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How Teachers of Students With Moderate to Severe Disabilities Can Avoid Burnout

Teaching is a labor of love, particularly for those who work with students with moderate to severe disabilities. The job can be rewarding for many reasons, but it also presents challenges that can be quite frustrating and even lead to burnout.

However, it is much easier to deal with problems when you have the proper tools to do your job as an educator. An online master’s degree program in education offers the skills you need to tackle issues head-on, be more effective in the classroom and help manage feelings of being overwhelmed.

Why Some Teachers Experience Burnout

It’s no secret that special education teachers have a high attrition rate. Research reported in 2017 shows that 13% of special education teachers leave their jobs every year. Burnout, a heavy workload, and lack of adequate support in the classroom are contributing factors.

Teachers working with students who have moderate to severe disabilities do so because they see a need and want to serve. The students they teach have intellectual challenges that fall into four categories:

  • Mild — 85% of people with intellectual disabilities fall in this category; many are successful academically. Students can read but have trouble comprehending; IQ of 50–70.
  • Moderate — Students can communicate at a decent level but typically not on a complex scale; IQ of 35–49.
  • Severe — Students can only communicate on the most basic levels, cannot care for themselves independently and need daily supervision and support. Most people in this category cannot successfully live independently; IQ of 20–34.
  • Profound — Students have extremely limited communication ability and require 24-7 support and care; those in this category may have physical limitations, too. IQ of less than 20.

On the flip side of attrition is opportunity — more openings translate to more jobs. In fact, the scarcity of qualified special education teachers in some parts of the country is prompting school districts to sweeten the deal with sign-on incentives. In California, for example, one school district offered competitive pay and affordable housing nearby but still had trouble finding enough fully credentialed candidates for special education job openings.

How an Online Master’s Degree Program Can Help

To prepare for a successful career in this area, consider earning your Master of Arts in Education – Teacher as Leader in Moderate & Severe Disabilities (MSD) from Northern Kentucky University.

The degree program, which is 100% online, offers core courses in leadership, language development, and advanced principles of behavior management, as well as concentrations in learning and behavior disorders; intellectual and orthopedic disabilities; and behavioral analysis procedures. You can finish NKU’s MAEd – Teacher Leader – MSD online program in as few as 18 months and enroll when it’s convenient for you.

Self-Care Tips for Burned-Out Educators

There are multiple ways to deal with burnout and keep from becoming overwhelmed. Here are a few:

  • Leave work where it belongs. Go in early or stay a little late but do whatever it takes to keep your home life and work life separate.
  • Be intentional about spending time at home with your spouse or partner. Give yourself something to look forward to, like movie night at home, dinner at your favorite restaurant, or a walk around the neighborhood.
  • Plan ahead. Managing multiple IEPs, meetings and student caseloads can be extremely stressful. Do what you can to stay on top of it all with calendar reminders, project management software or other apps that help you stay organized.
  • Take a few minutes each day to decompress by reading, listening to soothing music or simply being mindful.
  • Exercise regularl Run, walk, skate, bike or jump rope. Find a fun activity that gets your heart pumping and stick to it.
  • Rely on your co-workers. Reach out to veteran teachers or peers who have been where you’re trying to go. Tap them for advice on how to keep your cool.

An advanced degree is just one of many tools that can help you do your job well as a special education teacher. With NKU’s online MAEd – Teacher Leader – MSD, you will come away from the program prepared to work with students with intellectual disabilities. You’ll learn how to properly manage your classroom — and ultimately, your own well-being.

Learn more about NKU’s Master of Arts in Education – Teacher as Leader in Moderate & Severe Disabilities (MSD) online program.


Advancement Courses – A Wiley Brand: Self-Care Strategies for Special Education Teachers

Center for Parent Information and Resources: Categories of Disabilities

EdWeek: What Really Causes Special Education Teachers to Burn Out?

Exceptional Children: Too Stressed to Teach? Teaching Quality, Student Engagement, and IEP

HealthyPlace: Mild, Moderate, Severe Intellectual Disability Differences

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