A master’s degree in special education is a graduate-level program that allows teachers to cultivate or enhance their skills in instructing students with special needs. Teachers with a background in special education are needed at all levels of study, from preschool through elementary school, middle school and even high school grade levels. Although the foundations of developing curricula and teaching methods suitable for children with special needs may be the same across all age groups, the way students – even those who have a developmental disorder or other condition that leads to somewhat atypical development – learn in different ways at different periods of their development. The curriculum intended for special education classes is different at the high school level than at the elementary school level. To address these distinctions, some master’s degree programs specialize in either elementary or secondary special education.

A Graduate Curriculum in Special Education

There’s some overlap between the knowledge needed to be a successful special education teacher at the elementary school and secondary school levels, so it makes sense that there’s also some overlap in the curriculum of these programs of study. Often, students of these graduate programs take classes in curriculum and instructional methods in special education, law and legal issues pertaining to special education and the challenges and evidence-based methods of educating pupils who have a learning, emotional, behavioral, developmental or intellectual disability. Some amount of fieldwork in a special education classroom may be required.

Should you worry if your master’s in special education program doesn’t specify elementary or secondary grade levels? Many strong master’s degree programs in special education are generalist programs meant to address the instruction of students with special needs from kindergarten all the way through senior year of high school. Among programs that do focus on a grade level, many are not distinct degree programs but rather concentrations or specializations within one special education course of study. Students may take the same required core courses regardless of which track they pursue but tailor their education through specialty course requirements and electives.

You may also find grade-level-specific special education programs at other levels of study, including early childhood special education, and in special education administration. 

Are there different Master's programs in Special Education based on age (Elementary vs. Secondary)

IMAGE SOURCE: Dscot018, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license

What to Expect From an Elementary Special Education Program

In a master’s degree program in elementary special education, you will focus on the needs of younger students, often in the grade levels of kindergarten to fifth, sixth or even eighth grade. Your graduate studies may include special education as early intervention, practices of inclusion among this age group, literacy interventions and child development. Some coursework may focus more on the aspect of behavior management and socialization, while others emphasize academic instruction and the evidence-based methods of teaching children with special needs.

Like general education teachers at the elementary grade levels, as a special education teacher for elementary school-aged children, you will likely be responsible for teaching different subjects as opposed to a single content area like science, math or language arts.

Master’s Degrees in Secondary Special Education

If you prefer to work with older children, you should consider a master’s degree program that focuses on special education at the secondary grade level. Secondary school primarily means the high school levels, grades nine through 12, but these programs sometimes cover middle school age groups, as well.

Coursework in developmental assessment of adolescents, behavior management of adolescents with disabilities and transition services in special education set secondary special education programs apart from elementary special education programs.

In these programs, you might also take coursework in instructional methods for content areas – like science, language arts, math, social studies and art – at the secondary school level.

Choosing Between Elementary and Secondary Special Education

Is it better to study elementary special education or secondary special education? There is no clear-cut answer. Special education teachers at the kindergarten, elementary school, middle school and high school levels are all seeing a comparable – and slower than average – rate of growth, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While high school special education teachers make the highest median wage, the salaries of elementary school special education teachers are only $1,200 per year less than those of secondary school special education teachers. Ultimately, prospective special education teachers should make the choice based on which age group of students they prefer to teach. If you aren’t sure, it may be wise to choose a K-12 program or to start gaining work experience – even if only on a volunteer basis – working with children and adolescents with special needs.

Preschool special education teachers are seeing a higher rate of job growth, eight percent, but as the smallest of special education teacher roles, this increase is only expected to yield 1,900 new job opportunities.

Additional Resources

Are There Various Types of Master’s Under the Umbrella of Special Education?

Which Certifications Would Help Me as a Special Ed Teacher?

Would Any Area of Study in Psychology Help Me Get a Job as a Special Ed Teacher?