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Specially Designed Instruction

The delivery of specially designed instruction is the core job responsibility of special education teachers. IDEA regulations define “specially designed instruction” as “adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology or delivery of instruction (i) to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and (ii) ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” (34 CFR Sec. 300.39(b)(3) 

As explained in practical terms by Marilyn Friend, “SDI is what makes special education ‘special.’” 

What are some of the features of SDI?

  • It is delivered by a special education teacher or a related services provider.
  • It is planned, organized and meaningful and is delivered in an explicit, intentional and systematic manner.
  • It can be provided in any location, including multiple locations during the course of the school day, as long as the location is consistent with the student’s IEP and the student’s least restrictive environment.
  • It directly addresses the goals in the student’s IEP, which, in turn, are “sufficiently ambitious” and designed to enable the student to achieve grade-level content standards or close the learning gap.
  • It is specific instruction that is delivered to the student, not differentiated instruction, accommodations, active learning strategies or other activities designed to facilitate learning for all students.
  • It is closely monitored to ensure that the intended results, i.e., a reduction in the learning gap, are being achieved.
  • It can address any area of individual need including academic, behavioral, social, communication, health and functional.
  • It does not involve lowering standards or expectations for the student.

What differentiates “specially designed instruction” from core instruction and supplemental and intensive interventions (response to intervention or multi-tiered system of support)?

As illustrated in this chart, specially designed instruction is similar to, different from and inter-related with core instruction and tier two and three interventions in a number of ways.

Generally, specially designed instruction differs from core instruction and interventions in the following ways:

  • Specially designed instruction is defined and guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and implemented in accordance with an individualized education program (IEP);
  • SDI teaches specific skills a student does not have but needs to access and progress in the general education curriculum;
  • SDI is individualized, i.e., it is specific to the student;
  • SDI must be delivered by a qualified special education teacher or related service provider;
  • Students who receive SDI need sustained intensive support in order to maintain adequate rates of progress;
  • Students who receive SDI may also receive instructional and testing accommodations;
  • It is delivered in the student’s LRE, which may be a location other than the general education classroom.

Specially designed instruction is similar to core instruction and interventions in these ways:

  • It is aligned with the standards and instructional expectations for all students;
  • It may be delivered in the general education classroom;
  • It may be implemented together with general education strategies such as differentiation, universal design for learning, school-wide positive behavior supports;
  • Assessment practices used in general education classrooms such as formative assessment, screening, and progress monitoring are used.

What are some examples of specially designed instruction in various domains?

The range of instructional activities that can be considered SDI is limited only by the presenting learning, behavioral, social, physical, health and other needs of  students with IEPs.  That being said, we present a number of examples to show how SDI differs from regular classroom instruction.

For reading, specialized instruction might be delivering a specialized reading program such as Phonics Boost or Blast, Wilson Reading, S.P.I.R.E. or another Orton Gilliam based approach. Or it might involve implementation of Data Based Individualization, a research-based process for individualizing and intensifying interventions through the systematic use of assessment data, validated interventions and research-based adaptation strategies. DBI is not limited to reading. It a process that can be used to support students with severe and persistent learning and/or behavioral needs.

A guidance document developed by the SDI Workgroup through the NYSED Regional Special Education Technical Assistance Support Center (RSE-TASC) explains specially designed instruction and walks special educators through the process of selecting specially designed instruction, i.e., what the teacher teaches, and supplementary aids and services, i.e., what the student needs, in the most common areas of instructional need.  Topics covered include: nonverbal communication, listening comprehension, expressive language/oral expression, voice, fluency, receptive language, pragmatics, basic reading, reading comprehension, written language, math calculation and reasoning, task completion/on-task behavior, following directions, rate/speed of work, following a schedule, attendance, organization, working independently, decision-making, self-evaluation, social competence, and physical functioning.

Learning strategies are one type of specialized instruction that has been shown to be effective for learners with disabilities.  Learning strategies are the principles, procedures or rules for solving problems and independently completing tasks. (Friend & Bursuck, 2012)

One particularly effective and simple learning strategy for teaching concepts, vocabulary or procedures that must be memorized is cover-copy-compare (CCC). As described by Riccomini, Stocker and Morano, implementation of CCC to teach computational fluency in mathematics would include creating a set of flash cards for a particular operation; using the flash cards to assess the student’s fluency; developing flash card subsets for fluent, known and unknown facts; teaching the student to use the cover-copy-compare strategy; providing opportunities for practice with corrective feedback; monitoring the student’s progress; and adapting the flash card subsets based on the student’s progress. (Implementing and Effective Mathematics Fact Fluency Practice Activity in Teaching Exceptional Children, May/June 2017, Volume 49, Issue 5, pages 318-327]

Many effective strategies are also available to teach expected behaviors. Specially designed instruction for students who have difficulty expressing their feelings, including students with autism, may include teaching students to use comic strip generators, such as Make Beliefs Comix. Visual supports, such as WAIT Cards, have been used successfully for students who have difficulty with impulse control. The Power Card Strategy can be effective in teaching behavioral expectations, routines, the meaning of language, cause and effect and other social skills to higher functioning students with autism. Consisting of a brief scenario or character sketch describing how a hero solves and problem and a “power card” describing how the student can use the same strategy to solve a similar problem, it can also be fun and engaging for both the teacher and the student.  The Incredible Five Point Scale (Buron & Curtis)  is a tool to help students understand and regulate their anxiety related behaviors. Instruction in organizing, planning, self-monitoring and self-advocacy are yet other examples of specially designed instruction. 

Other examples of widely used evidence-based learning strategies include:

STOP (Boyle & Walker Seibert, 1997) for phonemic awareness, phonics or decoding;
DRAW (C.A. Harris, Miller, & Mercer, 1995) for math calculations;
SCROL (Grant, 1993) and POSSE (Englert, 2009) for reading comprehension;
CAP (Mercer, Jordan & Miller, 1996) for algebra problem solving;
TASSEL (Minskoff & Allsopp, 2003) for on-task behavior during class;
WATCH (Reid & Lienemann, 2006) for study skills;
SPLASH (Simmonds, Luchow, Kaminsky, & Cottone, 1989) for test taking

For students who are blind or visually impaired, specially designed instruction could include instruction in the use of Braille or specific technology to access content or provide responses and orientation and mobility training.  For students who are deaf or hearing impaired, it could consist of a) oral methods—the use of hearing Assistive technology (AT), such as cochlear implants and hearing aids, along with training to learn to use residual hearing and speech read; (b) manual methods — the use of ASL, a visual-gestural language that has its own grammar and syntax; and (c) simultaneous communication methods — signs are produced in the same order as spoken words and at the same time as the words are spoken. For students with health conditions such as diabetes or severe allergies, instruction regarding the signs and symptoms of their condition and when and how to use medication and seek help in the event of an impending health emergency would be considered specialized instruction.

Stare at the unknown word
Tell yourself each letter sound
Open your mouth, say letter sounds
Put letters together to say word

Discover the sign
Read the problem
Answer the problem or draw
Write the answer

Survey the headings
Connect the headings to one another
Read the text
Outline major ideas with supporting details
Look back to check the accuracy of what’s written

Predict ideas
Organize the ideas
Search for the structure
Summarize the main ideas
Evaluate your understanding

Combine like terms
Ask yourself, “How can I isolate the variable?”
Put the values of the variable in the initial equation and check to see if the equation is balanced

Try not to doodle
Arrive at class prepared
Sit near the front
Sit away from friends
End daydreaming
Look at the teacher

Write down assignment and due date
Ask for clarification or help
Task analyze the assignment, schedule tasks over available days
Check all work for neatness, completeness and accuracy

Skim the test
Plan your strategy
Leave out tough questions
Attack questions you know
Systematically guess
House clean

Research and best practices

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