Universal Design for Learning: Removing Barriers and Planning for All Kinds of Minds

irstAs an inclusion teacher, I have developed a sort of elevator pitch/soapbox story for why I do what I do. It goes like this: students who struggle with basic skills are often left struggling and denied access to grade-level curriculum and higher-level thinking. Unfortunately, these are the academic arenas in which they can not only survive but would probably thrive if given the proper supports. I think this is especially true for those with learning and attention issues, but I’ve seen this happen for many students across many settings. 

One reason I believe this happens is a confusion between Differentiated Instruction vs. Universal Design for Learning (UdL). Both are important, but they are not synonymous. As I develop my practice, I tend to lean on UdL principles when designing lesson plans. I would rather devise access points for all of my students to reach a common understanding, big idea, or experience, rather than pinpoint three or so levels of achievement for any given topic. In my classroom, more often than not, differentiation happens when we are working on specific skills, but UdL happens when it comes to “what we are learning about” in my classroom.

For instance, we are currently studying fairy tales. We spent all week reading different versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, and will do the same for another week. I do not think it is my place to determine how much any child can “understand” this story. However, I do know the interests, behaviors, and skill level of my students, so I developed several access points for understanding. All week, we listened to, acted out, and watched the story. We used puppets and props. We had art materials available and we planted beans. We made parachutes out of recycled materials for Jack to use when jumping down from the beanstalk. We estimated, counted, sorted, and patterned beans. We build castles out of blocks.Of course, I knew which child could continue an ABC or AAB vs an AB pattern, or who could 1:1 count to 40 vs. 20, and I provided opportunities for children to work on their own level (differentiation). However, I provided these opportunities as access points within a limitless context for understanding (UdL).

Technology is another way teachers can provide multiple means of access. Below, I’ve shared an example of a short “podcast” I recorded of myself retelling The Three Billy Goats Gruff. By recording myself rather than providing a text, I have made this material accessible to most of the students in my class. I recorded this podcast directly in to Soundcloud and it was easy! I did this in an evening. Of course, my intention is to provide another material for my students to listen to with their families. Podcasts are even better than audio books because as you’ll hear, I was able to interject questions that mirror the scaffolded questions I’ve been asking in our circle times. This easily involves families and helps empower them to be partners in this learning. Not every question is intended for every student (differentiation), but every student in my class can access the story (UdL).

(I do not have children with hearing impairments in my classroom- so I think it’s important to own the limitation of this format. Next week, I will try out a screencast and see if that can be even more accessible).

I truly believe inclusion benefits all students, and this is a prime example. All students benefit from creative lessons and individualized instruction. Inclusion is not about access to the general education classroom (that’s a common misunderstanding- inclusion is not a place!) Inclusion is about believing that all children have the right to learn alongside their peers and to have their individual needs considered in order to access the grade-level curriculum. When creating your inclusion toolbox, be sure to fill it with plenty of UdL strategies.





Don’t Limit Us


The point of inclusive schooling is to prepare students for a more inclusive society. Megology.com, a small business founded and run by Megan Bomgaars, exemplifies what can happen when inclusion is the goal.

I recently came across this article from September on Edweek.org: Studies Flag Potential Downside to Inclusion, By Carmen Constantinescu & Christina A. Samuels. As an advocate for inclusion, I am always trying to stay aware of the opposing viewpoints out there. I respect that not everyone has the same ideologies and philosophies, and I think discourse is a path that has and will continue to make our education system better. So, I decided to see what this article is really all about. Additionally, this article is not an opinion piece and has ties to research, so I wanted to see what sort of data support this headline.

That being said, I actually find this article quite hopeful. Although the piece lead with this:

In looking at a nationally representative sample of students, researchers have found that the young children who shared a classroom with pupils who have emotional and behavioral disabilities had more absences, lower math and reading scores in kindergarten and 1st grade, and were more likely to act out in the classroom or struggle with social skills.

The article then rounds itself out, quoting one of the biggest researchers in the field, Michael A. Gottfried, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, saying:

Gottfried cautioned that the results are preliminary, and that future research should dig deeper into the issue, looking at factors such as the severity of a child’s disability, the backgrounds of students both with and without disabilities, the level of support available for teachers, and how inclusion is actually being implemented.

If policymakers and school officials just focus on exclusion, he said, “I think that readers are missing the point. The point is, here is a situation that we have and what systems of supports can improve outcomes for everyone?”

I appreciate this idea. Anyone who has ever taught a student with emotional and behavioral disabilities will know that you want to be flexible in the educational program for the child, and you want to provide the most options you possibly can.

One very striking part of this article comes from a different researcher, Jason Fletcher, who talked about negative “spillover effects” of educating students with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers.

Fletcher found that the negative spillover effects were more “robust and larger for reading” and had more of an impact on African-American and Hispanic nondisabled students in low-income schools. Fletcher also reported that score gaps between Hispanic and white students were larger at the end of the school year in classrooms with students with emotional or behavioral disabilities than they were in demographically similar classrooms without such students. The same pattern held for the gaps between white and black students.

To me, this seems to point to a  much larger problem with schools generally struggling to meet the needs of many marginalized populations, not just students with disabilities, and that pointing to inclusion as a negative practice seems counter productive to Gottfried’s point of creating a system that can “improve outcomes for everyone.”  In an ideal world, we would be providing access and equity to all of our students, not perceiving that one group is being prioritized over another.

In the end, as the article speaks to, the problem may very well lie not in this idea of inclusion-which by the way is a philosophy and a practice but not a specific place or classroom-but rather with teacher preparation. As the article states, many teachers feel underprepared to take on the many different needs that will inevitably show up in any classroom, but especially an inclusive one. I think Megan Bomgaars says it best herself of what all students need from their teachers.