Specially Designed Instruction 101

Deiera Bennett

What is specially designed instruction?

Specially designed instruction (SDI) is systematic, purposefully planned instruction to meet an individual’s unique learning needs. Depending on the student’s disability or disorder, SDI can address academic, behavioral, communication, health, functional, and transition needs.

While all students receive core instruction, SDI meets the specific needs of learners who receive special education services. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools must provide an education in the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities. Learners should have access to the general education curriculum to the “maximum extent appropriate.” With SDI, accommodations, modifications, interventions, and supports work together to help students with disabilities achieve the same academic standards as their peers. As a result, although multiple learners in a class may receive SDI, their SDI could differ.

What is the goal of specially designed instruction?

The purpose of SDI is to give learners the instruction, resources, and support they need to achieve the goals outlined in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). SDI should be explicitly explained in the student’s IEP so the team is aware of the student’s unique needs and how to help them achieve their goals. SDI can be delivered in a general education classroom, a special education classroom, a pull‑out session, or in other settings, depending on the student’s needs.

Who is specially designed instruction for?

SDI is for students with learning differences requiring accommodations, modifications, interventions, and supports outside core instruction. To be eligible for SDI, a student must have an IEP and receive special education services.

Who designs SDI? Who delivers it?

Only qualified professionals, such as special education teachers and related service providers, should design SDI. These professionals have specialized training in the student’s area of need. They are often the case managers involved in the development of the student’s IEP.

All IEP team members contribute necessary information when planning SDI. Qualified professionals rely on feedback from parents, teachers, therapists, and other specialists to develop and adjust the SDI. Gaining a holistic view of the student’s strengths, needs, and areas of improvement is central to the development of SDI. General education teachers can also collaborate with qualified professionals to create SDI for their students.

Paraprofessionals and other team members can assist in delivering the SDI if under the supervision of a special education teacher or qualified professional. The qualified professional is ultimately responsible for ensuring the student receives the SDI as outlined in the IEP.

Specially designed instruction vs. differentiated instruction

On the surface, SDI sounds just like differentiated instruction. The two types of instruction are closely related, but there are three key differences.

  1. Differentiated instruction focuses on ensuring all students have opportunities to learn in ways that reflect their needs, interests, strengths, and learning styles. When teachers differentiate instruction, they tailor the content, vary the instructional strategies, and provide learners with options to demonstrate what they learned.”Œ

    On the other hand, SDI meets the unique needs of an individual student by adapting the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction.

  2. Differentiated instruction supports students’ success across subject areas and grade levels. With differentiation, teachers have a little more flexibility, so every unique learner receives the support they need to be successful.

    As required by law, SDI ensures every student who receives special education services is guaranteed to receive the individual support they need during every lesson.

  3. All teachers can design and deliver differentiated instruction, whereas only qualified special education professionals can design SDI.

How do qualified professionals design SDI?

Qualified professionals design SDI by adapting the content, methodology, and delivery to address the student’s unique learning needs.


Qualified professionals design SDI by adapting the content the student will learn. The adapted content allows the learner to work toward achieving the same grade‑level standards as their peers. Instruction is based on specific learning needs.

For example, when the entire class is working on combining letter sounds to form words, the student receiving SDI might be working in a small group to identify individual letters and letter sounds.


Another way qualified professionals create SDI is by adapting the methodology of instruction. Methodology refers to the specific instructional strategies, techniques, programs, and approaches used to assist the student with achieving the IEP goal. If the instructional strategy, technique, program, or approach is used with the entire class, it is not SDI. The methodology should reflect research and best practices for students with disabilities.

For example, if a learner’s disability impacts their reading comprehension, the teacher can provide them with assistance through instruction in the use of graphic organizers. The educator might begin with modeling the use of a graphic organizer to help a student organize their thoughts and summarize what they have read. Learning to use a graphic organizer will promote student independence while helping to improve reading comprehension.


Delivery of instruction refers to the tools, support, and resources needed to meet the learner’s individual needs.

For example, if the standard focuses on three‑digit addition, one option is to adapt the content and instruction by using one‑to‑one instruction. The focus would be placed on how to solve these addition problems using manipulatives. The student can then be encouraged to use the manipulatives when completing similar problems on their own during independent practice.

What resources support SDI?

Unique Learning System offers built‑in research‑ and evidence-based instructional methodologies that support specially designed instruction from pre‑K through transition. Its comprehensive lesson plans include systematic instructional practices, prompting hierarchy, modeling, and scaffolding. Teachers can quickly adjust their instruction according to each student’s unique needs, which is an important reason why students respond to it. Since teachers also gain more time to spend with their students, this boosts academic gains and IEP goal achievement.

From direct and explicit, teacher‑led instruction to effectively introducing, modeling, and reinforcing concepts, scaffolded instructional supports in Unique Learning System promote active student engagement. Its thematic units focus on standards‑aligned instruction and provide age‑appropriate materials. Plus, Unique Learning System includes easy‑to‑use progress monitoring tools and multiple assessments to ensure the effectiveness of the SDI.

Every aspect of Unique Learning System combines to empower teachers as they lead students with varied abilities and backgrounds to growth and independence!

About the Author

Deiera Bennett is a former educator with five years of experience teaching students in grades 6–12. While teaching, she enjoyed giving students with different abilities a safe place to explore technology and discover new interests.