Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #3: Effective Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) Within the Distance Learning Environment: What in the World Does That Look Like?

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

While the federal government, lawyers, and advocacy organizations debate whether or not the rights and responsibilities detailed in IDEA should be fully in place during a pandemic, those of us working with school teams are trying to meet the needs of students and staff to the best of our ability. This brings up a lot of questions:

  1. What does Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) for students with disabilities, especially for students with significant cognitive disabilities, look like over distance learning? 
  2. Data collection? Are people kidding here!? How would you collect data with students who require extensive support? 
  3. Does this mean general and special educators should return to their respective corners and work alone again rather than collaborating and supporting inclusion?

Although TIES Center is working through these same questions and is eager to hear how others are addressing these issues, this post is the beginning of delving into this topic. Let’s start the discussion with the last question.

There is lots of research and personal experience demonstrating the benefits of inclusive practices for all students, including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities. While it may be tempting to hole yourself off and work in isolation from other teachers, now is the time when we all need each other most. Because let’s face it, we have about 800 things we are trying to do at home to maintain some semblance of routine and mental health for ourselves and others. Having the shared goal of creating accessible lessons and materials for distance learning offers an opportunity to work with your peers and to use that creativity that often feels stifled in day to day routines of taking attendance, overseeing recess and hallway times, and trying to get that stupid copier to work. So, yes! Keep working with your general and special education colleagues, speech-language therapists, and anyone else who may have ideas for providing effective and engaging distance learning for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. 

What Is SDI?

Now that we have that question settled, let’s start to talk about SDI and what it might look like over distance learning.

Specially Designed Instruction, or SDI, is “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...” 34 CFR §300.39(b)(3).

SDI is 

  • Individually designed for a student who has an IEP
  • Designed to help a student make progress on grade-level standards and to narrow learning gaps
  • Supplemental to the general education instruction
  • Delivered through adapted content, instructional techniques, increased frequency of opportunities for feedback and practice, and increased intensity (how long it is taught). 
  • Provided by general and special educators
  • Inclusive of individually identified skills that help a student access the content (e.g., behavior goals)

Providing SDI through Distance Learning

Things to consider:

  • SDI is important for students with IEPs to make progress or they would not have an IEP.
  • If schools are providing instruction to some students, they have to assure access for all students.
  • Privacy issues, such as what happens if you only gather kids with IEPs into an online chat, come up because we cannot control who may be in the background of those conversations, who may or may not already know about someone else’s status as a student with an IEP, and focusing on small groups of students with IEPs opens the school up for potential privacy violations.

Given all of that, educators are better able to protect themselves and maintain effective instruction if general and special educators and related service providers collaborate whenever providing whole group distance learning or heterogeneous small groups if you are co-teaching an online class.

Potential Distance Learning Options

What would distance learning actually look like? There are many ways to do it. These basic ideas will be addressed in more detail in other TIES Center’s distance learning resources, but let’s get started with some basics.

High Tech Options: 

  • When general and special educators have a set time to meet with the whole class and present information, explain an activity, answer questions and engage all students.
  • Most students will use the chat area of the distance learning platform to ask teachers private questions or receive additional instruction or feedback in the moment.
  • Some students will need a smaller group experience after the whole group instruction, which could be provided by breaking the class into two or three smaller groups. Each of the educators could facilitate a group, while one group works independently with check-ins from teachers. Remember both general and special educators are able to provide SDI. Keep these groups flexible for each week or activity.
  • A few students will need more intensive support, in which case, the general or special educator can follow up with individuals to provide the SDI needed. 
  • The special education teacher can direct a paraeducator on specific instructional strategies, prompts, or modeling that can be used. The paraeducator could provide this support through chat boxes or visual reminders during whole group instruction to support the student with the most significant disabilities. For example, within a shared online document, the paraprofessional could use chat to implement a behavioral reminder of paying attention. 
  • When general and special educators provide an introductory lesson using a recorded Powerpoint, Flipgrid or other means of asynchronous instruction, SDI could be provided through.
  • “Office hours” where students reach either teacher by phone, email, or a live chat to receive supplemental instruction or feedback.
  • Additional instructional activities that align with or provide access to the general education content and lesson, such as scaffolded instruction and providing background knowledge.
  • Pre-teaching of a skill, concept, or how to use a support or strategy, such as a graphic organizer, before the whole class has the lesson or the student with the IEP is expected to engage with the lesson.

Low Tech Options

Is it possible to provide SDI in a low/no-tech way through distance learning? Yes, though it requires you know your students well enough to anticipate their needs since you will not be available in the moment to provide support.  

  • Using the packet for the general education class, provide scaffolded written directions or picture supports to prompt the student on specific skills.
  • Add additional materials to the general education packets that allow for the use of symbol systems (e.g., Boardmaker and other comparable tools), tactile supports, or direct instruction on how to use the associated graphic organizers, materials, or prompts.
  • Provide written instructions on how to use a calming strategy (e.g., five finger breathing) and have the student practice. 
  • Provide additional instructional activities in the packet that align with the general education content and lesson, but provide scaffolded instruction or background knowledge needed to complete the assignments assigned to all of the students.

How do you collect data? 

Data collection is a challenge when you are not with the student during the instruction.  This topic requires additional attention, but for right now, we will focus on the big ideas. 

  • Yes, you should be collecting data--at the very least about the amount and types of SDI you are providing
  • Data can be collected through online work and quizzes for some of the IEP goals
  • Data may also need to include some self-reporting from students (e.g., a tally sheet of how many times the student practiced five finger breathing)
  • Data for some things may only be possible when you are synchronously working with students online
  • In some cases, families may be able to support data collection through picture or video taking (shared through an encrypted service), work samples, or noting frequency of behaviors

Remember, without data we have no idea where students are and are not succeeding.


These are just some initial considerations and ideas, but they address some of the big questions in the field right now: 

  • Work together. It is more effective for your students with significant cognitive disabilities and offers you an opportunity to problem solve with your colleagues. 
  • Providing SDI is possible in high and low tech ways
  • Data collection may look different

Educators are amazing. You are amazing. Remember to breathe.

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #3, April, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Taub, D. (2020). Effectively specially designed instruction (SDI) within the distance learning environment: What in the world does that look like? (DL #3). TIES Center. 

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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