School & Learning

Universal Design for Learning: 5 Strategies That Benefit Neurodiverse Students

Universal Design for Learning is a teaching approach that aims to support and encourage all types of students, including those with ADHD and learning differences. Teachers can use these strategies – from planning active lessons to supporting executive functions — to break free from one-size-fits-all methods of instruction.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) prompts teachers to proactively avoid the one-size-fits-all methods of instruction that so rarely work for neurodiverse students. Under UDL, teachers plan lessons, create projects, develop assessments, and reinforce classroom management — all with the aim of providing flexible options for all types of learners, including those with ADHD and learning differences.

The goal here is to leverage students’ individual strengths to increase confidence and reduce anxiety so that everyone can absorb new information and develop new skills.

How can teachers best support a group of neurodiverse learners through UDL? These five strategies have been proven effective in the classroom.

Universal Design for Learning: Effective Classroom Strategies

1. Plan active lessons.

Students with attention and learning challenges rarely learn best when asked to sit and remain focused for long periods. Typically, their engagement increases when they’re active. In other words, they’re better on their feet.

An active lesson may comprise hanging blank posters around the room and having students move from wall to wall, adding answers and other information with markers. Math teachers can design kinesthetic activities to complement the procedures and algorithms. For example, they can ask students to stretch masking tape on hard floors to practice perimeter and area.

[Get This Free Download: 20 Learning Strategies Designed for Students with ADHD]

But active lessons can also incorporate technology. If students have access to class computers, they can create shared docs like Google Jamboard to post questions or comments during lessons or at designated times. In my experience, students with ADHD are usually skilled with computer apps, and giving them this opportunity works with their strengths.

2. Incorporate personal interests into projects.

A simple but effective way to sustain student engagement is to integrate a student’s personal interests and talents into their learning during classroom instruction, homework, and/or large projects.

Are there TV shows or video games that your students love? Do they have backpacks and belongings with stickers? Do they participate in after-school activities? Figure out how to include these interests in your teaching. If they are fans of a specific movie, TV show, book or comic, have students practice their analytical skills on their favorites. And when you’ve assigned them to read a book, ask them to compare the narratives/characters they love with the ones in the assigned text.

As for math, sports and physical activity use angles, measurements, statistics, data, and other concepts. When we make math applicable to the real world, we open the possibilities of relating it to a student’s interests.

[Read: Teaching Strategies for Students with ADHD: Ideas to Help Every Child Shine]

3. Give options for expression.

I recently worked with a high school student who struggled to produce written work. His humanities teacher had assigned multiple pages of questions as a comprehension assessment to their government unit. I consulted with the teacher and student, and we agreed that this task would have taken him forever and ended in frustration. Instead, the teacher tested the student by having a conversation with him about the material, as he was enthused about the topic and had a lot of related thoughts and ideas.

Flexibility benefits all assignments. Speech-to-text options, for example, can help students who struggle with writing to increase their written expression. I’ve seen students who’ve produced only minimal writing with pencils increase their output when given tablets with voice recognition enabled.

Encourage students to use their talents and creativity to show what they’ve learned. A student with drawing talent could sketch out a poster representing the Bill of Rights. Another might want to write a song explaining the water cycle. Students may display more comprehension while recording a podcast about “The Odyssey” than while taking a test on it.

4. Build in executive function support.

Executive function interventions are typically reserved for individual students with ADHD, but these supports can be built into lessons, projects, and daily routines to benefit the entire class.

For large projects, provide students with step charts so they can track each phase — from brainstorming to outlining to writing to preparing supplemental resources — on the way to project completion. Incorporate calendars to help build planning and time management skills. These tools and strategies ultimately teach students how to break down tasks into incremental steps.

I once made a “baking checklist chart” for a student who baked as a hobby, to help him learn to edit his own writing. The visual guide compared writing an essay to baking a cake. He was enthused that his special interest was now part of an academic skill.

5. Provide options for the working environment.

More schools and teachers now understand that some kids focus and learn better when they can stand up and walk around, either intermittently or continuously. Alternative seating promotes engagement and also accommodates students’ varied ergonomic preferences.

Some students find that listening to music helps calm their minds and sustains focus on independent work. Though I’ve seen teachers play soothing music for the whole classroom, a child who benefits from music could wear headphones when doing quiet work.

Fish can’t climb trees. Neither can elephants. But ask a fish to navigate a river, or an elephant to carry a heavy load, and they’re on it. Incorporating universal design into our classrooms allows neurodiverse students to work with their strengths and creativity to learn new material, develop new skills, and stay engaged.

Universal Design for Learning: Next Steps


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