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MSEd Course Insight: What Special Educators Do

Master’s in education coursework offers teaching strategies that can help children with exceptionalities maximize their potential.

Effective special education teachers are skilled collaborators who use time to its best advantage. They give their students precise instructions and encourage them to master skills through practice. And they do all of this in a caring classroom environment built on respect.

Those findings are key points in “Taking Charge of Your Professional Learning: Tips for Cultivating Special Educator Expertise,” by Amber E. Benedict, Mary T. Brownell, Yujeong Park, Elizabeth A. Bettini, and Alexandra A. Lauterbach. The article, from the journal TEACHING Exceptional Children, is required reading in Adapting Instruction Using Evidence-Based Strategies, a course for students in Walden University’s online MS in Education (MSEd) degree program. In the course, special education professionals apply research-based strategies for designing, delivering, and adapting instruction for students with exceptionalities.

MSEd Course Insight: What Special Educators Do

The article provides MSEd students with strategies that as special educators, they can use in their classrooms today. Read along with Walden’s online master’s in education degree-seekers to gain these valuable insights:1

Effective special educators take specific actions to ensure that their students’ learning experiences are maximized. These actions begin during planning, when effective special educators design meaningful instruction that is aligned with the students’ individualized education programs, and they extend throughout the students’ school day.

The actions that these teachers take to enhance the quality of their students’ learning experiences are not confined to the walls of their own classrooms; on the contrary, effective special educators are expert collaborators, and they work diligently with students’ families and other educational professionals to coordinate meaningful learning experiences for students with disabilities across instructional settings.

Purposeful Instruction

Effective special educators’ instruction reflects their commitment to providing students with meaningful and productive learning experiences throughout their instructional day. They provide goal-focused, explicit, highly engaging, and responsive instruction that reflects their knowledge of the content, their knowledge of effective practice, and their deep knowledge of their students.

Our observations of the most effective special education reading teachers show them engaging students in instruction in which all activities are aligned to achieve a particular purpose (Brownell et al., 2009). These teachers explicitly articulate what they want their students to learn through clear explanations, modeling, questions, and multiple activities that are linked.

Effective Use of Time

Effective special education teachers maximize instructional time with students, operating from the philosophy that every minute that they have with their students matters. They use multiple strategies for keeping students engaged, such as having them write responses, asking them to turn to a partner and complete a task, or asking them to manipulate objects such as letter tiles in response to a question.

Transitions are routinized, and effective classroom management enables effective special education teachers to focus on instruction. Everything that they do seems well orchestrated; it is clear that they have thought in detail about how instruction will unfold and how to prepare materials and procedures to efficiently use their time with students.

Repeated Practice Opportunities

Effective special education teachers also know how to engage students in repeated practice and they are responsive to students’ performance. One of our most effective teachers used five or six activities in one lesson just to help students master the -ong, -ang, and -ing sounds. Most impressively, she accomplished all these activities within a 25- to 30-minute time span.

Effective special educators also embed individualized supports within these practice opportunities. For instance, another effective special educator used error correction and more explicit instruction with a child in her group who had extensive decoding problems. While other students were completing a task with letter tiles, she said each sound of a word slowly for that child, holding one finger up to note each sound. She was also quick to support students when they made a mistake, pointing out what the students did and how they might correct their error (e.g., “You wrote /e/ but I said /i/”).

Explicit Skill and Strategy Instruction,

At the secondary level, effective special education teachers also provide explicit skill- and strategy-based instruction, but they do so in a way that helps students acquire more knowledge of the content in which they are operating.

During an interview, one effective secondary special education teacher shared how he carefully designed his instruction to develop his students’ broader literacy skills while supporting students in learning the English curriculum (Lauterbach, 2013). Because these teachers have deep knowledge of both the content and the skills necessary to access that content, they provide instruction that scaffolds students’ capacity to use these skills while learning the content.

Classroom Environment

Effective special educators create safe environments for students to learn. They use respectful language with students, creating a classroom community by encouraging students to be helpful to one another. They create well-structured peer learning activities in which all students can actively participate. They effectively maintain students’ participation in these activities with minimal or no reprimands. They are firm but respectful, avoiding power struggles with students.

We observed one special educator use a brilliant move with a student who had significant emotional problems (Seo et al., 2008). When the student entered the room, he was angry and did not want to engage in the work. The teacher encouraged him to get one of the academic games in the room and start to play it. She said that she would be over to help him as soon as she got the other students started. Before we knew it, the student was working productively.

Effective Collaborators

Effective special educators work well with others to coordinate instruction and services for students. This coordination is especially important in response-to-intervention frameworks, where teachers have to create tiered instruction that aligns with core instruction (Johnson, Mellard, Fuchs, & McKnight, 2006; Wonder-McDowell, Reutzel, & Smith, 2011). In one of our PD studies aimed at helping teachers coordinate reading instruction across Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 instruction, we found that special educators who planned collaboratively with their general education co-teachers were better able to implement strategy instruction that was consistent across tiers, reducing students’ confusion and extending students’ opportunities to practice the target skill (Benedict, 2012).

Advance Your Special Education Career

“Even if you have mastered the basic expectations for your job, those expectations are continually evolving, becoming increasingly complex and rigorous,” the authors write in “Taking Charge of Your Professional Learning: Tips for Cultivating Special Educator Expertise.” Walden’s master’s in education online degree program, with its cutting-edge curriculum, can help you keep pace and set the pace in your classroom and school.

Walden offers Special Education (Non-Licensure) (Grades K–12) as one of its 14 MSEd specializations. This specialization, designed for experienced special educators, synthesizes the most current research in neuroscience, assessment, and scientifically based interventions to help you determine best practices for student learning.

An online master’s in education can provide the tools you need for professional growth and advancement. As a student in Walden’s MSEd program with a specialization in Special Education, you’ll gain specialized knowledge to help you become the most effective teacher possible. As you share the fruits of your experience and education with your students, you’ll help children with exceptionalities thrive and learn. And those are rewards that are priceless.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Education degree program with a Special Education specialization. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,