16 Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning in Early Childhood Inclusive Classrooms[1]

Picture This: Universal Design for Learning in an Inclusive Preschool

Today Teresa Parker is planning to talk with the children in her class about different types of vehicles and their uses as a way to introduce new vocabulary and help the children make observations about and comparisons between objects.

It is circle time, and the preschool children in Ms. Teresa’s classroom are excited. Children begin to gather on the rug, pull out a pillow to sit on, or sit on their chairs to sing familiar songs together. During “Wheels on the Bus,” they use their homemade plastic egg shakers. They shake down low, up high, side to side, and around in a circle, responding to Ms. Teresa’s instructions and following her cues (moving her shaker in a circle and saying “wheels go round and round” before the verse begins). They read the story Away We Go! by Rebecca Kai Dotlich about different kinds of transportation vehicles.

Two children—Jason and Mylee—are seated on inflatable disc cushions. They use these cushions to help with stabilization, muscle control, and balance. The extra support helps them participate successfully in the group activity. Once the story is over, Ms. Teresa brings out a big brown “magic” bag and asks the children to guess what is inside. She shows a picture on the Smart Board of a firefighter driving a fire truck. “What does a firefighter drive?” she asks. Sari says, “Fire truck,” and Ms. Teresa takes a fire truck out of the magic bag and hands it to Sari to hold.

After each child is given a vehicle from the magic bag, Ms. Teresa and her assistant have the children take their vehicles to an area where they can race them down a variety of ramps and chutes that have been set up at different levels to allow the children to reach them if they are standing or seated. During this time, the children can also work in the writing area and the art area to write stories and make pictures of their cars and trucks. They can use markers, finger paints, glitter glue, or a computer program to make their picture.

Later in the day, the children will have an opportunity to dictate, draw, or use a computer program to share stories of trips in cars, buses, and airplanes. The computer program will prompt the children to choose items from a picture library and create a story about them that can be printed out. The children can click on each picture, and it will say the name of the object in the picture out loud.

The program, which can be used to record children’s speech and even a song they may want to sing or hum to accompany their drawings, accommodates the needs of Jamal, who has a speech delay; Asaam, who is learning English as a second language; and Hanna, who is visually impaired.

Why Universal Design for Learning?[2]

Young children have many different physical and learning needs. A growing number of these children are spending their days in programs similar to the one in the opening classroom scenario. Jason and Mylee have muscle development problems, Jamal has a speech delay, Asaam is just learning English, and Hanna is visually impaired. These five children are only a few of the children in the classroom. Each child has strengths and challenges; all children do.

How can the teachers hope to meet the needs of all these children? Many early childhood teachers have adopted the principles of universal design for learning (UDL), but others are feeling lost and overwhelmed. They need information and support. This brief Building Blocks article will outline some UDL basics in an attempt to address those feelings and provide access to tools that teachers can use to meet children’s needs in the classroom so that they can learn successfully.

The Building Inclusive Child Care website states that “the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) facilitates an inclusive early childhood environment by ensuring equitable access and meaningful participation through flexible and creative approaches within a developmentally appropriate setting” (BICC, p. 1). The phrase universal design for learning was adopted by the Center for Applied Special Technology, CAST, to differentiate between universal access, which makes materials available to children, and the actual gain in knowledge and skills involved in learning.

The focus moves from the right of children to be physically in the room to the right of all children to be in the room and also be included and engaged in the general curriculum. Isn’t that what teachers want—an environment where all the children learn?

Origin of UDL[3]

n the 1980s, architect Ronald Mace introduced the term Universal Design (UD). In its original application, UD refers to “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Connell et al., 1997). For example, consider the barriers presented by entering a building that has steps up to a door with handles. Who would have difficulty accessing such a building?

In the 1900s, David Rose, Anne Meyer, and their colleagues at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed the UDL frameworkOpens in a new tab., which is the only UD framework that is based on research on cognitive neuroscience (Meyer, et al. 2002; Rose, Rouhani, et al., 2013; Rose, 2016). CAST is an organization whose mission is to eliminate barriers to learning and support the development of expert learners while addressing aspects of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility.

A key aspect of UDL is understanding that all learners are variable and that the “average student” simply does not exist. We cannot plan for every learner variable, but we can design, develop, and deliver our curriculum knowing our learners will have diverse needs and providing them options to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

Todd Rose explains that when organizations plan for the “average” they are not, in fact, planning to meet anyone’s needs. Education can struggle with this concept; as educators, we often design curriculum for “average” post-secondary students. Instead, if we plan to support learners at the margins, we go a long way to creating more equitable, accessible, and inclusive learning environments for all diverse student populations. Watch Todd’s video to fully appreciate the need to rid ourselves of the idea of “average”.

The TEDx (2013) video, The Myth of the Average: Todd Rose at TEDx Sonoma County [18:26], explains why we should rid ourselves of the idea of the “average”.

Once we accept that there is no average, we can start to find teaching and learning strategies to support all of our students. The UDL guidelines provide the strategies we need and offer a path for curriculum design, development and delivery that embeds equity, diversity, access and inclusion.

Defining Features of Inclusive Environments

Access: All children have access to the general education curriculum and learning environment.

Participation: All children can participate in all activities and routines through scaffolding and intervention.

Support: All teachers have the tools they need to help all young children, who have unique strengths and needs.

UDL Basics[4]

What is UDL? UDL is an approach used in many classrooms that allows children to create, explore, and manipulate materials that will foster learning commensurate with their development and comfort levels, which can be dictated by their strengths and needs.

The goal of UDL in education as described by CAST is to provide “(1) multiple means of representation (the ‘what’ of learning), (2) multiple means of action and expression (the ‘how’ of learning), and (3) multiple means of engagement (the ‘why’ of learning).” To provide these multiple avenues of learning, the early childhood team needs to consider the learning differences of all children—including children with disabilities or different learning styles and children who are English language learners.[5]

In a program following UDL guidelines, children should be able to access and engage in all learning opportunities provided in the classroom and in other early childhood environments (e.g., outdoor playgrounds, gyms, art studios). To make this happen, teachers need to reevaluate the curriculum, physical environment, and relationships among teachers, children, families, and the community.[6]

How Do We get There?

How can we support our children regardless of their ability so that each child can have the opportunity to “participate in a broad range of activities and contexts”? There are some key components that teachers need to look for when choosing a strategy to help them utilize UDL.

The strategy should:

  • Foster collaboration with community partners
  • Utilize high-quality, evidence-based practices
  • Make use of a range of service delivery options (large group, small group, and individual; in the classroom, at home)
  • Support differentiation of instruction

In addition, the following three elements allow teachers to frame learning experiences and classroom environments so that they are accessible to all children. These elements also rely on the children’s strengths, preferences, and interests to encourage optimum engagement in the learning experience.

1. Multiple means of Representation

In order to support the many ways children learn, teachers need to introduce and share concepts in formats that make sense to the children. You might begin a discussion with your team by asking how everyone is currently relaying information to the children. It gives you a starting point from which you can move out in many directions. You might think in terms of the five senses to reach learners in different ways. Be aware that multiple formats are most effective when they are presented simultaneously; still, not all formats are needed every time or in every activity. The learning goals may be embedded across activities and daily routines, but it is important that somewhere, somehow, sometime, children can experience what they are supposed to be learning in different formats.

Representation in Ms. Teresa’s Classroom

To present the concept of vehicles, Ms. Teresa gave children the opportunity to see, hear, touch, move, create, use technology, and verbalize.

  • See and hear: Hear others singing “The Wheels on the Bus” song along with seeing the teacher’s visuals, listen to teacher reading Away We Go! while looking at illustrations in book or on Smart Board
  • Touch: Play with vehicles they got from the magic bag
  • Move: Race vehicles
  • Create: Draw and paint vehicle pictures; write and dictate labels and stories
  • Use technology: Create personal vehicle stories
  • Verbalize: Sing “The Wheels on the Bus”; tell personal vehicle stories to other children

2. Multiple Means of Action and Expression

The second element of UDL refers to the opportunities that we give to children that allow them to show us what they know and what they are able to do in different ways. We want an accurate picture of children’s understanding of concepts, right? Then we need to allow children to show us what they know in ways that
work for them but also allow us to get a more accurate assessment of their knowledge and skills.

Giving children multiple means of expression is not just about having many ways for children to share what they have learned. It’s also important to give them options as they begin to organize and evaluate for themselves by setting goals and monitoring their progress. On the National Center on Universal Design for Learning (NCUDL) website you can read more about these executive functions.

Multiple Means of Expression in Ms. Teresa’s Classroom

Ms. Teresa gave her children many different opportunities to share what they had learned. She and the other staff collected the evidence of those expressions as they:

  • Observed varied participatory behaviors: Singing and moving to the music, listening to the story, guessing vehicles during the magic bag game, racing vehicles on ramps
  • Collected varied types of work: Personal vehicle stories, vehicle drawings, computer printouts
  • Listened to or recorded children’s voices: Personal vehicle stories shared with other children

3. Multiple means of Engagement

This element of UDL focuses on building children’s motivation and interest in a concept by providing the children with choices on how they want
to engage in the concept and at what level and by helping them engage for a sustained period of time and be persistent in their learning efforts. Just as children have preferred learning styles, they also have preferred ways to engage with activities. And these “rules of engagement” change with the type of concepts involved and as the children’s interest in the activity changes. Teachers need to be prepared to support all different kinds of learning preferences.

It is important to remember, however, that one of the most powerful interest motivators is the relevance the concept has to the child’s personal life. A child who lives in an Ohio city is likely to be interested in cars, buses, and trucks, because he or she sees them every day and rides in them to go to and from home on a daily basis. A child living on a farm in Ohio might also be interested in cars and trucks, but also tractors and other farm vehicles because they are used by adults nearby and the child sees them often. You can use that interest to motivate children to learn multiple concepts that are connected to transportation and vehicles—for example, mathematics, language, and science.

It is not only important to be relevant and interesting. It is also important that all learning activities and areas connect with the concepts you are trying to teach—for example, people use different kinds of vehicles and transportation— so that the concept persists across time and place. And activities need to vary on levels of challenge and support so that some self-regulation is being encouraged. The longer a child is able to engage with a concept, the more connections and deeper the learning can occur.

Engagement in Ms. Teresa’s Classroom

Ms. Teresa gave children the opportunity to engage with an interesting and relevant topic.

interest and Relevance

Cars and trucks, racing cars, guessing game, and technology

Persistence across times and places

  • Time: Early morning. Place: Class meeting area, where children sing
    “Wheels on the Bus” and use shakers; listen to story during circle time;
    play magic bag game with vehicles
  • Time: Later morning. Place: Large open area used for vehicle races and
    individual exploration, various learning and activity centers around the
  • Time: Afternoon. Place: Various learning and activity centers
    around the room, where children compose, illustrate, and
    share personal vehicle stories, draw vehicles

Levels of challenge and support needed

  • Low support and challenge: Explore ramps and vehicles
  • Medium support and challenge: Sing, draw, play magic bag game
  • High support and challenge: Compose personal stories

Challenging but Doable!

There are many challenges that must be met in implementing UDL in an early childhood setting. Teachers need to provide a range of flexible learning materials
and activities incorporated through visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile opportunities. Teachers and other early childhood staff need to offer multiple methods for their students to process information. They need to also provide a range of ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge and learning. Does it sound like a daunting task? Perhaps, but take a step back. Look at the whole picture. Don’t try to do it alone. Engage others on the staff
in the process. Get parents involved. Begin to ask yourself:

  • How else can I present this?
  • How else could the children do this?


Unit Credit

  1. Birtling, J. Darrah, M., Lyon, D. & Jackson, S. (2018). Early childhood building blocks: Universal design in early childhood inclusive classrooms. Ohio Resource Center & Ohio Department of Education. https://tats.ucf.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2018/05/Buildingblocks.pdf
  2. Ibid
  3. Origins of UDL from Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) by Darla Benton Kearney is licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 International License
  4. Birtling, J. Darrah, M., Lyon, D. & Jackson, S. (2018). Early childhood building blocks: Universal design in early childhood inclusive classrooms. Ohio Resource Center & Ohio Department of Education. https://tats.ucf.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2018/05/Buildingblocks.pdf
  5. CAST. (date). ......
  6. Enter your footnote content here.


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ECE: Diverse and Inclusive Practices in Nova Scotia Copyright © 2022 by NSCC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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