Special Education Assistant Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a special education assistant career? Get real job duties, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a special education assistant is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Special Education Assistant

Special education assistants help certified teachers monitor, teach and encourage students who need special care in developing their social and academic skills. Read the following tables to figure out the pros and cons of this career.

Pros of a Special Education Assistant Career
High school diploma is the minimum education required at some schools*
Can provide important academic and enrichment services for a segment of the population in need*
Short term on-the-job training*
Consistent need for special education services*

Cons of a Special Education Assistant Career
Pay is low (median annual wage for teacher assistants was around $24,000 as of May 2014)*
Physically demanding job*
Challenging work that requires a great deal of patience*
Few opportunities for advancement without further education*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

Teacher assistants working with special education students often take on a considerable amount of responsibility. Special needs students may be blind, deaf, have limited motor skills, reduced mental abilities or behavioral disorders. In addition, some students may suffer from physical disorders, such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida. Professionals can work at nearly every level of education, ranging from childcare centers to high schools. Employment can be found at both public and private institutions.

While special education students may attend regular classes, it is often the teaching assistant who must tutor students individually to ensure that they have grasped the concepts covered in a mainstream classroom setting. Severely disabled students may also need the help of a teacher assistant to perform basic tasks, such as feeding, personal hygiene or dressing. In addition, professionals may also help older students with finding employment after graduation.

Salary and Job Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 40% of teacher assistants worked part time as of 2012 (www.bls.gov). The median annual wage for teacher assistants in May 2014 was roughly $24,000. The lowest paid ten percent of workers in this profession earned an annual salary of $18,000 or less, while the top ten percent of teacher assistants made about $37,000 or more.

The BLS predicted that the job outlook for teacher assistants would be fair, with an employment growth of 9% from 2012-2022. This growth, in part, may be due to the consistent demand for special education programs. In addition, the BLS expected student enrollment at both public and private schools to increase over the next decade, allowing for more employment opportunities for teacher assistants. Still, job opportunities vary by geographic location. The BLS expected better opportunities at urban schools, as well as in the Southwest region of the country.

What Are the Requirements?

As with most teaching professions, educational requirements for teacher assistants vary by school and by state. While some schools may hire a special education teacher assistant with just a high school diploma, other schools may require an associate's degree. For instance, if a school has a Title 1 program through the federal government, then candidates must complete at least two years of postsecondary education.

Associate's degree programs for teacher assistants provide the necessary training to help certified teachers in the classroom. Participants observe students and develop educational materials. In addition, a skills examination is required by most states for those wishing to work with special needs students. Additional training is offered through various unions and professional associations, such as the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET).

What Employers Are Looking for

Assisting teachers with the task of educating special education students can be both challenging and rewarding work. Necessary traits include positivity, patience, a genuine interest in helping students and the ability to enforce important rules for safety. This is also a physically demanding profession, so being in good health is important. Many employers requested that candidates be able to lift children weighing 70-80 pounds. Here are some examples of what real employers looked for in April 2012:

  • A public school in Kentucky requested applications for an instructional assistant position in its special education program. Qualified applicants needed at least 60 college credit hours or an associate's degree in a relevant field. Duties included assisting a certified teacher with monitoring, instructing, supporting and tutoring students.
  • A middle school in Iowa advertised for a special education program assistant with at least a high school diploma to assist certified teachers with maintaining a safe learning environment for children with a variety of disabilities. Completion of an annual child abuse course was required.
  • A public school in Indiana posted an advertisement for a special education teacher assistant with a minimum of 60 credit hours from an accredited university. Experience working with various software programs and computers was required. Duties included using laboratory equipment, assisting teachers with the operation of the teaching laboratory and monitoring students.

How Can I Stand out?

In order to set yourself apart in this job field, you may want to earn a special education associate's degree. In addition, you may also wish to earn certification for improved job prospects. You can receive both First Aid and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certifications through either the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association. Experience with Automated External Defibrillator (AED) devices is also beneficial. Furthermore, being physically fit can also help you find employment. Teacher assistants working with special education students are often required to lift students, help them dress and perform basic hygienic tasks.

Alternative Career Paths

Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers are the next level of advancement for teacher assistants. You would need to complete at least a bachelor's degree program, preferably in special education. In order to teach in the public school system, you also need to earn either a certificate or license through the state. Many private schools do not require that teachers be certified.

According to the BLS, this profession was expected to grow at an average rate of 17% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, special education teachers working with students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary and middle schools earned a median annual wage just over $53,000, while high school special education teachers took in a median salary of roughly $56,000.

Occupational Therapy Assistant

Professionals in this field help treat patients suffering from disabilities, illnesses and injuries in order to improve their quality of life. Occupational therapy assistants work under trained occupational therapists in offices and hospitals.Typically, an associate's degree is required to apply for jobs, and licensure can be granted to those who graduate from a program approved by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).

According to the BLS, assistants were expected to experience a 43% increase in employment from 2010-2020, which was much greater than average. As of May 2011, these professionals earned a median annual wage of about $52,000.

Childcare Worker

Childcare workers care for children while their families are unavailable. These workers often must tend to children's basic needs and may bathe, change and feed youngsters. In addition, childcare professionals may work from their own private homes, in the homes of the children or in childcare centers.

A high school diploma may be the only education you need depending on where you work, although some states may require childhood education certification. Employment in this field was predicted to grow at a faster-than-average pace of 20% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. As of May 2011, the median annual salary for childcare workers was just over $19,000.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. George Mason University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Applied Behavior Analysis
      • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder
    Certificate
      • Autism Spectrum Disorder Certificate
  • Online Programs Available
    2. The George Washington University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Masters in Interdisciplinary Secondary Transition Services
      • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Special Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners
      • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Organizational Leadership and Learning
    Certificate
      • Graduate Certificate in Special Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners
      • Graduate Certificate in Transition Special Education
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Saint John's University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ph.D. in Literacy
      • Ph.D. in Literacy: Educational Leadership
      • Ph.D. in Literacy: Special Education
      • Ph.D. in Literacy: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Concordia University Nebraska

    Program Options

    Master's
      • M.Ed. In Curriculum and Instruction with Instructional Technology Leadership Emphasis
      • M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction
      • M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with Curriculum Supervisor Certification
      • M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with ESL/ELL Emphasis
      • M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Purdue University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Education in Special Education
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Special Education with Autism Specialization
      • MS in Education - Special Education - Master's Only
      • MS in Education - Special Education and Special Education Certification
      • MS - Special Education with Wilson Reading Certificate
      • MS in Education - Deaf and Hard Hearing Education PK-12 Certification
      • MS - Secondary Education with OATCERT Certificate
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Professional and Liberal Studies w/ an Autism Studies Concentration
      • BLS in General Studies - Autism Studies Concentration
    Certificate
      • Certificate - Special Education
      • Pennsylvania PK-12 Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Certification
      • Post-Bachelor's Certificate - Autism Studies
      • Certificate of Proficiency in Autism Studies
      • Autism Spectrum Disorder Endorsement
      • Certificate - Online Accelerated Teacher (OATCERT)
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Education - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - Curriculum and Teaching
      • Ed.D. - General Education
      • Ed.D. - Early Childhood Education
      • PhD in Education - Instructional Leadership
    Master's
      • MEd - Special Education
      • M.Ed. - Curriculum and Teaching
      • MEd - General Education
      • M.Ed. - Educational Leadership
      • M.Ed. - Instructional Leadership
    Certificate
      • Education Specialist - Special Education
      • Education Specialist - Curriculum and Teaching
      • Education Specialist - Early Childhood Education
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Winthrop University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Education in Special Education Intervention
  • Online Programs Available
    9. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Education - Elementary Education
      • Master: Education - Curriculum and Instruction
      • Master: Education - Instructional Design
      • Master: Education - Leadership in Educational Organizations
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma

Featured Schools

George Mason University

  • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder Certificate

What is your highest level of education?

The George Washington University

  • Masters in Interdisciplinary Secondary Transition Services
  • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Special Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners
  • Graduate Certificate in Special Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners
  • Graduate Certificate in Transition Special Education

What is your highest level of education?

Saint John's University

  • Ph.D. in Literacy
  • Ph.D. in Literacy: Educational Leadership
  • Ph.D. in Literacy: Special Education

What is your highest level of education?

Concordia University Nebraska

  • M.Ed. In Curriculum and Instruction with Instructional Technology Leadership Emphasis
  • M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction
  • M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with Curriculum Supervisor Certification

What is your highest level of education completed?

Purdue University

  • Master of Science in Education in Special Education

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS - Special Education with Autism Specialization
  • BS - Professional and Liberal Studies w/ an Autism Studies Concentration
  • Certificate - Special Education

What is your highest level of education completed?

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Education - Special Education
  • MEd - Special Education
  • Education Specialist - Special Education

What is your highest level of education?

Winthrop University

  • Master of Education in Special Education Intervention

What is your highest level of education?