Pivot to In-Person Instruction

PI #4: Providing Specially Designed Instruction with Considerations from Distance Learning

TIES Center, Pivot to In-Person Instruction.

To support educators who are returning to in-person instruction this school year we are refreshing selected articles from the Distance Learning (DL) series. Refreshed articles will be identified as Pivot to In-Person Instruction (PI) articles. This article is a refresh of DL #3 Effective Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) Within the Distance Learning Environment: What in the World Does That Look Like?  It is intended to support the instruction of students as schools pivot from distance learning to in-person instruction, possibly more than one time. We learned many things during distance learning that should be considered as we move ahead. There are also new nuances that need to be considered as students return to school, particularly if schools switch between in-person and distance learning again. 

Returning to in-person instruction? Pause and think! 

What has been working during distance learning? What do we need to remember and expand upon now that students are returning to the school building? 

Things to consider:

  • We learned a lot about working with students with significant disabilities in the past year and a half. Many of the students really surprised us with how well they did. 
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is important for students with Individualized Education Plans to make progress or they would not need  an IEP.
  • All students are accessing and engaging in the general education curriculum, though to what level of performance might differ.
  • Pivoting among online, hybrid, and in-person SDI might feel overwhelming, but with thoughtful supports and communication we can continue to provide relatively seamless instruction to students with significant disabilities to meet their IEP and curriculum goals.

Educators are better able to maintain effective instruction if general and special educators and related service providers collaborate whenever providing instruction. Below are lessons learned and adapted from best practice and what we learned during distance and hybrid learning.

Meaningful Individualized Education Program (IEP) Goals 

The 5C Process was written to help move between school and home learning. One of the biggest ideas shared is that what students need to learn doesn’t change, only where students learn. 

The past year and a half has made many educators and families consider IEP goals differently. How do we create IEP goals that support students being with their general education peers for learning and social activities? How can we teach students in a way that helps them see the connection between academics and the real world? There are many ways to do it. Let’s get started with some basics.

IEP processes and goals 

  • Think about what you know about your student. The past year and a half has demonstrated the power of relationships. Collaborate across grade-levels to be introduced to the student in a meaningful way. One district we work with is using communication passports to accomplish this goal. These are short introductions to a student that often include a picture of the student, their likes and dislikes, how they communicate and ways to best support the student’s learning in class. 
  • Review the IEP goals. Do they make sense within general education classes, activities, and routines? If not, how important is that skill/concept? Are there natural times it can be embedded in the students’ day? 
  • Consider how your student communicates. How has that been embedded throughout every aspect of the student's day? Do the student’s peers know how to use that communication system so they can truly create relationships with the student? 
  • Are there additional instructional activities that align with or provide access to the general education content and lesson, such as scaffolded instruction and providing background knowledge that would support this student’s learning?
  • Is it possible to pre-teach 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? 

Collaborative Teaching Roles and Responsibilities 

  • All members of the education team, especially the general and special educators, should have a set time to meet to plan. 
  • When the whole class is getting information from a teacher, share it in multiple formats so each and every student is a part of that learning.
  • Most students will raise their hands, talk, or nonverbally signal an adult when they have private questions or need additional instruction or feedback in the moment. Teach this skill and have a plan for responding to each student’s way of asking questions. 
  • 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. The general and special educators could each facilitate a group, while one group works independently with check-ins from teachers or another adult. 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 addition to the general lesson they had with the whole class or small group. The general or special educator can follow up with individuals during transitions, independent work times, flex times in a school schedule, or other routine times of the day 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 aided language modeling and/or visual reminders during whole group instruction. These should be minimal and only when necessary. We want students to know the teacher is the one providing the information. 
  • Some educators might want to continue providing an introductory lesson using a recorded Powerpoint, Flipgrid or other means of asynchronous instruction. That is great! SDI could be provided through “Office hours” where students stop by the teachers’ physical or virtual room to receive supplemental instruction or feedback. Or, the student might complete this supplemental online pre-teach/ reteach work with the support of a peer or paraprofessional.

Basic SDI Strategies 

There are some effective SDI strategies that are flexible. These strategies could be implemented by general or special educators, paraprofessionals, or even without adult support:

  • Provide scaffolded written directions or picture supports to prompt the student on specific skills within the lesson.
  • Add additional materials to the general education lessons or embedded instruction that allows for the use of symbol systems (for example, 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 (for example, five finger breathing, knuckle compressions or chair pushes) and have the student practice. 
  • Provide additional instructional activities that align with the general education content and lesson. However, provide scaffolded instruction or background knowledge needed to complete the assignments assigned to all of the students even though the end results might look different.

Big Ideas of Data Collection and SDI 

Data collection is a huge part of SDI. We can use data to help the student grow as a learner, show progress, and communicate with families and other team members.

  • The special and general educator as well as paraprofessionals, should be collecting data on the amount and type of SDI provided and student progress on IEP goals and the age-grade level general education standards. 
  • Data can be collected within the general education classes, activities, and routines. They can also be collected through online work and quizzes for some of the IEP goals, and as observation, work samples, and explicit questioning or practice for others. 
  • Data might also include some self-reporting from students (for example, a tally sheet of how many times the student practiced five finger breathing). What a great way to build a self-determined learner!
  • Build on those relationships that got us through online instruction. In some cases, families might be able to support data collection through picture or video taking (shared through an encrypted service), collecting work samples, or noting frequency of behaviors getting off the bus or other natural settings. 

If the only way to collect data is through pull-out mass trials of a discrete skill, the IEP team might want to consider if that is a priority IEP goal? If the only time a student does a skill is when they are isolated and one-on-one, how useful is that skill in the real world? 


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

  • Meaningful IEP goals are the best IEP goals.
  • Work together. It is more effective for your students with significant cognitive disabilities and offers you an opportunity to problem solve with your colleagues. 
  • Provide SDI within the context of general education classes, activities, and routines

Data collection is part of SDI. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Educators are amazing. You are amazing. 

Remember to breathe. You’ve got this.

Pivot to In-Person Instruction Series

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

  • Taub, D. (2022). PI #4: Providing Specially Designed Instruction with Considerations from Distance Learning. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

This overview was posted previously as a part of the Distance Learning Series, DL #3: Effective Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) Within the Distance Learning Environment: What in the World Does That Look Like? Content has been adapted by the author(s) for application to in-person instruction as well as distance learning.

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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