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Shifting Mindset and Practice for Teachers and Students: Using Universal Design Learning (UDL) to Address the WHOLE Child

Updated: May 11

By LaKeyseah Brennan - Lexington and Richland Counties of District Five


Using UDL (Universal Design Learning) to address the WHOLE Child 

Summary: This blog highlights the benefits of UDL for the holistic development of students, emphasizing its role in creating safe, supported, engaged, healthy, and challenged learning environments. It stresses the importance of addressing the needs of the whole child and sees UDL as a means to achieve that goal, not as an additional burden for teachers but as a liberating approach that empowers students and creates equitable learning opportunities.

According to CAST, the creators of Universal Design Learning, UDL “is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn”.

UDL Framework:   

  • Provide variety to meet the needs of all learners

  • Remove learning barriers

  • Clear goals, but students do not have to work on the same thing at the same time  


UDL Guidelines:                                                                

  • Means of Engagement (the WHY- the goal is for students to be purposeful and motivated)

  • Means of Representation (the WHAT- the goal is for students to be resourceful and knowledgeable)

  • Means of Action & Expression (the HOW- the goal is for students to be or become strategic and goal-oriented)

Shifting Mindset and Practice for Teachers

Using UDL requires a shift in the teachers’ way of thinking when creating units and lessons.  Here are some shifts: 

  • Requires intentionality. 

  • Focus on the standards; not just solely on the content.  Standard-based goals and success criteria are key.

  • Begin with the end in mind.  Decide on the assessment and then create lessons to help students meet the goals of the assessment.

  • Anticipate the students’ needs to eliminate barriers.

  • Provide variety and choice.  Relinquish some control. Beware of too many choices.  Find balance.

  • Teach and model what a student-led classroom looks like.  This is new to students too.

  • Encourage students to take ownership of their own learning and create a safe space for this to take place.

Shifting Mindset and Practice for Students

When teachers implement UDL, there is a shift for students because they are not used to being in control of how they learn.  It is important for teachers to teach the expectations of learning when switching from a traditional learning environment to one centered around UDL.  Some students may jump right into a UDL lesson and perform well, but there will be other students who will need to be coached through this process.

Here are ways to help students adjust to this shift:

  • Help students find the way they learn best and provide opportunities for them to choose the way they learn.

  • Hold students accountable for their learning.  For example, complete check-ins, formative assessments, student conferences, and more to ensure students are using their time wisely.

  • Model and practice expectations when students are tasked with UDL lessons, such as choice boards, station model, playlist model, and blended learning techniques.

  • Give grace as this is a shift for teachers and students.  It will be worth it.

Benefits of UDL as it relates to the tenets of the WHOLE child

# safe - Allowing students choice and variety creates a safe classroom environment that reduces anxiety and stress for students. Teachers are able to build relationships with students in order to help them understand who they are as learners so barriers are removed and they have an accessible and equitable learning environment. Allowing students to move at their own pace while still engaging in the same lesson and content breaks down barriers that could exist in a traditional classroom.

# supported- While UDL helps students become experts of their learning, there is a shift from teacher to student led.  This shift requires support from teachers because it is our responsibility to help students advocate for themselves.  UDL is a mind shift, so it is important to support students in this change.  Also, the UDL guidelines provide teachers with the opportunity to support their students by providing choice and variety to meet the needs of students no matter where they are academically.  Most importantly, teachers are facilitators in the students’ learning, so they offer support with small groups, check-ins, or when they help students one-on-one.  UDL allows teachers to move freely around the classroom to help students, instead of being stuck in the front of the classroom.

# engaged- UDL allows students to engage with the content, with their teacher, and most importantly their peers.  Utilizing the principles of UDL facilitates student engagement in the learning process. It prompts teachers to establish clear learning objectives, ensures that the content is relevant and meaningful for students, and demonstrates that active engagement correlates with academic success. Because the  lack of interest and engagement being at a high due to cell phones and social media, providing students with UDL lessons can help decrease student apathy and create a sense of community as students learn from exploring the content, interacting with their peers, and seeing their teacher as a resource and not the sole source of information.

# healthy- There is an incorporation of SEL skills to help students become more self-directed learners.  These skills help students increase their self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.  Novak Education has created a self-direction rubric, organized by grade levels, which provides teachers with tools to meet the needs of students’ social and emotional health.

# challenged- UDL challenges students in a variety of positive ways. Students are accustomed to the traditional "sit and get" approach to learning. However, by enabling students to learn through discovery, they gain deeper insights into themselves and their individual learning processes.  Students are guided to showcase their learning in a variety of ways and are encouraged to push through when content and creation becomes challenging.  Tasks and lessons still provide rigor, but multiple representation of material makes the content more accessible, so that all students are challenged and master the standards.

In all, I encourage teachers, instructional coaches, administrators, and district officials to see the positive impact that Universal Design Learning (UDL) can have on student success and creating a positive school culture and sense of community when students take ownership of their learning.  It is important that we address the needs of the WHOLE child and UDL is a way to do just that.  UDL should not feel like one more thing to do; however, it should feel like a weight lifted off of the teachers.  With students in the driver seat, teachers are able to be the “pit stop” where students can receive help when they need it.  The UDL approach makes learning equitable for all students.


About the Author:

LaKeyseah Brennan is an educator, teacher leader, and aspiring administrator at Dutch Fork High School for Lexington and Richland Counties of District Five.  Her goal is to foster a love for learning and growing her students, as well as, serve as a teacher leader to support and grow teachers to become the best versions of themselves so they can help students become the best version of themselves.  Connect with LaKeyseah on X @MsBrennanEDU or on Instagram @ms.brennan_edu.

Coach me and I will learn, challenge me and I will grow, believe in me and I will win.  

-Dr. Robert Halgreen



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