There’s a lot of overlap between special education and psychology, the study of thinking and behavior. It stands to reason, then, that the coursework required of special education instructors often has some basis in psychology. Some college programs combine these two disciplines in more extensive ways. Bachelor’s degree programs in psychology that offer a special education concentration can help prepare students for a future teaching children with special needs while giving them the background in psychology needed to understand pupils’ behavior. Certain graduate programs in special education include specializations in psychological approaches and diagnostic conditions. Although some knowledge of psychology is integrated into most special education programs, those with a particular interest in why children with special needs behave in certain ways may benefit from a program with a greater depth of psychology coursework.

Psychology Special Education Majors

If you know you have an interest in teaching in a special ed classroom, you might wonder if majoring in psychology would be a good idea. While psychology provides a great background for understanding the disorders and disabilities that can affect students’ academic, behavioral and social performance, general psychology programs lack coursework in teaching and learning. A better option would be a bachelor’s degree in psychology program with a concentration in special education. These interdisciplinary programs combine core psychology coursework with specialized classes in special education.

As a psychology major, you will likely take classes in subjects like the principles of psychology, the science of psychology, ethics in psychology, career and professional development in psychology, community psychology, psychological assessments, abnormal psychology and research methods in psychology. Students in these programs develop familiarity with numerous subfields of psychology through introductory coursework in clinical psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology and the psychology of personality. For your special education concentration, you may take classes in educational psychology, issues pertaining to learning disabilities, instructional methods for at-risk students, theories of reading and the psychology of language acquisition.

Unless your psychology special education bachelor’s degree program meets certain requirements, including a student-teaching internship, it may not prepare you for teacher licensure or certification. You may need a graduate-level teaching certification program.

Psychology-Related Concentrations in Special Education Programs

Just as there are psychology programs with a concentration in special education, there are also special education programs with specializations in areas of psychology, such as applied behavior analysis, studies in autism and learning disabilities and intervention specialist preparation. Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is a therapy based on psychological principles of behaviorism and used in addressing problem behaviors and changing behavior to better acquire skills. Through coursework in the foundational concepts and principles of behavior analysis, the philosophy of behavior analysis, behavior assessment and evaluation, behavior change procedures and ethics in behavior analysis, students develop proficiency in using this intervention therapy in working with children who have special needs. Some special education programs with a sequence in ABA meet the requirements to pursue board certification in the field.

The field of psychology seeks to understand both typical and atypical human development as well as the diagnosis, classification and treatment of developmental, behavioral, learning, emotional and intellectual disorders. In some special education programs, aspiring teachers can delve deeper into the psychology of these conditions through a sequence of prescribed courses. You might choose a general focus on learning disabilities, which would likely include coursework in the assessment, learning instruction methods and content area instruction practices for students with mild disabilities. Students can also focus more specifically on prevalent conditions like autism spectrum disorder. In a concentration with this narrow a focus, you should expect to take classes such as the characteristics and academic implications of autism, assessment and intervention of students with autism, inclusive classroom management and advanced topics in the study of autism spectrum disorders.

If you have an interest in working in the slightly distinct role of intervention specialist, a special education program that offers this concentration may be an option to pursue. Coursework may include classes in behavior management and interventions, educational technology, assessment for instructional needs, diversity in educational settings and studies in classes in literacy and reading development as well as teaching methods in other content areas. Graduates are proficient in managing students’ behavior ranging from mild to severe and, in certification programs, are ready to pursue their teaching license.

Because ABA interventions are most commonly used in working with children with autism spectrum disorder, some special education programs combine these course sequences into a single specialization.

Additional Resources

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

Are There Different Master’s Programs in Special Education Based on Age (Elementary Vs. Secondary)?

Which Certifications Would Help Me as a Special Ed Teacher?