When it comes to students in any given classroom, one size doesn’t fit all. Every student has different learning styles and sensory needs, which can be challenging for educators to create an environment that is conducive to learning for each and every child. While barriers to learning may be more blatantly obvious for students with learning differences, there are many other students who would benefit from a more universal design for learning.
According to CAST, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for education based on providing the most optimal learning environment for all people regardless of learning differences. The framework in practice would allow students multiple ways to engage in the lessons being taught. The main principles of UDL are broken down into representation, action, expression and engagement.
Representation recommends that materials be presented in varying formats such as text, audio, hands-on, and video, based on the student’s strengths.
Action and expression recommends that students be allowed more than one option of demonstration their knowledge. For example, an alternative to a traditional pencil-paper test may be an oral presentation or a project.
Engagement recommends that educators find ways to engage a student in the lesson. For example, turning a lesson into a game, giving opportunities for “brain breaks” during lectures, as well as providing choices when possible for students to pick their topics.
As a school-based occupational therapy assistant, I often have the opportunity to go into the classrooms and collaborate with teachers on how we can design increased opportunities for learning success. UDL recommendations are always suggested, and we also look at environmental modifications to help students achieve maximum comfort for optimal learning.
Visual Input: The College of Optometry in Vision Development reports that 80 percent of a students learning in school, comes through the visual system. This means that in the classroom, students should be provided opportunities for visual hygiene such as seating facing the board/teacher straight on. When children are seated facing a direction other than where the teacher or material is presented, it loads up the students visual system with more “work.” For example, if a student is expected to copy a paragraph from the board but they are seated at the corner of an “L” shape and has to look up – and to the right in order to see the board, this is adding significant more visual work when it comes to shifting their focus, teaming their eyes, as well as tracking the words.
Posture: One of the first things I check when observing a student in the classroom is their posture. The ideal seated posture is a 90-90-90 (90 degrees at the foot/ankle, knees, and hips). If a student has “floating feet,” or slouchy posture, this becomes an obstacle to learning and we need to put into place accommodations to help correct the posture. We often implement foot stools, wiggle cushions, slant boards, etc to help correct the posture. In addition, it is important to look at the sizes of the tables and chairs to make sure that each student is comfortably seated – not all students have similar body sizes and therefore, classrooms may have to have tables and chairs of different sizes and heights to accommodate this.
Peripheral Distractions: Students are expected to retain material when being taught a lesson and this can become very challenging for some when there are peripheral distractions in the environment. Minimizing visual distractions (excessive amounts of decorations, posters, artwork, etc on the walls), can be helpful and allow students to focus their attention on the work they are doing.
Sensory Input: Environmental factors such as lighting, sounds, tactile inputs, etc elicit a range of reactions from different people. Having options to dim lights, quiet spaces, flexible seating etc, can allow students a choice of the input they seek in any given moment to calm and/or center or “modulate” their body.
By being proactive with providing ways to adapt to the learner rather than expecting the learner to adapt to the teaching truly can make a world of difference in the success of our students!
I was compensated for this blog post but the opinions are my own.
Lina Awshee is a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant with a background as a Pediatric Vision Therapist. Currently, Lina is practicing in the school systems where she works with students of all ages. When she isn’t working, Lina enjoys sharing purposeful ways to include skill development into daily playtime. You can find fun suggestions by following her on Instagram @motormommy.co
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