Virginia Commonwealth University
January 18, 2011
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Margaret Vaughan, M.Ed.

Children playing with art materials

For the early childhood world, Universal Design for Learning suggests that instructional design encompass a range of flexible learning materials and activities.

Consider for a moment a typical state-sponsored early childhood classroom for 4-year-old children. To qualify for the program, a child must be 4 by Sept. 30. Within the classroom, there may be a child whose birthday is Sept. 29, and one whose birthday is on Oct. 1.
Therefore, a student who is turning 4 at the end of September could have a classmate who is essentially a year older. The difference a year can make between two children consists of many developmental milestones and growth variations. Added to the mix in the classroom are students with differing backgrounds, experiences, cultures and languages. And as more students with disabilities are educated with their peers, it is common to see them enrolled in these programs as well. This is a common picture of many early childhood communities. How then do teachers meet the needs of so many, while considering the individual strengths and contributions of each student, and still meet learning standards and goals for both students and the program?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a blueprint or framework for supporting all learners of any age. The three principles of UDL, as put forth by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), the designers of UDL, call for:

  • Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  • Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges and increase motivation
  • Multiple means of action and expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know (CAST, 2009, p. 1)

Figure 1

Multiple means of representation

  • What other formats can I use
    to enhance or replace this
  • Can I find multiple copies of
    the book to allow better
    access for students?
  • Do I need to add visuals to
    the book to assist in
  • Are the pictures in the book
    abstract or more concrete,
    and how can I change that to
    reach children on differing
    levels of understanding?
  • Should I try a completely
    new format, such as a
    PowerPoint book or slide
  • Is there software I can use to
    supplement and enhance this
  • How can I use differing
    sensory sensations during
    this activity? (tactile, visual,
    auditory, kinesthetic)
Multiple means of engagement

  • What else might I need to do to
    engage all students?
  • What do I need to do to make
    this a community of learners
    where all students are members,
    particularly in each other’s eyes?
  • How do I ensure that this
    activity is not designed for one
    “level” of student?
  • How can I make this experience
    unique and exciting?
  • Will the group size matter?
    Should I change that?
  • Does the activity include
    movement? If not, how can I add
    that component?
  • How long have the children been
    sitting up to this point? Let me
    consider that.
  • Has there been a good balance of
    teacher-directed and child-directed
    activities up to this
  • How can I encourage student
    involvement and discussion?
  • What is students’ prior
    knowledge with this information?
    (Without a solid foundation of
    prior knowledge, children cannot
    learn new information.) How will
    I/do I gather this information?
  • What kind of feedback and
    encouragement can I offer to
    students who need it?
Multiple means of action and expression

  • Have I provided enough
    time for students to
    express themselves in
    relation to this activity?
  • What are some of the
    forms that expression
    could take? (talking,
    writing, reciting,
    illustrating, selecting,
    describing, reporting,
    following directions,
    showing, etc.)
  • If I have provided
    directions, have they been
    as clear and as simple as
  • How can I facilitate these
  • Do I have the means to
    allow every student the
    ability to communicate and
    interact in some way with
    peers and teachers?

For the early childhood world, UDL suggests that instructional design encompass a range of flexible learning materials and activities. These learning materials and activities should incorporate a variety of opportunities and ways (visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile) to access the curriculum goals and learning objectives, offer multiple methods by which to process information and include a range of methods for students to demonstrate their knowledge and learning. To put it simply, UDL encourages early childhood environments to exhilarate children’s senses with exciting, engaging and authentic learning opportunities; to give them the ability to create, explore and manipulate materials; and to participate in diverse and meaningful learning experiences at the level and comfort dictated by their strengths and needs.

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D., suggests that universal design can be applied to all aspects of instruction — teaching techniques, curricula, assessment — as indicated in the following guidelines:

  • Class climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.
  • Physical environments and products. Ensure that facilities, activities, materials and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
  • Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
  • Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes and other information resources are engaging, flexible and accessible for all students.
  • Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.
  • Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple, accessible methods and tools and adjust instruction accordingly.
  • Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. (Burgstahler, 2008)

Many of these guidelines fall into the three principles of UDL, but may not be obvious areas of consideration when using the framework to inform teaching practices.

So what do the guidelines and suggestions look like in action in an early childhood classroom? Let’s take a look at an activity that occurs on a daily basis in preschool classrooms and see how the planning and facilitation of the activity interface with the UDL framework.

Activity: Reading a book during large group or circle time
Often the activity looks like this: The teacher sits in front of the students with a book in hand or on an easel. She/he talks about the front and back of the book, the author, the title and maybe the illustrator. The book is read, and questions are asked. There may be a follow-up activity related to the plot or the characters in the book.

Using the UDL framework, some questions that teachers should ask themselves while planning for this type of activity are presented in Figure 1. These questions will help ensure that UDL principles are a component of their teaching design.

The population of students in classrooms everywhere will continue to grow more diverse. Striving to reach the needs of all students should continue to be an idea that needs to be front-and-center on our radar as professionals. UDL is an avenue that can continually assist with that challenge. The more familiar teachers are with its components and guidelines, the easier it will become to use it as an integral component of their classroom blueprints.

To learn more about UDL, please visit: – Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)
CAST is a nonprofit organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through the research and development of innovative, technology-based educational resources and strategies. – Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University
This is a national information, technical assistance and research center that evaluates, develops and promotes accessible and universal design. – Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction – Growing Ideas – Increase Access: Universal Design in Early Care and Education
This site provides some ideas about UDL and early childhood.


Burgstahler, S. (2008). Universal design in education: Principles and applications. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from

CAST. (2009). What is universal design for learning? Retrieved December 15, 2009, from



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