UDL in Special Education

Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning to anchor a strategy for collaboration in special and general education.

Topics: Special Education

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework developed by CAST to switch the focus from “fixing” students so they can be successful in the curriculum to fixing the curriculum so that it’s accessible to more students at the outset. The UDL framework helps students become learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-oriented through three primary principles:

  • Multiple means of engagement (how students are motivated to learn);
  • Multiple means of representation (how information is provided with the content); and
  • Multiple means of action and expression (how students show what they know).

Principals can use UDL as an anchor philosophy for teaching and learning to support diverse student success in an ever-changing educational environment. When thinking about a schoolwide approach for UDL, principals will want to consider professional development (PD), collaboration, and inclusion. How can principals encourage the use of UDL schoolwide?

Provide extensive professional development in UDL for teachers and administrators. When reviewing research on the implementation of UDL, Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Monica Grillo found that a positive attitude toward UDL, driven by appropriate district-or buildingwide training in an inclusive school culture, is one of the most significant factors in sustaining implementation. Inclusive school culture features training for special education and general education teachers, with the outcome of collaboration and shared responsibility.

Administrators also need to be well-trained in UDL. Such training is not always part of administrative programs, so principals might need to participate fully in training provided to teachers. When administrators become knowledgeable about UDL, according to 2015’s “Job Design: An Administrator’s Guide to Supporting and Retaining Special Educators,” it shows respect for the information and the implementation.

Use UDL principles in professional development. It is imperative for administrators and instructional leaders to “walk the talk” in implementing UDL. Providing professional development on UDL in a standardized, one-size-fits-all format is incongruous with what is expected from teachers, for example. If teachers are expected to provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression in the planning and delivery of instruction, then the PD provided to them should do the same.

Modeling within PD is an excellent way to show the principles of UDL in action. Start by offering multiple options for teachers to interact with the content. Books, podcasts, videos, and discussion groups offer choices that align with personal preferences and offer variety in learning. Allow for feedback through multiple methods such as online surveys, exit questionnaires, team and one-on-one meetings, and journaling.

Think about how you can stimulate engagement with the content. Allow teachers to work in groups or on their own. Hold up and spotlight the differences in how teachers implement UDL practices. Provide regular check-ins and encouragement.

Encourage UDL as a collaborative model. Special educators are often spread thin, and models for successful collaboration, such as co-teaching, are resource-​intensive and often unrealistic to expect in traditional schools. UDL offers a framework for successful collaboration between general and special education teachers that benefits all students. General education teachers and special education teachers can work through a process in which they look at the instruction and materials used together to identify barriers and solutions that can be deployed even when the special education teacher is out of the classroom.

UDL can also elevate a co-teaching situation. In “Universal Design for Learning: A Collaborative Framework for Designing Inclusive Curriculum,” Xiuwen Wu describes general and special education teachers as principals’ “copilots” in using UDL guidelines to collaboratively design the curriculum by anticipating and removing barriers.

Many times, co-teaching forces the special educator into the role of assistant, but this can change with the implementation of UDL and a variety of teaching and learning formats. Principals can lead a schoolwide effort to implement UDL as a means for designing and delivering instruction that meets the needs of all learners while increasing the effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities, but they must support the arrangement of the time required for planning.

Support UDL as a means for inclusion. One of the benefits of UDL is that it allows teachers to design and deliver instruction to meet the needs of all learners. UDL is best described as a “framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” CAST says. Teachers can use UDL to design instruction that provides special education students with what they need and at the same time benefits all learners. UDL capitalizes on the concept that what is good for some is good for all.

As UDL becomes more widespread, the lines between what’s required as support for special education students and instructional technology for all have blurred. Some of the tools we once used only to provide accommodations and modifications are the same tools we can use with all students under the umbrella of UDL. Think of it as an overlapping continuum: A student receiving special education services might have access to required assistive technology included in their individualized education plan (IEP), but the same tools can be used within UDL for all students.

For example, a student with an IEP might require the use of voice-to-text technologies to complete assignments, but within UDL’s principle of multiple means of representation, the same option can be provided to all students. Or, a student might have the option to dictate responses through an IEP accommodation, and the teacher might allow all students to use the same format by creating a video answer, perhaps providing some students with added motivation.

In this way, the UDL framework increases opportunities to introduce inclusive practices. Teachers can plan for multiple means before the lesson instead of after, and students will see their peers accessing the curriculum and demonstrating knowledge in a variety of ways.

Differentiation is also included in that overlapping continuum, but it is important to know how UDL differs from differentiation. Both focus on changing the learning environment instead of changing the student, but UDL is preplanning on a macro level, without specific students in mind. UDL also leads students to make choices and become experts in their own learning. Differentiation is planning on a micro level: Teachers design instruction with specific students in mind, and the emphasis is not on student choice. Both are necessary and complementary, but using UDL first will often lessen the time needed to create differentiation.

When principals embed UDL into a schoolwide approach, its benefits are evident for teachers and students alike. UDL allows principals to design and deliver professional learning that follows the principles of UDL and allows for multiple means of engagement, representation, and action. It also ensures increased productivity through collaboration and increased inclusive practices that benefit all students.

Kiersten Hensley is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Sally Huddle is assistant principal of Mount Garfield Middle School in Clifton, Colorado.