Understanding Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in Special Education

Specially designed instruction, better known as SDI, is crucial for a student’s individualized education program (IEP). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs how students in special education achieve academic goals. A description of a child’s SDI is a key aspect of how those goals will be accomplished. 

The best part about SDI is that it’s unique to each student based on their learning differences. It ensures that each child is placed in the least restrictive learning environment and gives them access to the general education curriculum. So even if your child is getting SDI, they can still meet the academic standards that apply to other students. 

If you’re a parent or teacher who has questions about SDI, this guide is perfect for you! I’ve included an in-depth description of SDI, including detailed information on who provides it, how it gets delivered, and examples. This guide also compares SDI to other common terms within the scope of special education, clarifying the similarities and differences of everything.

Everything You Need To Know About Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in Special Education

All of your questions and concerns about specially designed instruction in special education will be addressed in the following sections:

  • What Is Specially Designed Instruction?
  • Key Features of SDI
  • Differences Between SDI and Core Instruction
  • Who Provides SDI and How Is It Delivered?
  • SDI vs. Accommodations and Modifications

What Is Specially Designed Instruction?

Specially designed instruction aims to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities or learning disorders. It gives students access to the general education classroom, allowing them to meet the same educational standards as their non-disabled classmates. This also ensures that progress is made towards the student’s IEP objectives and goals.

SDI refers to the strategies and methods used by educators who provide instruction to students in special education. With SDI, educators can identify and address any instructional learning gaps for eligible students. 

How is this achieved?

There are three core elements of SDI that need to be taken into consideration—content, methodology, and delivery. SDI means that these elements will be adapted, as appropriate, to address the unique needs of a student and their disability.  

Let’s take a closer look at these key elements:


Content refers to the knowledge or skills that are taught to the student. More specifically, it refers to the content being taught by grade and curriculum within a school or district. An adaptation here means that the knowledge or skills will differ from what’s being taught to the student’s peers in the same class. But they’ll still be working towards the same academic standards.

For example, a child with an IEP may be trying to improve the number of words they can spell correctly. Other students in the class may be working on writing complete sentences or short paragraphs.


The methodology aspect of SDI means that different instructional techniques and strategies will be used to teach the students based on their IEP.

For example, the Orton-Gillingham approach is used to help students who struggle to learn to read and write. This method wouldn’t be used to teach every student in the classroom how to read, but it can work well for some specific learning challenges. 


Delivery defines the exact way in which the instruction is given to the student. It must be explicit, systematic, and leverage high-level instructional strategies. 

An example of adapted delivery would be giving the student one-on-one instruction either before, during, or after the instructions were given to the entire class. 

Key Features of SDI

To provide more clarity on specially designed education and how it works, I want to quickly highlight some of the key features. This will make it easier for you to understand:

  • SDI is planned, organized and meaningful based on the child’s unique needs
  • Instructions are delivered in an intentional, explicit, and systematic way
  • SDI can be offered in any location, including multiple settings throughout the school day
  • The SDI must be consistent with the IEP and ensure the student is placed in the least restrictive environment
  • The instruction will directly address the ambitious goals and objectives in the student’s IEP
  • SDI should close learning gaps and ensure every student can achieve common grade-level academic standards
  • SDI is specific to an individual student and doesn’t adapt learning or teaching methods to everyone else in the classroom
  • SDI can be used to address behavioral needs, communication needs, academic needs, health needs, and more
  • SDI does not lower expectations or learning standards for the child
  • SDI must be closely monitored to ensure the desired results are being achieved

Differences Between SDI and Core Instruction

Core instruction refers to the way educators teach students based on the general curriculum. It doesn’t account for any disabilities, learning disorders, or students who need a little extra support.

Before we talk about the differences between SDI and core instruction, I want to quickly address the similarities between the two.

Both SDI and core instruction are aligned to set standards and expectations for all students. Like core instruction, SDI can be delivered in the general education classroom setting and can also be implemented with general education teaching strategies. General education assessments, like progress monitoring, are also used for SDI.

Here are some of the key differences between SDI and core instruction:

  • SDI is specific to each student. Core instruction is designed for an entire class.
  • Eligibility for SDI is guaranteed by IDEA as part of a student’s IEP.
  • SDI must be delivered by a special education teacher or a similar qualified professional. 
  • Students eligible for SDI might also receive testing accommodations.
  • SDI might be delivered in a location outside of the general education classroom.

It’s worth noting that even though there are differences between SDI and core education, SDI is still designed to help a student progress in the general education curriculum. 

Who Provides SDI and How Is It Delivered?

This is one of the most significant parts of SDI. As mentioned above, SDI must be delivered by a special education professional or qualified service provider. 

General education teachers can work collaboratively with special education service providers to help with SDI. But a general education teacher wouldn’t just provide SDI on their own without support from a qualified professional. 

Special education teachers and general education teachers can work together to provide SDI through practices like Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) and Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS).

Paraprofessionals are allowed to provide SDI. But this is only true if a certified special education instructor creates the SDI and provides supervision to the para. 

SDI is delivered in a way that’s highly structured. This process includes frequent monitoring and progress updates. Monitoring the instruction for its effectiveness is a key part of SDI. In many cases, the way instruction is delivered could change over time. 

The monitoring involves things like individual student assessment data, benchmarking data, and formative assessments. 

IEPs are reviewed at least once per school year. So parents, teachers, special education professionals, paraprofessionals, therapists, and everyone else on the IEP team can determine whether or not the individualized instruction is working for the child. The team can make any necessary adjustments to decide if the child needs more special instruction, less special instruction, or different types of special instruction than they did previously. 

SDI vs. Accommodations and Modifications

While the terms are similar and often confused with each other, SDI is not the same as an accommodation or modification. Accommodations and modifications might be part of SDI, but the words are not interchangeable. 

Here’s a quick definition of these terms so you can understand what I’m talking about:

  • Accommodations — Changes the way a student learns the same material as his/her peers (like a braille textbook as opposed to a traditional textbook).
  • Modifications — Changes the content of what the student is expected to learn or demonstrate (like taking an easier quiz than the rest of the class or doing an alternate assignment instead of taking a quiz).

In short, accommodations and modifications are not considered SDI. But teaching the student how to use an accommodation or modifying the content they’re taught would both fall into the SDI category.

SDI refers to the actual instruction and the adaptation of those instructions (which could include accommodation or modification). Accommodations and modifications could be applied without a special education teacher. But SDI must be delivered by a qualified special education professional. 


Specially designed instruction is not a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. The instruction plans are tailored to meet the unique needs of a student based on their disability or learning disorder defined in an IEP.

SDI is similar to core instruction in the sense that it can be applied in the general classroom setting, and it helps students progress towards the standard curriculum. But one key difference is the fact that SDI must be delivered by a special education teacher or at least under the supervision of a special education professional.

I hope that this guide answered all of your questions about SDI in special education! It’s really important for parents and teachers alike to have a firm grasp on this topic, as it’s a crucial part of special education and the way children develop in the school system.

Let me know if you have any questions! Comment below or feel free to send me an email! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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