Special Education

Reflecting on a Wild Year in Special Education

5 min. read

The past academic year was a journey through disruption for everyone involved in education. And for those in Special Education, it was even more of a challenge to try to support students and keep learning from sliding to a complete stop. Now that the school year has come to a close and educators have had a chance to catch their breath before starting preparations for the upcoming year, we asked hundreds of educators in Special Education to reflect on a year that defies description.

And though every school had its own unique experience, our survey uncovered an incredible degree of unity across the country – namely, that when it came to managing Special Education, three challenges were especially severe: mental health or behavioral challenges related to students, mental health challenges related to staff (including drops in morale), and academic or skill regression challenges.

These three concerns surfaced over and over, revealing three common themes as educators reflected on the past year.

Reflection #1: The Importance of Mental Health

In a year when the world’s focus was on public health, educators found themselves deeply concerned about mental health as well — for both students and staff. While there was certainly concern about the potential for learning loss, it was clear that mental health and well-being were of foremost importance.

  • 92% of respondents reported feeling extremely or moderately concerned about the mental health of students they serve
  • 75% reported severe or moderate difficulty managing students’ mental health or behavioral challenges
  • 72% reported severe or moderate challenges related to staff mental health

The importance of mental health is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon: we found that if educators could improve just one thing in their special education process, providing more mental health support for students was the top choice – tied with, surprisingly, providing more targeted PD for staff. This brings us to the second theme the survey uncovered: that special education teachers feel unsupported.

Reflection #2: The Support Teachers Need

While it’s clear that those working in Special Education found themselves under a great deal of stress over the year, their reflections also highlighted that their struggles weren’t solely due to the challenges of teaching remotely during tumultuous times.

Instead, we heard from multiple educators that they felt under-supported by offsite administrators and that the system had already been strained by higher numbers of students in the program and high staff turnover. And overall, survey takers noted that returning teacher time to instruction was of utmost importance: after all, it’s difficult to support students when bogged down with paperwork or inefficient administrative processes.

Moving forward, it’s clear that Special Education staff need more support, especially from the central office. Teacher burnout in Special Education isn’t new to 2020 or 2021, but it’s disheartening that it continues to be a struggle. As we move on from an incredibly disruptive year, we hope the support and growth opportunities offered to educators in Special Education evolve to be more targeted to their specific needs.

Reflection #3: [The Right] Technology Is Crucial

Finally, we found that educators considered having the right technology in place to be a key aspect of managing special education. One noted, “Since we have been able to meet with families virtually, I have had more parental involvement than in most years prior.” Another said that they had resources they used to “monitor acquired skills and regression in my students. For the most part, students who attended [class] regularly and in the right placement did just fine virtually.”

However, only 69% felt that they had the tools they needed to identify and address learning loss or skill regression in the students they serve. This is concerning, because those without the tools they needed were six times as likely to report having severe or moderate challenges managing academic or skill regression in the students they serve.

And having the right tools was crucial: one respondent wrote that the software they were provided did not allow digital signatures at IEP meetings. Others wrote that inconsistency in software adoption across the district was challenging, especially as students moved from middle school to high school.


The 2020-2021 school year was a challenge, but it also brought the importance of mental health – for both students and staff – to the forefront, ahead of even learning loss and skill regression concerns. As we plan for the upcoming academic year, how will you ensure that appropriate mental health supports are in place for the students you serve, the educators you work with, and yourself? Hopefully, the silver lining of a very difficult year will turn out to be increased understanding of the pressures and challenges facing those working in Special Education, along with more targeted support for those concerns.

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Annie Grunwell

Annie Buttner

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the K-12 staffing shortage, and best practices in human capital management.

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