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Specially Designed Instruction

Specially Designed Instruction, or SDIs, is actually one of my favorite things to talk about when it comes to IEPs. The name itself turns people off, I mean, it’s a weird phrase. But it’s so super important. And, I can’t even tell you how many IEPs that I encounter that have NO actual specially designed instruction on them. But more on that in a bit.

Specially Designed Instruction is your child’s special education. It should define, specifically, what targeted interventions or instruction that your child is receiving, to help them access and benefit from their education.

chart explaining specially designed instruction
Lather, rinse, repeat. You can’t have one without the other.

If your child has an IEP, they are receiving Special Education or Specially Designed Instruction. To receive Specially Designed Instruction or Special Education, you must have an IEP.

Do you have to have Specially Designed Instruction on an IEP?

Yes! But soooo often, I see IEPs that only have accommodations listed under this section. Unless you know the difference between accommodations, modifications and interventions (specially designed instruction) it can happen.

The best thing you can do as a parent is educate yourself and stay involved in the entire IEP process. Because, accommodations do not teach. If a child only has accommodations, then they really should only require a 504 plan.

If a child requires specific, targeted instruction to meet their individual (I in IEP!) needs, then that is special education.

An SDI is anything specific and unique to your child. Your child’s specially designed instruction is determined by their areas of need, to help them access their education. It is based on the evaluations done on your child, to determine their areas of need.

I just love what IDEA has to say about SDI. Note, bold is mine!

Specially Designed Instruction in IDEA


(a) General.

(1) Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including—(i) Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and(ii) Instruction in physical education.

(2) Special education includes each of the following, if the services otherwise meet the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of this section—(i) Speech-language pathology services, or any other related service, if the service is considered special education rather than a related service under State standards;(ii) Travel training; and(iii) Vocational education.(b) 

Individual special education terms defined.

The terms in this definition are defined as follows:

(1) At no cost means that all specially-designed instruction is provided without charge, but does not preclude incidental fees that are normally charged to nondisabled students or their parents as a part of the regular education program.

(2) Physical education means—(i) The development of—(A) Physical and motor fitness;(B) Fundamental motor skills and patterns; and(C) Skills in aquatics, dance, and individual and group games and sports (including intramural and lifetime sports); and(ii) Includes special physical education, adapted physical education, movement education, and motor development.

(3) 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.

(and then it goes on to explain travel training and some of the other stuff)


Can you name specific programs as an SDI on an IEP?

Yes! I am soooo sick of hearing “well, we can’t put Wilson on an IEP.” WHY NOT? Please show me where in IDEA or any state regs that it says that! (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t.)

If the child is receiving it, list it on the IEP. Full stop.

Parents can only hold schools accountable to what is on the IEP. If they say Wilson in an IEP meeting, but don’t put it on the IEP…you have zero recourse if Wilson isn’t implemented with fidelity.

“Oh, we’re going to do it, we just don’t list it on the IEP.” Nope. If you’re doing it, list it. This would be a deal-breaker for me, depending on what the specific SDI is. Too many IEPs are not implemented fully and consistently, and too many kids are not being taught to read.

And remember, an IEP should pass a stranger test. That is, if your family moves across the country tomorrow. Of if your entire IEP team retires tomorrow, a new IEP team can just pick up that IEP document and be able to learn about your child and implement what they need with just that document.

SDI Specially Designed Instruction.

SDIs are used to help your child achieve the goals listed in the IEP. Most SDIs should be applied across all environments, not in just one class or classroom. They are adaptations or modifications to the regular curriculum. SDIs are in place to help your child reach their IEP goals and objectives.

Specially Designed Instruction and Homebound Placement

Another weird issue that I have encountered more than once is this whole homebound placement thing. Yeah, IDEA is pretty clear that specially designed instruction applies to homebound and hospital placement.

Instructional Strategies List

Please note: This list is just to provide some examples. Many of them overlap into IEP accommodations too.

For example, a visual schedule by itself is an accommodation. However, if the child is being taught to use it, and other students are not using visual schedules, then it is an SDI.

It’s also important to note that PT, OT, counseling and several other services are considered an IEP related service. But there may be overlap. Social skills instruction may be specific to your child’s needs, but being delivered by the OT or SLP. That should be noted, as well as what specific interventions they are going to use. Remember, a school cannot just throw together a recipe of whatever it feels like doing. The SDIs must be evidence based.

  1. Specific curricula for struggling readers, such as Wilson Reading or Lindamood Bell
  2. Social Skill curriculum such as Social Thinking
  3. Specific pullout instruction for preteaching, teaching, reteaching/repetition
  4. visual charts
  5. visual schedules
  6. graphic organizers with repetition or reteaching, preteaching
  7. choice cards-when teaching a child how to make choices or how to communicate preferences
  8. emotions cards to teach emotions-assuming this is an area of need and the rest of the class/grade is not being taught emotions
  9. yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques-to teach regulation
  10. use of a scribe or oral testing to open-ended or essay formats
  11. Provide a study guide with review and instruction
  12. Provide video/audio recordings-it’s an accommodation, but also teaching through repetition
  13. Develop a sensory diet-should accommodate sensory needs, but also teach regulation
  14. provide notes, outlines or organizers with key concepts or terms highlighted
  15. mnemonics
  16. APE-adaptive PE, there’s a curriculum called SPARK that makes PE accessible and inclusive

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