Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Education/Higher Education PhD

First Advisor

Wenfan Yan

Second Advisor

Francine Menashy

Third Advisor

Claudia Rinaldi


Inadequate preparation, combined with challenging work conditions, contribute to the shortage of skilled special educators in the United States (Levenson, 2011). Because teacher quality is linked to student achievement (Darling-Hammond, 2001), the discrepancy in access to qualified teachers has remained a serious issue, particularly for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD), whose intensive needs present great obstacles to learning. Although the research identifies strong content knowledge and social emotional competence as critical skills for educators (Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2012; Shulman, 1986), current standards for licensure (as they apply to EBD teachers) largely overlook these attributes (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2011a), leaving teachers poorly equipped to address the needs of the students in their classrooms and making them more vulnerable to burnout (Adams, 2013).

This mixed methods study explored the issues of teacher preparation and self-efficacy as they relate to secondary special educators who serve students with EBD in Massachusetts. This research employed a sequential explanatory design, utilizing 118 surveys and six telephone interviews to: (a) identify how secondary special educators who teach students with EBD are prepared; (b) explore their self-efficacy regarding their ability to teach secondary level content and to respond to the social and emotional needs of their students; and (c) understand how they explain the factors that influence their self-efficacy in the classroom. Results revealed the limited effect of credentials (such as licensure and/or a degree) on EBD teacher self-efficacy as well as the impact of school culture. In particular, several implications emerged related to the preparation and support of this population of teachers: (a) content area credentials had no bearing on teacher self-efficacy and (b) special education credentials negatively impacted self-efficacy for teaching content, while (c) training in social and emotional learning positively impacted self-efficacy related to social emotional responsiveness and special education pedagogy. Additionally, results suggested that (d) private school employment increased self-efficacy for teaching content and (e) administrative support strengthened self-efficacy for applying special education strategies. Findings may be useful to school districts, educator preparation programs, and policymakers as they consider how to support educators in this field.