Addressing Staff Shortages in Pupil Services and Special Education

Anyone who works in public education is aware of the staffing shortages across our state and country.  While this was true prior to the Spring of 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic has exacerbated this problem and shined a spotlight on the negative impact this has on our students. It also comes as no surprise, unfortunately, that staff shortages during the pandemic have disproportionately impacted our marginalized and most vulnerable students.  This includes students with disabilities and students who struggle to maintain positive mental health and physical wellness. As we enter into the time of year when district leadership teams and school boards begin planning for next school year, this article highlights the need for special education and school-based mental health professionals (SBMHP), initiatives at the state level to address shortages, and strategies and resources for districts to recruit and retain special education and pupil services staff.

Wisconsin is one of forty-nine states having reported special education teacher shortages (Monnin et al. 2021).  The shortage of special educators has been further exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic.  As reported in aDear Colleague Letterfrom Secretary Cardona dated December 16, 2021, “a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 68 percent of principals surveyed are concerned about teacher shortages and report it has been more difficult to hire qualified teachers since COVID-19. History has shown that shortages disproportionately impact students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and often rural communities.” Special education has experienced disproportionate rates of attrition as special educators are 2.5 times more likely to leave the profession as teachers in general education (Smith and Ingersoll 2004).

Based on 2019 data from The Wisconsin Information System for Education (WISE) collected by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), the median number of students per school-based mental health professional (counselor, psychologist or social worker combined) was 266 and the mean was 293. By individual profession, Wisconsin’s statewide average provider to student ratio is far higher than the ratios recommended by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA 2019), the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP n.d.), and the National School Social Work Association (SSWAA 2013). The table below summarizes the current school-based mental health professional shortages in Wisconsin.

Student to School-Based Mental Health Professionals Ratios



2019 State Mean

School Counselor



School Psychologist



School Social Worker




There are many negative consequences that result from high student to staff ratios. Perhaps one of the worst is that staff members and school teams are required to reduce the tasks and roles of well-trained professionals to the basic and essential duties. This not only denies students of proactive and preventative evidence-based services and supports, but can further add to shortages by contributing to staff burnout and compassion fatigue.   Ask any special education teacher, school counselor, school psychologist or school social worker what things they could do to support students if they had the time and they will provide you a list. The benefits to improving special education and mental health services in schools are clear and backed by research. So we all have plenty of incentives to address these shortages. What follows are some initiatives happening at the state level to address shortages, along with some practical strategies for school districts to reduce their own student to provider ratios.

Expanding the Pipeline of Pupil Services and Special Education Professionals

In October 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction was one of six states awarded a ten million dollar federal grant from the United States Department of Education to increase recruitment of school-based mental health professionals, reduce the ratio of students to mental health service providers and increase the number of SBMHPs hired annually by districts with demonstrated need. To support the recruitment and retention of SBMHPs, the grant supports the creation or expansion of online graduate training programs in School Counseling, School Psychology and School Social Work within the University of Wisconsin System. Programs are being designed and implemented to increase the diversity within the professions and remove barriers for prospective candidates through incentives and increased accessibility for rural and working professionals. Additionally, selected school districts will be provided sub-grant funds to recruit and retain school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers.  Additional information is available on the DPISchool-Based Mental Health Professionals Grant webpage.

Strategies, activities and policies that attract quality candidates are a key component in addressing shortages.  Short term recruitment strategies for special education and related services often fall in the area of compensation. School districts have experienced some success in addressing staffing challenges by offering scholarships, loan forgiveness, signing bonuses, additional pay, retirement benefits, and relocation reimbursement. In addition, supporting tuition and licensure fees have proven to be beneficial. In the recent Department of Education’sDear Colleague Letter, school district leaders were encouraged to utilize American Rescue Plan funds “to hire additional educators and school staff and to improve compensation to recruit and retain educators and school staff.”

Retaining Pupil Services and Special Education Professionals

Research shows that fully prepared special educators are more likely to continue in the profession than those who are underprepared (Feng and Sass 2013; Miller, Brownell, and Smith 1999). Schools who provide ongoing induction, mentoring and coaching opportunities have experienced success in the retention of special educators.  In addition, there is a need for meaningful and relevant professional development. The provision of job embedded training and just in time learning can impact the retention of underprepared educators. Examples of free professional learning resources include DPI’sComprehensive EvaluationandCCR IEP resources;High Leverage Practices, andIRIS Center Modules.

Similar strategies can be effective for retaining school-based mental health professionals. A shortage of these professionals also means a shortage of individuals willing and able to serve as mentors and field supervisors for early career professionals, practicum students and interns. Encouraging and supporting your current counselors, psychologists and social workers to serve as mentors or field supervisors benefits everyone involved. The student gets a quality field experience that prepares them for their career. The field supervisor meets an ethical obligation to give back to their profession and has access to the latest knowledge and skills that reflect current best practices being taught in training programs. And if the school district has a potential position opening, they have an opportunity to promote and sell their district to a potential job candidate.


Shortages of special educators and school-based mental health professionals are not new, but they have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. State, regional and local leaders need to be creative and intentional in both the short and long term if we are going to address these shortages for the benefit of our students. Increasing the pipeline of professionals entering these fields, improving recruitment strategies and improving retention through supporting our professionals is a key component to improving outcomes for all students, especially those who need the most support in order to graduate college, career and community ready.


Authors: By Karen Horn, School-Based Mental Health Professionals Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Tim Peerenboom, School Psychologist Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Barb Van Haren, Education Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction


American School Counselor Association (ASCA). 2019. “School Counselors Matter.” The Education Trust.

Feng. L., and Sass, T. R. 2013. “What makes special-education teachers special? Teacher training and achievement of students with disabilities.” Economics of Education Review, 36, 122-134. 

Ingersoll, R., and Smith, T. M. 2004. “Do Teacher Induction and Mentoring Matter?”

Miller, M. D., Brownell, M. T., and Smith, S. W. 1999. “Factors that predict teachers staying in, leaving, or transferring from the special education classroom.” Exceptional Children, 65(2), 201-218. 

Monnin, Kevin, M.Ed.; Jamie Day, M.Ed.; Morgan Strimel, M.Ed.; and Kasey Dye, M.Ed. 2021. “The Special Education Teacher Shortage: A Policy Analysis.” Council for Exceptional Children.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). n.d. “Shortage of School Psychologists.” Accessed February 1, 2022.,a%20ratio%20of%201%3A5000.

School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA). 2013. “School Social Workers Helping Students Succeed: Recommended School Social Worker To Student Ratios.”