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What is Specially Designed Instruction?

One of the major tasks of a special education teacher is ensuring that students with disabilities receive Specially Designed Instruction as outlined in their Individualized Education Programs.  In order to do this, it is important the special educators have a firm understanding of what Specially Designed Instruction is and how it should be implemented.  

Specially Designed Instruction Defined

Specially Designed Instruction, or SDI, is defined as “adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to 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 §300.39(b)(3).n

As educators, we utilized SDI to bridge the achievement gap of students with disabilities from their current levels of performance to the current grade level expectations and standards.  For many educators the grade level standards or expectations are set by the Common Core State Standards.

SDI within a Tiered System of Supports

Specially designed instruction is best delivered within a multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS) or Response to Intervention Framework.  For most districts, these frameworks are broken into three tiers.

SDI within Tier 1 

Tier 1 is defined as Universal or Core Instruction and this refers to the grade level content and curriculum.  Most students receive services and instruction within general education and are assessed using the grade level content standards for the grade in which they are enrolled.  

The goal is for majority of students within your school or district to be successful and have access through quality Tier 1, core instruction, with few needing additional tiers of support.   Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, strategies can be proactively implemented within Tier 1, to clear barriers to learning for all students, including students with disabilities. 

Specially designed instruction can be used to provide students with disabilities with access to this core, universal instruction.  This done mainly through the use of accommodations and supplementary aids and services. 

SDI within Tier 2

Tier 2 is defined as supplemental, small group instruction that is necessary for a few students who are having difficulty with a specific skill or standard.  Specially designed instruction occurs within these small, targeted groups within Tier 2.

An example of a Tier 2 small group would be a small group that is pulled to review the use of the partitioning strategy in order to support with comparing fractions.  If two students with IEPs have the use of manipulatives for mathematics outlined in their IEP, then the use of math manipulatives would additional support that the teacher would need to include along with the direct strategy instruction to support the progress of her special education students.  

SDI within Tier 3

Tier 3 is defined as sustained, intensive intervention that is required to close the gap for students who are struggling, usually because of a lack of instruction in a particular area.  This intervention is individualized based on student need.

Specially designed instruction at this level is also sustained, intensive intervention, but this is due to the impact of a student’s disability.   The strategies and pedagogy can be very similar at the Tier 3 level, with specially designed instruction being specifically outlined in a student’s IEP.

Specially Designed Instruction and the IEP

All of the information that we should consider to appropriately plan and implement SDI is contained within a student’s IEP.  The IEP should clearly articulate what type of adaptations are to be made to the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction in order to ensure access to the general curriculum.

It is important to remember that teachers should be deliberate and conscious with their instructional planning. Expectations for students with disabilities should remain grounded in the grade level standards, with the goal being two-fold: to provide access to grade level standards while also remediating skills deficits.

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