Special Education Programs: Types, Areas of Focus, and Endorsements

Holly D. Elmore
Holly D. Elmore
Elementary school principal; M.A.Ed. in Educational Leadership, M.A. in Special Education
Teacher sitting at a table with a student with special needs playing with toys.

Higher education can be a tricky and expensive road to navigate without preparing for the journey. Special Education is a highly skilled and broad specialty, so planning a final destination will be beneficial as you wade through a program, finding one that will meet your needs on the path to success.

Types of Special Education Programs


Master’s degrees in special education provide opportunities for practitioners to gain a specific skill set to meet the needs of the most complex students. Most universities now offer dual programming, allowing students to earn a bachelor’s in education, while simultaneously allowing a master’s in special education, resulting in a dual certification, increasing the marketability of early career educators.

A master’s degree provides a broad-spectrum curriculum certifying teachers in one of the areas of special education. Teachers pursuing a master’s degree in special education learn instructional strategies and how to create learning experiences to meet the needs of those students with learning disabilities, the legal requirements for creating an Individualized Education Plan, and proper implementation to maximize student learning potential.


Those pursuing a doctorate in special education are those who have a desire to teach in higher education or continue researching to impact practice over time. There are two different types of doctorates: Doctor of Education (Ed.D) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D). Both have a very different course of study and end goal. Someone pursuing an Ed.D conducts action research, remains in practice, and pursues educational leadership roles. A Ph.D, however, functions better for those who want to research outside of the classroom and inform policy and practice.

Which is better for you, Master’s or Doctorate?

Master’s Ed.D Ph.D
Course of Study Intro to Special Education, Behavioral Disorders in Children, Behavioral Assessment, The Law and Special Education, Teaching Special Needs, Intervention for Students with Behavioral Disorders, Child Psychology, and Instructional Technology. Conducts action research, Special Education Leadership skills Research outside of the classroom, Inform Policy and Practice
Number of Hours Req. Min. of 30 hours 60 hours, with 18 hours in specialized area. 42-75 hours
Time Commitment 1-2 years 2-3 years 3-6 years
Dissertation No Depends on Program, Typically a dissertation in practice (Action Research Project) Yes
Possible Positions Teacher,
Behavior Analyst,
Special Education Administrator,
Autism Specialist,
Educational Consultant
Director of Special Education,
Adult Education Director,
School/Community College Administrator,
Preschool/Childcare Director,
Dean of Online Program
University Professor
Directors of Programs for Educational Institutions, non-profit organizations, government agencies, private practices, and medical facilities;Researchers;
Curriculum Developers
Average Salary $61, 420 $78,000 $74,500

*All of the information here is generalized and, if interested, you should check with the higher education institution from which you would pursue your degree.

The major difference between a master’s of special education, an Ed.D., and a Ph.D., aside from the obvious education requirements and salary, is the job you would like to pursue. This is why it is important to know what your end destination is going to be. The cost of a Ph.D., if you plan to remain in the classroom, is not a great financial investment. The time and course work you will complete will be very specialized and may make you a better educator; however, there will be limited compensation for the extensive education.

Areas of Focus and Endorsement

What interests you? There are many different areas for a practitioner with a special education background to choose from and become a specialist around a particular group, including but not limited to: early childhood, Autism spectrum disorder, moderate and severe disabilities, emotional/behavioral disorders, specific learning disabilities, special education curriculum development, dyslexia, and educational diagnostician. Exploration into the requirements of each area may help you to determine which is the best fit for you.

Early Childhood

Depending upon the state requirements, Early Childhood Education may require a certificate or a bachelor’s degree, along with additional assessments that must be passed. Preparation programs provide a strong pedagogy in educating students between the ages of 3-8, focusing on childhood development and psychology. Given the age range of the clientele, classroom management should be a strength, as well as a high level of energy from the teacher who can think outside of the box to engage minds that are not easily captured. ECE teachers focus on social skills and developmentally appropriate foundational skills in literacy, math, and writing. This certificate would qualify for positions in preschool, kindergarten, childcare centers, and Head Start.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

ASD Certification can be obtained through Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or as a specialty certificate obtained through a university. This certificate further educates those pursuing or having obtained a degree in psychology or educational fields regarding students diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, granting a greater understanding of processing disorders, language disorders, and applied behavior analysis. Those who are pursuing careers in early childhood education, daycare facilities, support specialists, and early interventionist would benefit greatly from this additional knowledge.

Moderate to Severe Disabilities

Moderate to Severe Disabilities (MSD) is a post-bachelor’s certification program. With this certification, an educator can manage the learning for students with moderate to severe disabilities. These positions appeal to those educators who are compassionate for students that require medical services, have low IQ, and require education in life skills. The coursework includes instructional strategies, instructional and assistive technology, legal courses, and how to navigate alternate assessments. An education degree is required to pursue this certification. A person has to be willing to take on medical treatments and services, which could include physical labor.

Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Most Master’s in Special Education degrees will certify you to teach LBD, which includes Emotional/Behavioral Disorders. The degree is typically 30-36 hours, depending on the university. Disorders that manifest in outbursts of behaviors that cannot be explained through intellectual, sensory, cultural, or other exclusionary measures are under the umbrella of EBD. This position requires high structure with the ability to adapt. Working with students who exhibit manic changes in moods and behaviors is challenging and sometimes dangerous; however, it is rewarding as you build relationships with students and move them toward functioning in a regular environment; so I would not recommend this area for someone who is sensitive or cannot deal with confrontation.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Specific learning disabilities is usually gained through the same master’s degree as EBD. You get certified in both through the same program. Many of the instructional strategies are the same. Teachers who are certified to teach students with SLD are experts in pedagogy and strategies. Every student is different and teaching is truly individualized. If you are not sure what area of Special Education you would like to specialize in, SLD is a great place to start due to the variety of disabilities you encounter in this category.


Certified Dyslexia Specialists receive a certificate. For example, the University of Florida offers this in 15 credit hours that can be completed in 3 semesters. Focusing specifically on strategies that support students with dyslexia, many educators who are Reading Specialists will add this certificate onto their degree.

Educational Diagnostician

If your passion is serving teachers and students, maybe a job as an educational diagnostician is for you! This certification allows you to assess, develop a plan, and monitor progress for students who are entering special education. Most states will require a Master’s in School Psychology or Educational Assessment to fulfill this role.

Benefits of Special Education Programs

Regardless of the niche you find in special education, obtaining a degree or certification will make you a better educator. The training you receive in instructional strategies builds a toolbox that helps to support all students. A whole new world of professional opportunities presents itself to those who have degrees in special education, increasing the marketability and compensation for skill and education. Being trained in vast pedagogical practice and instructional planning, those with certifications in special education are great additions to curriculum design teams and leading curriculum development. Invest in your profession, choose special education.

Ready to make your next career move and dive into special education? Explore our wide variety of programs and get started today!

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