What you need to know about universal design for learning in K-12 schools

Students in a classroom look at a laptop over their teacher's shoulder.


What is Universal Design for Learning?

K-12 schools and districts implement universal design for learning as a teaching and learning approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all students. It gives all students an equal opportunity to succeed and eliminates unnecessary hurdles in the learning process.

UDL is a framework of research-based guidelines developed by the CAST Institute. It defines UDL as a framework to improve teaching and learning for all students based on scientific insights on how students learn.

Closed captions, automatic doors, and accessibility features on smartphones are examples of UDL in everyday life.

Three Principles of UDL

Multiple means of representation

Teachers can give students the option of reading text, watching videos, listening to audio, or examining images by using the latest advanced AI-based tools such as virtual tours, augmented reality or digital 3D.

Multiple means of engagement

Teachers can guide students to explore multiple resources on their own time and engage with a rich digital experience such as a Google Doc with links to all the available online resources.

Multiple means of action and expression

Teachers can design open-ended activities where the students can choose how to demonstrate their knowledge. Students can write descriptions, create a podcast, or video, or even build 3D models.

Laws governing UDL

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015; PL 114-95) directs state and local education agencies to follow the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) crucial levels of planning, implementation, and execution of educational practices. It explicitly guides these agencies to incorporate inclusive and accessible design principles into educational practices to create effective, meaningful, and accessible technologies in K–12 education—including online education.

What is UDL in K-12 education?

It is a set of guiding principles used in curriculum design and lessons from the creation stage to ensure effective learning. Fewer changes need to be made at the time of instruction, since the curriculum is already designed to be flexible.

UDL assumes that every student’s brain from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, is different. The goal is for every student, irrespective of their special needs, beginner, intermediate, or advanced level to learn in a way that meets their needs.

UDL and learning networks

The Universal Design Learning Center has identified three different learning networks based on neuroscience research.

  1. Recognition Network: The information-gathering network in a student’s brain seeks to identify what is being learned. Students are provided with a variety of learning options like audiobooks, visual drawings, or animations.
  2. Strategic Network: The task-oriented network addresses how a student can express what they have learned. Learning options include giving an oral report, a written report, preparing a video segment, or making a model.
  3. Affective Network: The encouragement-focused network addresses the need for skills and learning methods such as individual learning or group learning.

UDL in the classroom

Universal Design for Learning in the classroom provides a framework for creating lessons. A teacher identifies the learning goals based on the learning standard in each state. Once the goals are identified, the teacher selects the method of teaching that will reduce barriers to learning, and increase access to any one of the three learning networks.

The teacher reviews the learning materials which they plan to use in the classroom. The curriculum is designed to be flexible, adaptive, and variable such as video presentations or textbooks with QR codes on the pages. The final step is assessment that provide rapid and accurate feedback throughout the learning process.

Who is using UDL?

Universal Design for learning (UDL) is used by public schools with diverse student populations and special education teachers. UDL is adaptive, meaning teachers can adapt lessons and curriculum to suit the needs of students with special needs. They can tailor UDL principles for all students in pre-K through college-level classrooms.

5 Examples of UDL in K-12 schools

Here are a few examples of how UDL can work in a classroom:

Posted lesson goals: Having goals helps all students in a class know what they are working to achieve. UDL helps to make the learning goals transparent and apparent. One example is to post lesson-specific goals. Students can also write down their lesson goals in their notebooks.

Assignment options: In traditional learning, a student has only one option to complete an assignment – by a worksheet or an essay. UDL provides students with multiple options to complete an assignment such as create a podcast or a video, draw a comic strip, etc.

Flexible workspaces: UDL provides flexibility in the learning environment that allows for individual work and group instruction. Students can use headphones during independent work.

Regular feedback: Students are given feedback everyday on their performance. Students are encouraged to reflect on their daily lesson goals and if they met their own goals.

Digital and audio text: Digital materials are converted into accessible formats for all students. Students have multiple options for digital text such as text enlargement, choice of color contrast, videos with captions, and audio transcripts.

Who does UDL benefit?

UDL benefits students with special needs. The curriculum design allows students with special needs multiple options to see and hear classroom content. It allows for students to spend more time in a learning environment, thereby fostering a sense of inclusivity that benefits all students.

Challenges to UDL implementation

  1. Teachers require professional development and training on UDL, particularly if they are returning to the classroom after a prolonged hiatus.
  2. UDL requires the creation of an accessible curriculum, which requires input from teachers and administrative staff.
  3. Additional funding and technology resources to implement UDL in certain courses at the beginning or combining special and general education classes may be required.

How does UDL help students with learning and attention issues?

Here are a few ways UDL is especially helpful for students with learning and attention issues.

  • It makes learning more accessible in general education classes, which is where most kids with learning and attention issues spend most or all of the school day.
  • It presents information in ways that adapt to each student’s individual strengths, skills, and needs.
  • It builds in flexibility into the lessons that makes it easier for students to use their strengths and work on their weakness.
  • UDL provides a variety of options to all students and does not single out only those who receive formal accomodation as part of IEP or 504 plans.

Universal Design for Learning can create an inclusive environment for students in K-12 schools

UDL can be used to provide all students an equal opportunity to learn, at any grade level or subject area. Recently, special education and general education teachers across K-12 schools have joined hands to emphasize the need for inclusivity in the classroom. Inclusive educators use UDL to provide accessible content to students with print disabilities and chart an effective path to achieve learning goals for all.

codemantra’s AI-powered platform can provide K-12 schools and school districts with an efficient path to remediate ICT and instructional materials making them accessible and compliant with the guidelines imposed by the ADA (section 504, Title II) and WCAG 2.0.

5 ways to leverage UDL to implement student inclusivity in K-12 schools

Teachers can create a more inclusive environment in classrooms by understanding the three principles of UDL.

  1. Use different strategies to present content: The first principle of UDL invites teachers to use “multiple means of representation.” Teachers can use different mediums to present information and engage with students such as videos with captions, artistic models, graphic representations, etc.
  2. Invite students to show what they know in varied ways: The second principle of UDL calls teachers to use “multiple means of action and expression.” Teachers use UDL to provide students with multiple options to learn and express what they have learned.
  3. Motivate students by getting to know what they care about: The third principle of UDL encourages teacher to use “multiple means of engagement.” Teachers must invest time to connect with their students to find out what they care about and connecting lessons to those.
  4. Reflect student diversity in classroom teachings: Every student benefits when inclusion and diversity is a priority. Designing curriculum that reflects diverse backgrounds enables students to develop understanding, empathy, and acceptance.
  5. Support fellow teachers in addressing social justice issues: Teachers can find it difficult to grapple with issues such as bias, inequality, conflict, and social justice. Connecting with fellow teachers about ways to address such concerns can help to navigate the topics within the community.


Universal Design for Learning can be used in classrooms to create a more nurturing, equitable, and inclusive space. It can be used for inclusive instruction of general education and special education students. Thereby, allowing general education students with access to multiple ways of learning and creating a sense of belonging for students with special needs.