Graduate Certificate Programs in Special Education - Online and Campus
Updated: February 25, 2022
Special education graduate certificate programs are career-focused academic programs that offer teachers and other education professionals practical pedagogical training in principles and practices for teaching students who benefit from special education services. Specifically, these programs provide teachers with the knowledge and skills required to work with students who have disabilities, behavioral issues, and other special needs, and with students who qualify for gifted and exceptional instruction. Teachers who are interested in expanding their skills in the area of special education through a graduate certificate program may also be given the option of choosing an area of concentration within the field, such as early childhood, elementary, or secondary school special education.
Graduate certificate programs are non-degree programs, which means they require fewer courses, are more affordable, and take less time to complete than comparable graduate degree programs. A typical special education graduate certificate consists of four or five required courses, as opposed to the ten or 12 courses common for a master’s degree in special education. As such, a graduate certificate program can generally be completed in six to 12 months, rather than the year or more that is required to earn a master’s degree. Finally, graduate certificate programs are designed for students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree, including mid-career teachers who hold a bachelor’s and/or graduate degree, college graduates who are interested in entering the teaching profession, and experienced educators who want to learn to apply the principles and practices of special education.
Special Education Explained
Special education, which is sometimes referred to as special-needs or abbreviated as SPED, is a broad term for a specialized area within the larger educational system in which teachers are trained to provide effective instruction to students with learning disabilities, physical impairments, behavioral issues, and other exceptionalities. The student populations encompassed by special education generally include school-age children in kindergarten, elementary, and secondary schools, although the methods of special education can also be applied to college students and adult learners. In addition, gifted and talented students are also considered to be a special education population group, as they too can benefit from enhanced instruction.
Teachers in the field of special education are trained to identify and assess students that may require special instruction, design individualized and group lesson plans for special education students, initiate and manage behavioral interventions, and coordinate their work with other teachers and educational administrators, as well as with parents and families. They are also typically required to hold a special education credential, such as a state-issued license or endorsement to teach in special education settings. In addition, they generally possess graduate training in special education through a graduate certificate or graduate degree program in special and/or gifted education.
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Identifying and Classifying Special Education Graduate Certificate Programs
Special education graduate certificate programs have several characteristics that can be used to identify them, including their structure, curriculum, and admission eligibility requirements. A graduate certificate program does not culminate in the conferral of a graduate degree, such as a master’s or doctoral degree. Instead, graduate certificate programs require only those courses needed to prepare for professional practice, credentialing, and/or licensure in a particular field. Thus, special education graduate certificate programs provide college graduates and mid-career professionals who hold a bachelor’s, master’s, and/or doctoral degree with a relatively streamlined curriculum that offers training and instruction in the principles and practices of special education.
Some special education graduate certificate programs are designed for licensed teachers who want to add a special education endorsement to their state-issued license, while others also accommodate non-teachers who are interested in entering the field of special education or in using the tools of special education in another field of professional practice, such as counseling, psychology, or social work. Because these programs require students to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, they may be designated as post-baccalaureate certificate programs in special education. Graduate certificate programs that require students to hold a master’s degree are commonly referred to as post-master’s or post-graduate certificate programs.
Finally, special education graduate certificate programs are generally offered by accredited colleges and universities through a school or department of education or a division of continuing or professional education. In fact, courses in graduate certificate programs commonly overlap with master’s in special education programs, and students who opt to pursue a master’s degree in special education in the future may be granted transfer credits for all or some of the coursework completed as part of their graduate certificate program, depending on the master’s program they select and the course content they completed as part of their certificate program.
Special Education Graduate Certificate Courses
Special education graduate certificate program curricula generally consist of between four and six master’s-level courses in core areas of special education theory and practice. Some programs may also require students to engage in supervised teaching experiences or internships in which they apply what they are learning in their courses in a special education setting, while others do not have internship requirements. Special education graduate certificate program curricula vary by school and by program, as do the names and descriptions of specific courses.
However, research into program requirements reveals that these programs generally include courses that cover the diagnosis and assessment of students who benefit from special education services; the design and implementation of special education curricula for specific age groups and subject areas; methods of behavior management and the principles of applied behavior analysis; and contemporary issues, trends, and technological advances in special education. These are the types of courses that are typically required in order to establish eligibility for state licensure in special education, although requirements for licensure vary by state. Nonetheless, students enrolled in a graduate certificate in special education program are likely to be required to complete the following types of courses:
- Learning Disabilities: Identification and Assessment
- Issues and Trends in Educating Individuals with Disabilities
- Assistive Technology in the Special Education Classroom
- Special Education Curriculum & Instruction in Elementary/Middle Schools
- Secondary School Special Education
- Strategies for Inclusion: Addressing Needs of Special Populations
- Developmental Reading Strategies
- Behavior and Classroom Management in Special Education
In addition to the courses listed above, special education graduate certificate programs may offer courses that provide training in working with gifted/exceptional student populations, culturally and linguistically diverse students, and/or students with specific issues, such as reading and learning disabilities, physical handicaps, and/or social and behavioral problems, including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). For those interested in training to work with children who have been diagnosed with ASD, there are specialized graduate certificate programs that focus exclusively on teaching children and teenagers with ASD.
Note: For more information on programs with a focus on Autism Spectrum Disorders, refer to our Graduate Certificate Programs in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Programs page.
Online Graduate Certificate in Special Education (SPED)
Most colleges and universities design graduate certificate programs to accommodate working teachers, educational administrators, and mid-career professionals who intend to remain employed while attending classes. As a result, many schools now offer special education graduate certificate programs that are either fully or partially online*. These programs utilize distance learning technologies and learning management systems (LMSs) to deliver live and pre-recorded lectures and virtual class sessions to students anywhere with a secure internet connection.
Online special education graduate certificate programs are programs that offer all or most of their required coursework via a school’s LMS and thus do not require students to live or work near the campus of the school offering the program. Online instruction is typically offered in two distinct modes: synchronous instruction, and asynchronous instruction. Synchronous instruction is real-time online instruction that requires students to be logged on to a program’s LMS for scheduled lectures and class meetings; asynchronous instruction does not have a real-time component and encompasses a broad range of learning modalities, including pre-recorded lectures and assignments that have set due dates but do not have to be viewed at a specific time. Synchronous instruction is more structured and less flexible than asynchronous instruction but may be preferable for students who are more comfortable with an online learning experience that is similar to being in a campus classroom. Asynchronous instruction is less rigid and more flexible than synchronous instruction but requires a greater amount of self-discipline and self-motivation.
Many graduate certificate programs in special education that are classified as being online do indeed offer all of their didactic instruction online. Other online programs require students to attend a limited number of campus visits. These visits are generally short in duration (three to five days is common) and are used to provide students with in-person orientation sessions, workshops, seminars, and other instructional activities that benefit from having students on campus. However, campus visits do require travel and may be inconvenient for some students, in which case a fully online program may be a better option.
There are also blended/hybrid online programs that offer a mix of campus-based and online instruction. The structure of these program varies. Some programs require students to attend weekly or biweekly campus-based classes, while others offer some fully online courses in combination with campus-based classes. Blended/hybrid online program represent a more convenient and flexible alternative to fully campus-based programs, but they may not be practical for students who do not live within commuting distance of the school’s campus.
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Examples of Online Graduate Certificate Programs in Special Education
Below is a list of online graduate certificate programs in special education offered by accredited, non-profit institutions of higher education. This list is meant to serve as a representation of the types of graduate certificate programs available in this space.
The University of Central Florida (UCF), a public research university in Florida, offers an online Graduate Certificate in Special Education through its College of Community Innovation and Education. The 18-credit program consists of six courses that address topics in special education for exceptional children and for students with disabilities. The program’s coursework draws from a Master of Education (MEd) in Exceptional Student Education program that UCF offers and students who opt to pursue the MEd degree after completing the graduate certificate program are eligible to receive transfer credit for relevant completed coursework. Applicants to the UCF program are required to hold a degree at the bachelor’s level or higher but do not need to be licensed teachers. The UCF program does not require any campus visits. For additional details on the program, visit UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education at ccie.ucf.edu.
Wilmington University, a private, non-profit school in Delaware, offers an online Special Education: K-12 Teachers of Students with Disabilities Certificate program through its College of Education. This is a graduate certificate program that requires applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree and a state license to teach*. The program prepares students for state certification or endorsement to teach special education at the K-12 level in most states, although applicants should review their state’s requirements prior to enrollment. The program’s curriculum consists of five credited courses and a non-credited introductory E-Folio course that introduces students the school’s online learning platform. The program can be completed entirely online or through a mix of online and campus-based courses. For more program details, visit the Wilmington University College of Education at www.wilmu.edu.
Quinnipiac University, a private, non-profit school in Connecticut, offers an online Special Education Certificate of Completion, which is a 12-credit graduate certificate program with a special education curriculum. The program consists of three required courses in teaching exceptional children and students with disabilities, as well as one elective that allows students to engage in independent special education research or take a course in teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The Quinnipiac program is 100% online and does not require any campus visits. Applicants are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a license to teach*. For additional information on the program, visit Quinnipiac University at quonline.quinnipiac.edu.
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*Teachers interested in pursuing certification in special education should note that licensing requirements vary by state. In addition, some online graduate certificate programs may not accept students from all 50 states. Therefore, students interested in attending an online program offered by an out-of-state school should confirm with an admissions advisor that the program accepts students from their state of residence before applying. In addition, students should review licensing and certification requirements in their state to ensure the program will provide the curriculum and training needed to meet those requirements.