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Describing Specially Designed Instruction, Related Services, Supplementary Aids and Services, and Program Modifications in the IEP

By Dale Pennell, C.A.S. 
May/June 2013 

Once IEP teams have determined the annual goals and objectives for a student, they must describe the special education services, including specially designed instruction, related services, supplementary aids and services, program modifications, and supports for school personnel these students will receive in order to achieve these goals and objectives. Each component is defined below.

  • Specially designed instruction is instruction that research suggests will effectively meet the needs of students with disabilities (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act [IDEIA] of 2004).  Such instruction adapts instructional content, teaching and learning methodology, formative and summative assessment, and/or educational environments to match students’ instructional levels and functional needs (Gleckel & Koretz, 2008). This portion of the IEP briefly describes the explicit instruction students will receive, including “guidelines for approaches, materials, and arrangements to introduce isolated skills and strategies, teach them in authentic context(s), and coordinate them with related skill clusters simultaneously” (Gleckel & Koretz, 2008, p. 214).
  • Supplementary aids and services describe supports that are provided in general education classes, other education-related settings, and extracurricular and nonacademic settings to enable children with disabilities to be educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate (IDEIA, 2004). As the term suggests, these supports are supplemental, that is, they are not required for all students. Examples include instructional technology, assistive technology, and paraprofessional support.
  • Program modifications are adjustments school personnel make to the educational program children receive. Such modifications include considerations such as length of school day, length of school year, time of day students take certain courses, and adjustments to course and/or diploma requirements that enable students to remain in the general education curriculum and graduate with regular diplomas.
  • Supports for school personnel describe activities and resources that will help school personnel work more effectively with a student to meet each his or her unique and specific needs. Examples of such supports include a related service provider’s attendance at a professional development event, consultative assistance for a paraprofessional, or an instructional technology not otherwise available to a teacher.

The intent of these IEP components is to enable students with disabilities to:

  1. Make progress toward achieving their annual goals;
  2. Receive and make progress in the general education curriculum;
  3. Receive their education and participate in these other activities with non-disabled peers, as well as with other students with disabilities

                                                                                                              (IDEIA, 2004)

IEP teams may wish to consider the following questions as they seek to develop students’ educational plans:

  • What evidence- or research- based instructional strategies will help students make sense of important academic and functional skills and concepts? 
  • What related services will support students’ acquisition of these skills and concepts?
  • What supplementary aids and services will facilitate students’ mastery of these skills and concepts?
  • What modifications will enable students to achieve these skills and concepts?
  • What supports do educators need to be able to assist students’ efforts to acquire these skills and concepts? 

IDEA does not specify the location or format in which these descriptive statements must be written; in Virginia, local education agencies make these decisions. The following narratives illustrate IEP team efforts to design programs to meet the unique needs of each student. 

Illustration: Marketa

(Marketa has a disability that impacts word knowledge. As a result, her IEP includes an annual goal that addresses vocabulary development.)

Marketa’s special education and language arts teachers will collaborate to explicitly teach Marketa how to select vocabulary that she must learn because it is critical to academic achievement. They will also teach Marketa the evidence-based vocabulary acquisition strategies listed on the chart below, as well as the purposes for selecting specific strategies (specially designed instruction). Marketa will use a copy of this chart (supplementary aid) to select appropriate strategies for learning new vocabulary. Marketa will practice these strategies independently and in cooperative learning environments, since she finds competitive learning activities stressful and unproductive (program modifications).

Marketa’s Specially Designed Plan for Vocabulary Instruction 

Four Square Map
Frayer Model

Vocabulary Self Selection Strategy

Compare/ Contrast Chart
Venn Diagram

Semantic Feature Analysis

Compare/contrast two or more concepts in depth





Know the defining features and non-features of one concept in depth





Develop a deep and elaborate understanding of  one word or  concept





Differentiate shades of meaning among related words





Organize related concepts by main ideas, subtopics, and details





 Summarize and connect related concepts





(Adapted from Flanigan, Hayes, Templeton, Bear, Invernizzi, & Johnson, 2011, pp. 212-213.)

Illustration: Sean

(Sean has a disability that impacts his verbal communication. As a result, his IEP includes an annual goal that addresses use of his augmentative communication device across school environments.)

The speech/language therapist (related service) will download and show Sean how to use new material (supplementary services) as she adds it to his augmentative communication device (supplementary aid). She will also instruct Sean’s teachers, bus driver, school nurse, office personnel, and cafeteria cashiers in how to encourage Sean to communicate with them using this device (supports for school personnel). When Sean’s teachers require Sean’s classmates to make oral presentations, Sean will submit written reports or use text-to-speech assistive technology instead (program modification). 

Developing meaningful IEPs is a complex process that requires team members to understand students as learners and commit themselves to the ongoing process of assessing, addressing, and refining educational programming in a manner that meets both the intent and the requirements of IDEA.


Gleckel, E. K., & Koretz, E. S. (2008). Collaborative individualized education process. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Flanigan, K., Hayes, L., Templeton, S., Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M. R., & Johnson, F. R. (2011). Words their way with struggling readers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. §300.320. (2004). Retrieved from