What is a Special Education Degree in Learning and Behavioral Disorders?

Kate Malone
Kate Malone
Middle school principal; Ed.S. in School Leadership
A boy sits at a school desk with his papers and books with his head down and holding up a sign that says “Help!”

Equip yourself with the skills needed to impact students with learning and behavioral disorders (LBD) within your school by pursuing a graduate special education degree in LBD.

What are Learning and Behavioral Disorders?

Learning and behavioral disorders may occur independently or concurrently in students. A student with a learning disability struggles to assimilate knowledge and skills across multiple subject areas or domains.

Often students with learning disabilities have behavior issues, which can occur in two contexts. Students sometimes struggle behaviorally due to the frustration associated with their learning disability. In these cases, their behavior issues are resolved by adequately addressing their learning needs. Other students with learning disabilities have a comorbid behavioral disorder that may require separate intervention.

Some common behavioral disorders alongside learning disorders include anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to Learning Disabilities Association of America, “about 50% of individuals with a learning disability also have one or more ‘related disorders.’”

How do They Differ from Other Disabilities in Special Education?

Although the terms used may vary by state, common categories of disabilities in special education include:

  • Learning disabilities (LD)
  • Intellectual disabilities (ID)
  • Behavioral disabilities
  • Emotional disabilities (ED)
  • Physical impairments

These terms are sometimes confused or conflated, especially among lay-persons or educators with little experience with exceptional children. Students with learning disabilities differ from students with intellectual disabilities in that their overall cognitive capacity may be typical or even exceptional.

Emotional and behavior disorders can be more difficult to separate and are often identified as one category: emotional/behavior disorders (EBD). The distinction between emotional and behavior disorders is usually one of mental illness. Emotional disorders often spring from a student’s mental illness and disrupt their ability to think, feel, and function.

On the other-hand, a behavioral disorder may not necessarily be identified as a mental illness and can sometimes present simply as socially-limiting behaviors or separate medical diagnoses, such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder, both of which affect a person’s behavior, but do not indicate mental illness.

Disability categories are meant to label individual people. Since many disorders and disabilities co-exist and have overlapping characteristics, it is often difficult to label a person as just one thing and determine what the root cause of a student’s academic struggles. In that case, a classification of learning and behavioral disorders may be more accurate in describing a student’s needs than attempting to separate two intertwined parts of their struggle. However, because each state uses different terminology to categorize special education certifications, LBD, as a combined term, is still not used in many states.

What does a Special Education LBD Degree Encompass?

Special education LBD degree programs are becoming more common. Although, it is no surprise that many of these programs exist, in states such as Kentucky, they recognize LBD as areas of disability and have established certification area specifically for LBD teachers.

The main focuses of these programs tend to be the delivery of specialized and differentiated instruction that addresses both the students’ academic and behavioral needs. Educators in these programs learn about specific, research-based interventions proven effective for students with learning and behavioral disorders.

As in other traditional, in-person or online special education programs, LBD degree programs include coursework and practical experiences in topics including writing an effective Individual Education Plan (IEP), managing a classroom that includes diverse learning needs, and effective, positive behavior interventions.

Just as states differ in their system of special education classification, colleges and universities offer a wide variety of degree programs in LBD. When exploring LBD programs, candidates should consider whether or not they already hold an education certification or degree and the program’s desired outcome for the candidate.

At least one program provides the opportunity to simultaneously complete work in the general education field and the area of LBD, meaning that the graduate might complete this program and pursue certification as both a general education teacher and special education teacher or as a general education teacher who uses their specialized skills to enhance the learning of all their students.

A master’s degree in LBD is a common scenario. It assumes that the degree candidate already possesses a teaching degree and certification in either another area of special education or general education. These degree programs are meant to enhance a teacher’s ability to respond to their student’s needs and allow for add-on certification in LBD.  A few programs also allow for non-degree work in LBD that results in an endorsement or simply additional credit hours towards one’s certification, which is one option for continuing education in most states. As with most education programs, the degree is only one goal of the program. It is expected that most students who complete the program will also pursue certification in the areas they studied.

LBD degree programs do not differ significantly from traditional special education degree programs in the types of coursework or practical experiences required. These programs still require coursework and practicum experiences in research, characteristics of students with disabilities, classroom management, special education law and procedures, and instruction. Instead, the focus on the comorbidity of these disabilities and the influence each has on the other seems to be the defining characteristic of this program type.

How will a Special Education LBD Degree Impact Students in the Classroom?

Research indicates that teachers have the single most significant effect of any school factor on student success. Therefore any improvement to teacher quality will presumably have a significant impact on students in the classroom.

However, it is also important to note that many of the skills and dispositions gained through an LBD degree would improve the learning experience of all students. For instance, a teacher who is well equipped to interpret students’ achievement data while also analyzing their behavior in class will create more effective learning goals and instructional plans for students, regardless of their disability status. Also, the knowledge gained specifically in behavioral disorders can lead teachers to refine not only their instructional practices but also their classroom management philosophies, which again improves outcomes for students.

Finally, by approaching students to recognize that their disabilities (like their abilities) sometimes overlap, teachers can analyze each student’s unique needs in a situation and determine which interventions might be most effective in helping that student access the curriculum. Having a teacher who is an expert at identifying effective intervention strategies based on student needs could be a game-changer for any struggling student.

Advantages of Obtaining a Special Education Learning and Behavioral Disorders Degree With at least a master’s LBD degree, it may result in a pay increase, as many states and districts offer salary incentives to teachers with a master’s and a master’s plus 30 hours of course work. As with almost all special education degrees, a degree in LBD would qualify a teacher to be certified in primary through 12th grade. Opportunity at every grade level makes for a much larger potential employment market and means a candidate has a greater chance of finding an open position for which they qualify.

Suppose the teacher is seeking an even greater variety of employment opportunities or career advancement. In that case, a LBD degree may also qualify the teacher for a variety of school and district level administrative positions, such as an instructional or teacher coach, a special education or compliance coordinator, and director.

Explore our available special education graduate programs and get started today!

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