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Program Director for Exceptional Children Career Guide

How to Become a Program Director for Exceptional Children

If you’d like to combine the thrill of helping students learn with the challenge of organizing and leading an educational program, then you might just be a great program director for exceptional children (PDEC).

With steady growth, good salaries, and jobs available all around the country, now is as good a time as ever to begin a career in education and set yourself up for a lifetime of incredibly rewarding work.

Teacher doing mindful activity with student

What Is a Program Director for Exceptional Children?

A PDEC runs special education programs at public schools or private schools. A program director is someone who has a background in special education and an understanding of relevant teaching practices and methods. This profession is critical to ensuring that students receive the care and training they need to be successful.

What Does a Program Director for Exceptional Children Do?

Program directors have extensive duties—they oversee the department, plan the curriculum, and stay up-to-date on the latest education research. In some programs, a PDEC may be involved with regular classroom work, including planning specific activities, tracking individual students’ progress, and even developing individualized education programs for students. Here are some of the things that you can expect to do as a PDEC:

  • Overseeing and supporting the teaching staff. Any good education program needs someone at the top who can take care of hiring new teaching staff and training those already on the teaching staff. Teachers need mentoring programs early on in their careers, and professional development programs throughout.
  • Plan and execute the curriculum. This could involve developing a curriculum or adjusting to an already-existing one. If you have the opportunity to work directly with students as a program director, you may also be involved with individual education programs (IEPs), as well as tracking students’ educational progress.
  • Run the administrative and financial parts of the program. A well-run program needs strong administrative support and financial backing. After all, teachers can’t teach effectively and students can’t thrive if their program is poorly funded and disorganized. You might be charged with program development, scheduling, payroll, and project funding.

How Do I Become a Program Director for Exceptional Children?

Edited Book Stack

The path to becoming a PDEC means getting a degree in education, followed by years of experience as a teacher. Since program directors also need organizational, leadership, and administrative skills, it’s important to develop those skills as well.

Step One: Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step on the road to working in any special education field is to get your bachelor’s degree. A wise choice would be to get a bachelor’s degree in special education. There’s no need to limit yourself to just one education field, though—some programs allow you to get a bachelor’s degree in both elementary education and special education, which will enable you to get licensed in both fields. A good education degree program prepares you for the challenges of the classroom so that you can be ready, from day one, to guide and connect with your students.

Step Two: Get certified to teach in your state

You’ll need to be certified to teach if you’re going to work in education anywhere in the United States. Each state varies in its requirements for getting certified, but generally speaking, most states require: (1) a bachelor’s degree; (2) completion of a student-teaching experience or program; (3) passing a test (Praxis) for general certification, and for the specific subject in which you intend to teach; (4) a background check, including criminal and professional background checks.

Step Three: Earn a master’s degree in education

If you want to be a PDEC, then a master’s degree in education can help expand your knowledge and further develop your skills. A master’s degree in education is also a great choice for those who want to get licensed as a special education teacher but already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field.

Step Four: Gain teaching experience

So, you’ve got your degrees and your teaching license. Do you think you’re ready to step up to becoming a PDEC? Probably not! You need years of teaching experience under your belt before you’re ready to take that next step.

Step Five: Hone your leadership and administrative skills

A PDEC should typically have years of experience in special education, but the job itself requires excellent administrative skills more than it does classroom and educational skills. You’ll want to develop those skills in any way that you can, whether that be taking the lead on projects within your school department.

Best Degrees for a Program Director for Exceptional Children

To be well-prepared for a career working with exceptional children, you’ll need a background in special education. The following are some of the most suitable degrees for preparing you for this path:

Special Education (Mild to Moderate) – B.A.

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for...

An online teaching degree and teacher...

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for aspiring K–12 special education teacher. Leads to your teaching license in states that offer a single teaching license in K–12 special education.

This special education bachelor's degree program will help you prepare for an exciting future helping exceptional students. If your state requires—or if you're interested in—dual licensure in both elementary education and K–12 special education, consider the B.A. Special Education (K–12) program.

  • Time: 62% of grads finish similar online teaching degree programs within 3½ years.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,825 per 6-month term.

Candidates for this special education degree program often include:

  • Aspiring special ed teachers who currently lack a teaching license.
  • Substitute teachers.
  • Career-changers.
  • School paraprofessionals.
  • Others who feel the call to teach.

This online degree program includes coursework and assessments tailor-made for future teachers who are committed to working with students who have mild to moderate learning exceptionalities. It offers deep engagement in serving special education students and leads to your K–12 special education license in states that do not require dual elementary-ed and special-ed licensure. It also includes a preclinical experience with face-to-face observation hours and a Demonstration Teaching component hosted by an experienced teacher and directed by a clinical supervisor.

Compare B.A. Special Education (K–12)

Special Education and Elementary Education (Dual Licensure) – B.A.

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for...

An online teaching degree and teacher...

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for aspiring K–12 special education teachers. Leads to dual licensure—elementary education teaching license and special education teaching license.

(Specific grade levels will vary depending on licensure in your state.) If your state offers a single K–12 special education teaching license and you are interested in focusing on teaching students with mild to moderate exceptionalities, consider the B.A. Special Education (Mild to Moderate) online teaching degree. 

  • Time: 62% of grads earned this degree within 3½ years.
  • Tuition: $3,825 per 6-month term.

Candidates for this online teaching degree often include:

  • Aspiring special ed teachers who currently lack a teaching license
  • Substitute teachers
  • Career-changers
  • School paraprofessionals
  • Others who feel the call to teach

This special education teaching online degree program prepares you to teach students with mild-to-moderate disabilities, with courses in the foundations of teaching, instructional planning and presentation, assessment, and classroom management. Core elementary and special education courses focus on diversity, disciplinary literacy, elementary education methods, and special education topics such as law, assessment, and behavioral management. This program requires in-classroom observation and a term of full-time demonstration teaching. Compare B.A. Special Education (Mild to Moderate)


Teaching, Special Education (K–12) – M.A.

An online master's degree for current or aspiring teachers...

An online master's degree for current or aspiring...

An online master's degree for current or aspiring teachers looking to further their careers with a focus on K–12 special education.

  • Time: 67% of grads finish similar programs in 18 months.
  • Tuition: $3,975 per 6-month term.

Coursework in this program covers the following areas of study:

  • Educational psychology and human development
  • Schools as communities of care
  • Essential practices for supporting diverse learners
  • Creating and managing engaging learning environments
  • Special education practices
  • Management strategies for academic and social behavior
  • Assessment and evaluation procedures for special education
  • Disciplinary literacy
  • Special education methods
  • Using educational technology for teaching and learning

Find a rewarding career teaching students with diverse challenges and special learning abilities with this teaching master's degree.

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What Skills Does a Program Director for Exceptional Children Need?

Becoming a Teacher is the Right Move For You

As a PDEC, you may need to be more familiar with developing technologies than the average teacher. Here are a few of the most important skills that you’ll want to acquire or develop:

  • Organizational skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Teaching skills
  • Deep knowledge of pedagogical theory
  • Creative and analytical thinking skills
  • Social and interpersonal skills
  • Strong communication skills

How Much Does a Program Director for Exceptional Children Make?


While the U.S. Department of Labor does not give salary figures for PDEC, it does provide information about special education more generally, and the salaries for those working in special education are quite consistent. In 2020, a special education teacher could expect to earn an average annual salary of $61,500, while those in the top 10% of earners could expect to earn over $100,000 per year.

What is the Projected Job Growth?


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 3% growth, which translates to 14,300 more jobs, between the years 2019 and 2029. This is in line with the overall projected job growth in the United States.

Where Does a Program Director for Exceptional Children Work?


The vast majority (roughly 86%) of those working in special education work for public schools at the elementary or secondary school level. Another 7% work at private schools at the elementary or secondary school level. The remaining 7% of the workforce works at residential facilities, hospitals, or other miscellaneous areas.


Interested in Becoming a Program Director for Exceptional Children?

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