Universal Design for Learning: Opening Doors for Students with LD and ADHD
By Eve Kessler, Esq. based on a presentation by Kathleen Whitbread, Ph.D
When Congress last reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, the lawmakers confirmed that research and practice in special education and related disciplines demonstrates that an effective educational system should include Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Since then the philosophy has won many supporters, and is being incorporated in schools systems throughout the country as they attempt to meet the educational challenges of this and future generations. Following is an explanation of UDL and how it can be applied in educational settings.
What is Universal Design?
Universal design calls for planning for the needs of the broadest possible range of users, from a project’s infancy through its development. In architecture, for example, the primary question asked is, who is going to use the building? The answer to that question informs all aspects of planning: thinking things through from the beginning; making sure the project is accessible to all; and getting it right the first time to prevent retrofitting a solution to deal with problems as they occur.
Within an educational framework, universal design refers to a similar approach in designing and delivering products and services, such as curricula, instruction, and evaluations.
In education, the goal of UDL is to reach out to students with diverse abilities and benefit as many potential users as possible. It is the responsibility of educators to create appropriate learning designs for everyone.
Application for Special Education
For students with LD and ADHD, who may struggle with traditional teaching methods, UDL offers the opportunity to access learning in ways that utilize their strengths rather than focusing on their deficits.
Students’ individual learning styles are taken into account, in order to take advantage of the different ways in which they are able to learn.
Brain research tells us that lecturing to students and then asking them to repeat the information or using standard textbooks are not the best ways of getting the message across. Rather, a student must be engaged in order to learn.
Learning requires both the ability to recognize information, ideas, and concepts, and to be able to apply strategies to process the information. Through using multiple means of presentation, expression and engagement, UDL creates an environment that welcomes a student to learn.
Multiple, Flexible Methods
Teachers are encouraged to vary the ways in which they present information, regardless of a student’s learning abilities. For example, material may be presented orally, visually in images, as in videos or DVDs, in song, through music, in Braille, and kinesthetically in hands-on activities.
Because students learn better when they are motivated and engaged, teachers need to allow students to explore their own interests, and consider developmental and cultural concerns. Some need repetition; others thrive on novelty and surprise. In an environment that applies the principles of UDL, students are given choices, for example, a menu of activities from which to select their preferences. The amount of support and challenge is also varied, again depending on the student’s abilities.
Students are also encouraged to demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of ways. For kids who can’t express themselves well in writing, a traditional written assignment may be a poor measure of their learning. While the need for students to take written exams cannot be ignored, it should not be the only way to determine what they know. Alternatives may include drawing pictures or cartoons, constructing models or maps, role playing, creating a computer presentation, developing a game, producing a news show, verbally answering questions, composing a musical piece, dictating an essay, presenting a poem, rap, or play, making an audio or video presentation, designing and fabricating costumes, cooking recipes, or acting out responses to questions.
Simply put, UDL allows all students to access information and be evaluated in ways that take advantage of their abilities—rather than requiring them to learn in ways that allow their deficits to become barriers to success.
This article is based on information presented by Kathleen Whitbread, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education at the University of St. Josephs in CT at an event sponsored by SPED*NET Wilton, CT. Eve Kessler, Esq., an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is President of SPED*NET Wilton (CT) and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.