected to grow by 21% from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, despite promising career opportunities, you may find strong competition for places in the relatively small number of PhD programs.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? - Teachers who want to specialize in early childhood special education
- Early childhood practitioners, Head Start teachers, childcare center staff and others who work with young children with special needs
- Students who want to work in special education policy, administration and research
- Professionals with bachelor's or master's degrees who want to increase their knowledge and skills in special education
- People who want to teach at the college level
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salary) - Special education teacher for preschool through age 8 ($56,500)* - College professor ($65,000)*
Time to Completion Typically 2 years if full-time Typically 4-5 years if full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 50-60 credits of coursework
- Portfolio
- Minimum GPA
- 70-80 credits of coursework
- Qualifying exams
- Dissertation
- Portfolio
- Minimum GPA
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- GRE/GMAT scores
- Some programs may require teaching experience or certification
Experience teaching and/or working with special populations, or research in a related area
- GRE scores
- Admissions interview
- Personal statement or essay, if applicable
Online Availability Yes Yes, but rare

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 mean figures).

Master's Degree in Early Childhood Special Education

Master's degree programs address children with at-risk behaviors or with mental, physical and social disabilities. You'll learn to recognize disabilities, understand their effects and tailor education programs to address children's needs.

The structure and requirements of master's degree programs in this field vary according to academic institution and state requirements. Some may require you to have prior work experience and/or a teaching certificate, while others accept students from various backgrounds without any teaching experience. Degree names also vary depending on the institution and may be in the form of Master of Education, Master of Arts or Master of Science degrees in special education.

You'll often pursue a concentration in a subspecialty, such as early childhood/early intervention or child development, or in a particular type of disability. An internship or practicum will also be part of the program. Master's degree programs typically do not include state licensing/certification exams - you'll need to contact the certifying agency in your state for information on initial teacher certification.

Pros and Cons

As you consider the pros and cons of this degree, keep in mind that if you already have a bachelor's degree but are lacking certification in early childhood special education, you may not need to pursue a master's degree. Through the National Center for Alternative Certification, all states offer alternative certification routes (supervised teaching, courses, etc.) for bachelor degree holders lacking the required education courses.

Pros

  • A variety of positions are open to you with this degree
  • Most jobs have a flexible schedule
  • Traditional two-month break in the summertime
  • Many states offer general special education licenses, which allow teachers to work across a range of disability categories

Cons

  • Some states require annual background checks
  • You may have to participate in supervised teaching assessments, professional development hours and various certification programs for different disabilities
  • Some states do not recognize certain licensing credibility from other states, making moving across state lines difficult for work
  • A master's degree may not be necessary, because you may be able to obtain the certifications you lack through other means

Common Courses and Requirements

A typical early childhood education master's degree program consists of 50-60 credits of required 'core' courses, electives and an internship or practicum. An internship allows you to apply your newly acquired skills and knowledge in a supervised work setting. Some programs will require you to compile a portfolio of relevant coursework, professional development milestones and field experience.

Core courses focus on learning theory, instructional technology, child growth and development, learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, research in the field and curriculum development. Electives allow you to select courses of interest to you or to focus on a particular disability.

Online Degree Options

Online programs can be quite convenient. As online programs grow in popularity, universities and colleges are offering fully online and hybrid programs that offer a mix of distance and in-person learning.

Online programs typically include coursework and requirements that are similar to traditional master's degree programs, though they may offer more compressed or flexible curriculums. Some schools may require distance-learning students to occasionally attend programs on campus or participate in internship programs at local childcare or education sites.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

As long as it meets program requirements, many academic institutions will allow you to select your internship/practicum environment of choice, so it may be helpful to choose an area that you're interested in working in. The people you work with during your internship may be able to offer networking assistance upon graduation; some internships may even turn into job offers.

You might also consider becoming familiar with assistive technologies that are used to help and work with people with special needs. These include technology that translates written text into Braille, computers that speak and specific educational software programs. Universities and colleges sometimes offer courses or even full programs in this area in conjunction with special education master's degrees.

PhD in Early Childhood Special Education

If you would like to become an expert in your field or work in academia, a PhD will serve you well. PhD programs typically balance theoretical concepts with practical knowledge and skills. These programs prepare you for professional positions in universities, research agencies, policy agencies and schools.

As a PhD candidate, you'll need to complete 70-80 credits of courses, pass preliminary examinations in your field and conduct original research. You'll also write a dissertation, which you'll defend to a panel of faculty advisors. If you don't have an educational or professional background in teaching, you may need to take additional courses to make up for lack of experience.

Admission to special education PhD programs is highly competitive due to the fact that smaller programs may only accept a handful of students each year. However, these coveted programs often come with grants to help offset housing and tuition costs. Graduate teaching assistantships, which typically offer a modest wage, may also be available. Keep in mind that these opportunities are highly prized and may also be competitive.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The PhD is widely recognized as the best option for a post-secondary teaching career
  • You have the opportunity to make a higher salary with a PhD
  • PhD candidates often receive funding for living expenses

Cons

  • Highly competitive admission
  • Recent budget cuts to higher education may have a lasting effect on employment prospects in academia
  • You may be considered over-educated for employment prospects outside of academia

Common Courses and Requirements

Your coursework may include introductory classes in statistics and research, quantitative and qualitative methods in educational research, evaluation methods in educational curricula, research and trends in education, cognitive language and literacy, personnel preparation in early childhood education, and family research and practice.

Additionally, you may be required to compile an educational portfolio of selected works that encompass your academic and professional development. Portfolios typically include accomplishments such as independent study, coursework, internships and research.

You will often be able to choose a concentration area that particularly interests you. Depending on the nature of your program, you may take relevant courses in other departments or interdisciplinary concentrations. For example, if your concentration is in behavioral disorders, you may take classes in psychology or sociology.

Online Degree Options

There are online PhDs in special education; however, they are not widely available and may not be from accredited institutions. Online programs may not have practicum or internship requirements, which may be required in your state.

If you find an accredited online program that is accepted by your state's department of education, consider that you may need access to an educational site (such as an elementary school or day care program) that will allow you conduct research. The coursework in online programs is generally very similar to that of a traditional academic institution.

Stand Out with this Degree

Consider that job opportunities in certain specialties, such as autism spectrum disorders, may be more promising than others. Specializing in a niche disability with a promising employment outlook can set you apart from your peers and open more doors during your job search. You can also widen your pool of employment options if you learn another language.

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