Top 10 Challenges of Special Education Workers

Special education requires very special people to change the lives of their students. Hardworking teaching staff have to show patience, resilience and passion on a daily basis. However, such attributes are being knocked significantly by the increasing challenges that educators are facing in schools today. Worryingly, it is estimated that within 10 years of starting a career in SEN education, 75% of staff will leave due to the pressures, stresses and strains of a special needs classroom . Although there are a great many things about being a special education teacher that makes the job fulfilling, there are also a few challenges which need to be discussed and solved. Here are our top 10 challenges that workers in special education are currently juggling with across the school year.

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1. Lack of support and appreciation

Research suggests that one of the biggest reasons that special education workers leave the industry is because they often feel unappreciated . This lack of appreciation visits staff in two particular forms.

One disheartening way is the common problem of unstable communication between parents and staff. Due to the level of arrangements and accommodations required to support SEN children in schools, teachers have to communicate easily with parents. However, if parents do not return phone calls, respond to emails or answer written notes sent home with their child, then the teacher's ability to make meaningful changes and provide the best support possible for the student is seriously disrupted. Equally, if parents have unrealistic expectations for their child, or find it difficult to accept their needs, then communication can end up in a stalemate. For a child to progress, parents and teachers need to work together, but if parents are disinterested in supporting the teacher's strategies for learning, then little progress will be made.

The other way that a lack of appreciation negatively affects special education workers, is the overall negative attitudes of the wider public and mass media towards their profession. Even during the pandemic, newspaper stories reported a lack of effort on the part of teachers to support the country's students. The media failed to relate the huge changes teachers had to overcome with online learning, or the extra services they tried to organize to ensure all children could access lessons and resources.

As some teachers find that they are largely unrecognized and unsupported by the public, regardless of pandemics, their purpose and pride in what they do begins to fade away.

2. Dealing with large amounts of data

Data collection is an essential but incredibly taxing element of special education. Teachers need to validate and explain everything they have done to support a child with SEN, making sure the data meets the targets of the student's IEP and the progress levels projected by the school. To do this, teaching staff must always keep track of all this data, and react to and monitor it so that good progress can be made or solutions found. Class data is also used to measure overall student success or difficulties for a whole class or year group, and once again, teachers need to make sure this data is accurate so that if any conclusions are drawn, they have evidence to explain them.

3. Too much paperwork

Across the board, teachers are having to face increasing amounts of paperwork on top of planning and teaching. However, within SEN teaching, staff also have to complete Individualised Education Programs (IEPs) for each child, and this document is updated regularly throughout the year. IEPs can easily take up 10 to 20 pages, sometimes more, and must be written with great consideration by teachers because they are shared with, and used by, many different stakeholders. Although incredibly important and helpful for supporting a pupil's progression, if teachers have to write multiple IEPs along with creating lessons plans, reports and billing forms, then staff can feel increasingly overwhelmed and burnt out.

4. Dealing with a large variety of student needs and disabilities

In all classes across general education establishments, students are at different levels of ability and learn in different ways at different times. Of course, differentiated lesson plans and individualized teaching practices are familiar to all teachers, but this becomes even more difficult in special education due to the large and varying range of student needs.

As each child's learning is subject to their own unique abilities, modifying lesson plans can become a real trial, trying to meet, challenge and support needs and disabilities that may only be present in one particular child. Consider as well how lessons must to adhere to each pupil's individual dietary, physical and medical needs, and that teachers have to provide alternative resources and activities if problems suddenly arise. This can become a complex juggling act for special education staff, and trying to navigate through this by providing the right amount of attention and time to such varying needs can be extremely challenging.

5. Handling difficult and emotional situations

Handling difficult and emotional situations is an expectation when working with children who have special needs, since their abilities can often leave them feeling frustrated or aggressive, or isolated and depressed. Trying to support the children to overcome or understand these problems can take up a lot of teaching time and energy, leaving staff physically and emotionally drained. Also, throughout all of this, such strong bonds are created with the children that if there are any cases of serious illness, or of death, then teachers have to adapt and be resilient despite their own emotional devastation.

These strong bonds and dedication to caring for the class, also means that many teachers have gone the extra mile, supporting the children outside of school to help their physical and mental wellbeing . In some school districts staff come together to help identify and provide food sources for those that need it, as well as technology and language support. Although many teachers would be proud to help out in this way, being privy to domestic problems can be upsetting and very worrying.

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6. Tackling the challenges of an inclusive classroom

In inclusive classrooms, many pupils are not used to dealing with children who have special needs or disabilities, and as a result, teachers have to ensure that those with special needs are treated respectfully and fairly . On top of this, those with SEN or disabilities need to get used to working with children who think differently to them, and another common challenge here is dealing with the behaviours of special need students when they get frustrated. This behaviour can range from not understanding the set tasks, to dealing with strong emotions, to feeling anxious.

To counteract this, teachers need to know their students well, which takes time, and such knowledge is not always recognized before an incident occurs. Steering students towards positive behaviour and solutions can therefore become a long-term endeavour, and may wear staff members down across the school year.

7. Scheduling and dealing quickly with change

When planning for the week ahead, teachers and staff must organize their schedules together so that resources and rooms do not clash. This becomes all the more challenging when there are many teachers to coordinate with, or when budgets for resources are low. Equally, staff need to allow time for other professionals to work with the children, such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists, and then also need to change their schedules if students are removed from the special needs register, leave the school, are new-starters or develop a sudden skill or problem. Any change, no matter how minor, can often be enough to affect the entire teaching day or week.

8. Liaising with other professionals

Special education workers need to know the general education curriculum as well as supporting their pupils with their own personal targets. This means that it is useful to collaborate with general education teachers to make sure that you are staying on the right track, and can discuss solutions or ideas. Also, teachers need to keep many others updated about a SEN child's progress, including therapists and psychologists, as well as being easily contactable by these professionals when they have insights to share. Equally, teachers need to inform and work with the school SENCO regularly to complete IEP and general progress report meetings.

As a result of this interaction with all these stakeholders, it often falls to the teacher to maintain good communication between all parties, and this can be very challenging when trying to plan and teach as well. Finding time to liaise is important, but takes a considerable chunk out of a special education worker's life.

9. Funding problems

Another common issue amongst many schools is funding. Depending on which district a school lies in, children receive varying amounts of funding, and as such what a teacher can plan for and how they want to push the children further is vulnerable to change and limited scope. Unfortunately, some teachers have paid for resources themselves due to a lack of available money, or because it would take too long for the money to come through. All this comes as expectations for what the children can make grade-wise remains high, and so teachers are understandably struggling to make lessons the best they can be for their students.

10. Lack of thorough special needs training

Currently, a big problem within special education is that applicants for prospective roles do not always feel they have had enough experience and training to confidently support a class. Research spanning the last ten years suggests that new or trainee teachers do not feel knowledgeable, or comfortable, to enter the field after completing their training course. This lack of training could impact the high turn-over of staff that the sector already faces, and again reduces the support special education teachers feel they are receiving on a day to day basis.

Any one of these challenges makes the working day of a special education teacher incredibly complex, but when faced altogether can cause serious mental and emotional strain. However, we hope that this list will help anyone looking to go into the sector feel more prepared, and for those already employed we hope that it will open up discussions about raising awareness and empower people to find solutions to these issues.

Despite the challenges mentioned above, special education remains one of the top career paths in 2021. Check our blog on the top 5 reasons to work in special education in 2021 to find out more!

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For more information please visit these useful links:

  1. Top challenges of special education teachers
  2. What are the challenges in special education
  3. Top challenges in an inclusive classroom
  4. Common challenges in special education
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