View as Webpage

by Elizabeth Auguste, Ph.D. & Stephanie Lambrecht, M.Ed.

We have all heard similar comments when our colleagues are faced with the ‘next new thing’ in education. Unfortunately, some of these sentiments seem to be linked to Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI has recently risen in prominence as a “hot topic” focused on supporting students with disabilities. The good news is that SDI is not new…it is what special education has always been and, in many cases, what educators are already doing.

This year, we will focus our Link Lines articles on SDI. In this issue, we provide an overview of SDI. In upcoming issues, we will drill down with practical applications, stories, and resources for SDI specific to Math (December 2023 Issue), Reading (March 2024 Issue), and Functional Skills (June 2024 Issue).

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

Specially designed instruction means 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) 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. [IDEA Sec. 300.39(b)(3)]

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District was a Supreme Court decision in 2017 that made clear the expectations for SDI (see also our Summer Edition for more information). The court ruled that access to the general education curriculum in the least restrictive environment is not sufficient to meet the legal requirements of the IDEA. Ambitious and challenging annual goals, and reasonable progress towards these goals in light of a child’s circumstances, are expected and mandated in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP)...a legally binding contract. The Supreme Court reiterated that the IEP is the centerpiece of the education delivery system for students with disabilities and specified that every IEP must outline how a student’s progress toward each annual goal will be measured. The IEP must also include when reports of progress will be provided to parents.

Teachers have been designing and implementing SDI as long as there have been IEPs. It has been the underlying tenet of special education since the inception of PL 94-142, and it is what makes special education ‘special’. The recent focus on SDI has been more of a discussion on how to align instruction for students with disabilities with research-based strategies that support their academic and functional progress.

Misconceptions exist about who should be delivering SDI. Though the special educator should lead designing the individualization and intensification of instruction, progress monitoring, and data-based decision making, general educators need to partner with special educators in the design and delivery of SDI. In the 2022-2023 school year, Virginia had approximately 1.3 million students in PreK-12 and about 175,000 (14%) were students identified with a disability (VDOE, 2023). There are only about 14,000 special education teachers in Virginia to serve approximately 175,000 students…a daunting ratio. According to a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC, 2020), approximately 95% of students with disabilities in Virginia are served in public schools, and close to 75% of these students spend most of their day in the general education classroom. This makes the partnership between special educators and general educators a crucial one in the delivery of SDI.

High Leverage Practices (HLPs) are 22 research-based practices outlined by the CEEDAR Center and the Council for Exceptional Children. HLPs highlight strategies and practices that can be used in the development and implementation of SDI. These strategies are research-based, provide scaffolded support, use explicit instruction, and give suggestions for flexible grouping that all general and special educators can use in their classroom to support the progress of students with disabilities.

A helpful distinction to make is in the differences between SDI, differentiated instruction, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). While differentiated instruction and UDL are practices accessible to all students, including students with disabilities, SDI tailors instruction to address a student’s unique needs resulting from their disability. SDI usually includes differentiated instruction and UDL practices but must go beyond to specifically target a student’s individual needs and goals, as outlined in their IEP.

We have included a downloadable Table (see below) for you to use as a quick refresher and guide as you plan and think through the design and delivery of SDI.

The goal of SDI is student learning and measurable outcomes. It is one thing to teach, but quite another thing for students to learn. SDI is the pathway for effectively bridging teaching and learning for students with disabilities. Though SDI is ‘old,’ educators see its beauty as they witness the progress students with disabilities make when SDI is implemented to fidelity. As you plan instruction for students with disabilities, we hope the Quick-Tips and Ideas resource is helpful. We have also included an observation tool for SDI. While this observation tool was designed for administrators, it can also serve as a fantastic self-reflection resource for teachers. If you don’t do anything else, plan a designated time at least once a week to reflect as a teacher (or as a co-teaching team if you’re engaged in co-teaching) on your current practices and pick one area to focus on for improving your professional practices. Please reach out if you have found these tools and resources helpful. Also, be on the lookout for more SDI tips and resources focused specifically on Math instruction in our December issue.

Quick-Tips and Ideas




Design SDI that is individualized and aligns to the student's specific, identified needs in their Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Funcational Performance (PLAAFP).

How can you leverage the student’s strengths and current knowledge?

What type of instruction has worked well for acquiring and retaining skills in the past?

What modifications or accommodations are needed to meet goals?

What training(s) do educational professionals need to design and deliver instruction?

Do co-teachers have time to co-plan?

Instructional Strategies + Instructional Accommodations and/or Modifications = SDI

Non-Example Statement:

Student has educational deficits in mathematics. Student needs small group or individualized instruction to improve mathematics number sense skills. These deficits interfere with comprehension of grade-level content.

Example Statement:

Student needs specially designed instruction in the area of mathematics number sense. Student requires small-group explicit instruction on ordering and comparing numbers, and counting forward by twos, fives, and tens to increase numeracy skills. Student’s mathematics program should emphasize the use of guided practice, visuals, manipulatives, and corrective feedback.

Develop goals that are reasonable and measurable.

What are the student's current levels of skill and ability?

Are goals SMART?






Hypothetical Student Goal for AY 2029-2030

Non-Example: Student will improve their math problem solving skills.

Example: Given two-step word problems using addition and/or subtraction, student will accurately solve 9 out of 10 problems using (include a specific math strategy that aligns with the student’s PLAAFP) by June 20, 2030.*

* (This example assumes the use of the Virginia IEP system, where the assessment criterion is captured on the system’s checklist).


Given two-step word problems using addition and/or subtraction…


…student will accurately solve 9 out of 10 problems…


…using (include a specific math strategy that aligns with the student’s PLAAFP)...


Aligns with the student’s assessed deficit in word problem solving and SOL 3.3b included in the teacher’s lesson plans.


…by June 20, 2030.

Objectives can be used to scaffold addition and subtraction word problems (one-step then two-step), and specifically outline the progressive timeline to 9 out of 10 correct responses.

Use data to inform goals. Data-Based Individualized (DBI) is the key!

What objective, numerical data will be collected?

How often are formative assessments incorporated into instruction?

How will the data be collected, analyzed, and then used to make instructional decisions?

How is feedback to the student and parents incorporated?

Non-Example: Use of subjective measures:

  • anecdotal reports
  • teacher perceptions

Example: Use of objective data:

  • Behavior observation checklists
  • Progress monitoring probes (e.g., reading, math)
  • Unit or chapter test scores

Prioritize the skills needed to meet goals- scaffold the development of these skills and provide lots of practice!

Is the student making reasonable progress? If not, consider:

  • frequency
  • setting
  • group size
  • strategies


Task Analysis helps outline the detailed steps that will help a student learn a new skill or perform a task.

  • Identify the skill to learn
  • Identify pre-requisite skills
  • Break the skill into parts
  • Identify which parts of the skill need the most support
  • Provide scaffolds and appropriate accommodations and modifications
  • Monitor progress

Scaffolding builds instruction at the current level of understanding and layers rigor as a student’s confidence and comprehension increase.

  • Begin lesson with less complex concepts
  • Combine skills after skills are learned in isolation
  • Utilize familiar skills and strengths in conjunction with more difficult or new skills.

Plan SDI that accelerates the rate of skill acquisition. Remember, goals must be ambitious and challenging!

Is the student currently learning at a rate that is accelerated when compared to the previous rate of skill acquisition?

Is there a regular schedule for co-planning to:

Connect classroom instruction to data-informed SMART goals?

Create a logical and organic sequence to integrate goal-acquisition in the inclusive setting (as appropriate)?

Provide appropriate scaffolding and support?

Analyze classroom data to drive instructional choices?


Choose an instructional strategy that meets the student’s needs and accelerates the rate of skill acquisition. Think BRIDGING gaps, as opposed to FILLING gaps, pre-teaching important concepts or vocabulary, using pre-assessments, etc.

What the instructor does that specifically meets a need (e.g., targeted direct instruction, visual strategies, fluency strategies, self-regulation strategies, and more) paired with accommodations and/or modifications (e.g., extended time, graphic organizers, manipulatives).

* Stephanie Lambrecht served as the Executive Director of Special Programs in King and Queen County and is currently the Specialty Center Specialist for Henrico County Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Marshall University.

Additional Resources

CEEDAR Center. Using the HLP videos to activate implementation.

Council for Exceptional Children. Data-based individualization

IRIS Center, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. (2023). High leverage practices.

IRIS Center, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. (2023). What is included in the IEP document? Individualized services & supports.

Progress Center, American Institutes for Research. (2023). Leveraging data-based individualization (DBI) to design and deliver specially designed instruction (SDI).

TTAC Online. (2017). SDI (Specially Designed Instruction) resources for co-teachers.


Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).

Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. (2020). K-12 special education in Virginia.

Virginia Department of Education. (2023). Enrollment and demographics. Fall membership.

Facebook  Twitter