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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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Deep conversations about UDL: The model of mentoring

If you’ve ever had a positive mentor in your personal or professional life, you know how valuable they can be. These are individuals who help you to problem-solve, view situations through a different lens, see both outside and within yourself, learn from your mistakes and celebrate your contributions. This EdWeek article defines the eight qualities teacher mentors should have, including: respect for themselves and for you, the ability to listen deeply, the skill of challenging you, the act of collaboration, guiding you to celebrate, telling the truth, providing a safe environment in which to share mistakes, and the ability to empathize. And, as pointed out during this episode, under all of this is trust. Trust is the base of all successful relationships. But how does the mentor/mentee relationship get started and are there real benefits?

Mentors can be assigned or come about naturally. Either way, research from 2017 shows the positive impact mentoring can have on students when mentors focus on providing guidance in lesson planning and how to analyze student work. That’s why this episode’s conversation with Tracy Pendred and Kimberly Spears is so valuable. They clearly voice the benefits of mentoring. Beyond that, though, they voice the impact mentoring can have on the implementation of UDL.

Teachers often come into UDL already having lots of skills and knowledge but what they don’t always have is a shared language. This can make conversation more challenging. They might be talking about similar ideas, but language gets in the way. They don’t have a term that helps them talk about how differently students learn and react to learning in different settings and across days (i.e., variability). They don’t have vocabulary that lets them clearly communicate how their students persevere and use their coping skills more successfully when they have choice around what they are studying, reading, or investigating (i.e., the Principle of Engagement). They might talk about how they use manipulates to teach a math lesson or show a video to help students understand what they’ve read in a new way, but they don’t get to the depth of why they choose these options or how they can take additional steps to shepherd their students toward deeper comprehension (i.e., the Principle of Representation). Or they talk about how exciting it is when students produce products to demonstrate their understanding, but they miss that every student could have produced a product if they’d all been provided that basic level of access suggested under the Guideline of Physical Action within Action and Expression.

When we combine the act of quality mentoring with the consistent investigation and deep learning that comes when implementing UDL, we create learning environment and lessons where all learners benefit. We create an environment where the expectation is that every learner can grow toward becoming an expert learner.

When our learners gain agency, they gain something for life

In the universal design for learning (UDL) community, we refer to learners rather than students because (a) learning takes place both within and outside of the classroom, (b) learning can be guided, independent, and everywhere in between, and (c) learning takes place outside the traditional classroom. There was a shift to learner after realizing that the term student connotes (a) where the learning takes place (i.e., the classroom), (b) from whom the learning is received (i.e., the teacher), and (c) that it ends when the person steps out of the traditional classroom. I think shifting to the word learner also advances how we think about the people we instruct, whether they are 3 or 103. When we place an individual in the role of a learner, we begin to give them agency. When we position them as a student, they are beholden to us.

Suggesting the word learner versus student aligns with this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes because the main message Kate shares is her focus on learner agency. Giving students the power to take charge of their own learning. She firmly believes that learners with agency are stronger thinkers and doers. Kate isn’t alone. Teachers interviewed for this article by MindShift, an education radio show and podcast through KQED of Northern California, offer strategies and their reasons why they support learner agency.

Agency propels our learners forward as the designer of their own educational landscape. Within and beyond the classroom, gaining, understanding, and using agency allows learners to be the commander of their own lives rather than relying on others as the primary decision-makers. This is a learned process, though. Ideas like those shared by Kate and the teachers in the MindShift piece are a start. Another place to look is the literature on self-determination.

Self-determination came from the field of psychology, but made its way into educational psychology and special education. That latter field defines it as “a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination. When acting on the basis of these skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their lives and assume the role of successful adults” (Field et al. 1998, p. 115). All learners need to obtain these skills, this knowledge, and these beliefs.

Sounds a lot like UDL, doesn’t it? That’s because self-determination is a concept woven throughout the UDL Framework. Specifically, you can find research linked to self-determination underlying the guidelines of Recruiting interest, Sustaining effort and persistence, and Self-Regulation within the Principle of Engagement.

Often misinterpreted as the ‘principle of entertainment’, the Principle of Engagement is rich with supports geared toward learners gaining skills like self-management, independent living skills, an internal locus of control, choice-making, decision-making, problem-solving, goal-setting and attainment, self-advocacy, self-efficacy, self-awareness and understanding, and self-evaluation and reinforcement (Algozzine et al, 2001), but leaners only gain these qualities if we design those opportunities into our lessons and learning environments. But where do you start?

Pieces like this one from the American Psychological Association get you started in your understanding, but this piece written by researchers at Vanderbilt ties together research and practice. Researchers asked administrators to think about learners with and without disabilities and their needs around acquiring self-determination skills. The results are eye opening (hint: importance is high, but how often the skills are taught is lower). I like this piece because it ties in example strategies for educators in each section.

Helping our learners gain agency is an incredibly important and layered goal. The fabulous news is that you can start anywhere within those concepts and skills related to self-determination and you’ll all be on your way. And guess what? It’s all woven into the Principle of Engagement! So, pull out those guidelines, dig into them to understand them deeply, and move forward! You’ll help guide your learners toward becoming expert learners who have agency.


Algozzine, B. Browder, D., Karvonen, M, Test, D. W., & Wood, W. M. (2001). Effects of interventions to promote self-determination for individuals with disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 71(2), 217-277.

Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M., & Wehmeyer, M. (1998). A practical guide for teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

While Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is all about choices, we never want to overwhelm our learners with choice. After publishing 23 associated blogs for UDL in 15 Minutes, there’s a lot of choice. To help you decide which blog(s) will be most meaningful for you (of course, I’m hoping you will think they are all meaningful (*wink*)), I’ve created a quick reference table with the descriptions or titles of each blog. I purposefully keep each blog to 2 pages or less and each blog is directly related to that episode’s podcast. If you want to return to the podcast, there are links embedded within the blogs. Many of the blogs also link out to other resources and tools that can be helpful in your implementation of UDL. Happy reading!

Episode Description/Title
1 How UDL Improved the Practices of an Arizona Teacher of the Year
2 Growth Mindset for All: Thinking About Our Own Growth Mindset
3 How UDL Enhances Arts Integration and Project-Based Learning
4 Getting Buy-In for UDL: A Few Tips and Tools
5 A Strong and Positive School Culture: A Necessity
6 Rigor and UDL: The Perfect Pair
7 A Discussion Guide for UDL in 15 Minutes
8 The Mindset of UDL
9 Using Action Research to Investigate UDL Implementation
10 Using UDL to Design Your Environment: Examples of Classroom Supplies, Schedule and Flexible Seating
11 Understanding Multiple Intelligences: They Are NOT Learning Styles
12 How Observation Informs our Practice
13 Reading the Opinions of Students: Their Take on One Teacher’s Academic and Social-Emotional Support System
14 Are They Accommodations or Supports? How You View Them Makes a Difference
15 Being a UDL Influencer
16 Mindset and UDL: That’s Where I’ll Start
17 Executive Functioning Skills: Start Early!
18 Experience is the Teacher of All Things
19 When UDL Guides the Use of Technology
20 UDL in 15 Minutes Podcast Table
21 When UDL and Fidelity Play Well Together
22 Co-Teaching and UDL: The Bricks and the Mortar
23 Choice and Control: When One Leads to the Loss of the Other

Choice and Control: When One Leads to the Loss of the Other

When Carrie and others who design and teach using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) talk about choice, they are referring to the variety of options presented to learners throughout the lesson and the choices that are built into the environment. When they talk about control, they mean they are stepping back and allowing their learners to make those choices. Carrie Preston talked about the unit she created using choice and control in this way:

It was open ended. They could get and do things the way they needed to and the products were so superior to anything that they produced when I had 95% of the control in the past and I said this is what we’re going to do, this is how you’re going to do it.

During the podcast, I promised to talk about the alignment of the unit to UDL because we didn’t get to it during the interview, but I want to weave in specifics about choice and control, too.

Beginning with the standard and identifying the goal

“…the standard that we worked on was a writing standard and it was writing for a specific audience.” Carrie did what UDL asks us to do – begin with the standard, establish the goal of (in this case) your unit, and begin designing.

Knowing how you will assess their work

She then identified six overarching questions that drove their self-assessment and her overall assessment: What is your topic? Who is your target audience? What do they already know? What do they need to know? What method of communication would be most appropriate? These were the questions that guided her daily check-ins with the students and ensured she didn’t have to create a rubric for each of the specific products. This type of assessment provided students with an optimal level of choice and decision-making which lead to their superior products.

The interrelationship of the principles

While I normally dissect a lesson or unit into the different guidelines during podcasts, I’d like to talk about the interconnectivity of the principals for this example. Carrie shares:

I wanted to keep it simple, but I wanted to give students a lot of choices and I wanted to make sure that we got that engagement piece in. That they were interested in what they were working on and that they would work with the people that they wanted to work with and produce a product that suited their skills and their audience needs.

While this example is clearly linked to the principle of Engagement (e.g., recruiting interest as well as sustaining effort and persistence), she also supported the students’ executive functioning (the principle of Action and Expression). She shared this when she explained:

I did have to help them with a little time management or some maybe functioning as a group. Sometimes I wouldn’t support some groups. There I couldn’t just say hands off, you know, that’s, that’s for you to figure out. I did provide some guidance, there were some students so there were still some supports and scaffolding in those areas, too.

And to help them maintain that movement forward throughout the process, she guided how they processed their information by consistently reminding them of the six overarching questions (Comprehension under Representation), provided that information in a variety of ways (Perception under Representation), and sustained their effort and persistence (the principle of Engagement):

They were on the board all the time. I would always ask them as I did our group checks, and they were on Schoology, we used Schoology to post materials and sometimes I would post tips or things that they could check out or different apps or things that they could use to create their end products for their projects, and we talked about them all the time.

Throughout the unit, students were able to access the tools they wanted to use: “…students could use browser readers to access the content, they could look at videos to research their topic or to come up with ideas. They could use text if they wanted to. They could read text or magazine articles or research about their topics.” This type of choice aligned with both language and symbols and perception under the principle of Representation because students had access to materials that not only offered them clarity about the language, they used multiple media representations and they could manipulate those representations.

Finally, as the students created their final products, Carrie involved guidelines from across the framework. By checking in with the students, she helped them self-regulate and sustain their effort and persistence (principle of Engagement), identify the best way to communicate with their audience (principle of Action & Expression) and move through this long-term project at the end of the year with graduation approaching (executive functions under the principle of Action & Expression).

Carrie showed her own expertise by using the framework to design and implement a unit that allowed all of her learners to show their best work: “I just got such a better product from such a greater percentage of students.” And the ultimate proof of engagement? Student voice: “They said it was the most fun they had all year in class.” These learners got to experience being expert learners. The best type of learner.

Co-teaching and UDL: The bricks and the mortar

Co-teaching. Two adults sharing a space. Two people trained in different disciplines bringing together different content. Two people who each come at relationships and interactions in their own unique way now creating a single space together. Two personalities. Two bodies bringing their own mood to the classroom each day. That “two” isn’t just a 2. That “two” is exponentially bigger.

In this week’s podcast, Karen Keener and Jordan Landis share why they think their co-taught classroom is so successful and how they believe Universal Design for Learning has benefitted them to frame their “two” and make it successful for all learners. Below are a few of the themes that I heard and appreciated.

Co-teaching is an expectation in their building – Brick 1

Karen and Jordan’s building administration value co-teaching. They value it to the point that it is in the master schedule. Teachers know that this will be dedicated time together and it is a defined expectation. This is an incredibly important step that administrators need to take. To ask teachers to co-teach is a positive step, but those teachers need support in what co-teaching is, what structures should be in place, and how to plan with other another. There are plenty of quality online articles (more are here) specifically about getting started with co-teaching. These pieces are for both administrators and teachers because that unified knowledge will lead to better outcomes! And then, teachers need designated time for planning. Karen and Jordan designated a specific time each week during the defined planning period and have fallen into a comfortable pattern of what they do during that time and about how much time it will take them to do that planning. They have shifted from planning alone during that slot to planning together. This is another shift each leader will need to support with resources, examples, and guidance.

Co-teaching is a relationship – Brick 2

All relationships need time and trust to grow. Karen and Jordan have worked together for a few years and fully rely on one another to complete whatever tasks they’ve defined. They’ve consciously and subconsciously agreed upon their norms for building relationships with the students. But the most important piece is the equal partnership they have developed and convey to one another and to their students. They recognize the strengths, talents, and gifts they each bring to the space and work collaboratively to share those with the students. In a profession that is still predominantly developed as solo effort, this can be a huge request. Co-teaching becomes a critical time for personal reflection on how to meet the needs of the learners through the benefit of two teachers. There is a great Edutopia article about this topic.

Man laying bricks with trowel and level
This Photo by Ian Britton is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Understanding how co-teaching can elevate UDL implementation in the classroom – The mortar

Karen and Jordan are clear about how UDL has improved their co-teaching. UDL created a mindset shift, but they both experienced it. They shifted from asking why the students wasn’t learning to investigating what they designed that kept a student from learning. As Jordan put it, “…what kind of changes do we need to make so that kid can access the material in our classroom?” But here’s the key to this: they both experienced and owned that mindset shift. Going back up to the former point, co-teaching is a relationship and mindset is a foundational piece of any relationship. There are other resources out there, including great articles and books that bring together co-teaching and UDL that get to this mindset piece as it develops in a co-teaching relationship, but I like the way Karen so bluntly put it when I asked her how UDL had affected the way she designs. Now she asks, “What’s wrong with our lesson that kids are not getting where they need to be?”

UDL places us in a position of investigating our mindset and investigating our design. It’s a framework of checks and balances. We need to have the mindset to design that environment that will truly empower all of our learners to become expert learners.

When UDL and Fidelity Play Well Together

When you think of standardized assessments, do you think of student empowerment? I didn’t either until this conversation with Rebecca Chappell. As she shares in this podcast, she figured out how to maintain the fidelity of an assessment while providing student choice within the assessment (you’ll have to listen to find out how). She states, “And I think just reflecting on it for me was just to see how just two small changes in how I approach [the assessment] has really impacted how the students engage with it.” Just two small changes. To me, that’s the magic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). That’s why it works. There’s a lot of debate, though, throughout the educational community about UDL. Some don’t believe in it at all, saying things like, “If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth it,” or something like that. And while there are a healthy number of people working to figure out how to measure it, I come at it a different way.

Graphic with Welcome to change and numerous plus signs in different styles and colors
This Image by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

UDL requires us to have a behavioral change and a mindset change. Beginning with the behavioral change, if you’re someone who used to be more sage-on-the-stage, you (hopefully) shifted from that because you now understand that the sage brings little relevance and authenticity, provides little or no opportunities for students to develop any kind of self-assessment skills or strategies, and offers few opportunities for students to use tools to construct and compose (and that’s just a few of the things that are minimized when an educator talks too much). You altered your planning and teaching behaviors to align more with the UDL framework. That’s a good thing because the framework is made up of researched and validated evidence-based practices. As I say, it’s all the really good stuff neatly organized and ready to use! Next is the mindset shift.

For some, the mindset shift comes immediately. For others, it comes after working with the framework for a while. One isn’t better than the other because the mindset shift that occurs with UDL is not a race, it is a process. It is within that process that you experience a release similar to what Rebecca shares:

“I was just really surprised, and I think relieved, to see that little change. And just thinking about these guidelines and what I want my students to leave my classroom being able to do is not just be able to produce a bunch of words in a certain amount of time and half correct writing sequence and spelling. I also want them to have the skills that are that are a part of those expert learner characteristics.”

The mindshift happens when we realize that education is much, much bigger than standardized assessments. We realize that knowledge is only 1/6 of the expert learner package. Education is providing our learners with opportunity after opportunity to gain skills that lead them toward owning purpose, motivation, knowledge, resourcefulness, being strategic, and being goal-directed (those are the 6 traits in case you’re wondering what the other 5 are). None of us are born as expert learners. We acquire these, but we only acquire them when provided the opportunity to do so.

Signs pointing different directions with Success Begins With MINDSET against a blue sky with the sun
This Image by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

I know that the field will continue to demand a way to measure UDL because our current education culture leans that direction. But I hope you take the time to see where you sit in your teaching behaviors (i.e., how you design and deliver instruction) and your mindset. We operate in a field where we are consistently and persistently evaluated. I’m asking you to take a step toward personal empowerment, a step toward becoming your own expert learner, and examine where you are. If you do that, I guarantee that you’re one step closer to helping your learners travel the pathway to becoming expert learners.

It’s summer time in North America. Whether you’re carting your children around to countless activities, working a summer job, or taking a brief vacation to sit on a chaise lounge and watch the ocean, hike a trail, fly on a plane, or visit a new place somewhere on our big beautiful ball called Earth, I hope you take time to enjoy that space.

Others in the world are still within their teaching year. You’re making your lesson plans, meeting with parents, and continuing your quest to educate learners in the best ways possible. Thank you.

Wherever you are, when you’re ready to feel inspired, we’re here for you with over 4 hours of easy listening and learning. UDL in 15 Minutes is taking a break from production during July, but that’s the beauty of podcasts – they’re always there waiting for you.

And remember, stories about UDL implementation are transferable to all grades and subjects. I guarantee that you’ll learn from the 8th grade teacher even if you teach 1st and vice-versa. Here’s a quick breakdown of the episodes:

Grade/subject Guest and Topic in podcast Episode number
Kindergarten Laura Taylor – the influence UDL has even after 26 years of teaching 4
Kindergarten Karlene Warns – executive functioning 17
2nd grade Jessie Sherman – making arts integration even more accessible 3
3rd grade Jana Nicol – Designing the learning environment 10
4th grade Camille Wheeler – making assessments more flexible 16
4th – 5th grade Adria Gold – Chunking information in English Language Arts 14
5th grade Dan Schmidt – Making sure he knows his “why” when teaching math 12
6-12 STEM Ben Kelly – STEM, Minecraft, and UDL 9
7th grade Dakota Hudelson – UDL and social justice 8
7th grade Monica Watson-Bedard – Choice in assessments 11
7th grade Rebecca Chappell – Using UDL to make a learning app fully accessible to all learners 19
8th grade Rachel Barillari – Engagement in poetry 5
High School Kim Babeu – Choice within Human Physiology assessment 1
High School Kim Babeu – UDL, classroom management, and SPORT 13
High School AP Biology Shelbi Fortner – Choice within AP Biology assessments 2
Higher Education Liz Harman – Using UDL to get high achievers to take risks 6
Higher Education Justin Freedman – Designing the higher education learning environment 18
District resources teacher Melissa Toland – Using her experiences as a 7th grade teacher implementing UDL to help others learn about it 15
Everyone A discussion guide for UDL in 15 Minute episodes 7

When UDL Guides the Use of Technology

Technology is a learning tool used in many classrooms. We know that it can have a positive impact on learning. Organizations like The International Society for Technology in Education ( work hard to promote pedagogically strong use. They push for educators to see technology as something more than engagement and we are responsible for designing how it will be used. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL)-influenced design behind Rebecca Chappell’s use of Quizlet provides a perfect example and the guidelines provide a perfect structure for the description.

Though Rebecca and her co-teacher knew they wanted to use Quizlet, they took the time to design the entire process through the lens of UDL. They knew they would recruit the interest of their learners right away. They also knew they needed to sustain their effort and persistence and would need some support in identifying how they would self-regulate their learning. It would be a mistake to think that the learners would gain skills toward becoming engaged expert learners (purposeful and motivated), so they addressed the second and third guidelines through environmental supports. These included private conversations and additional instruction on how to use Quizlet more effectively for their learning needs.

They knew that this tool would help represent the information to their learners, but the learners needed guidance on how to find those supports and use them. Rebecca describes how the students perception was enhanced because they could use words or images to represent the vocabulary, that the tool is designed to support learners’ clarification of vocabulary (language and symbols), but she and her co-teacher needed to step in to support students’ growth in comprehension. The design of that lesson hinged on students’ background knowledge rather than a curriculum-generated vocabulary list.

Students’ access to the tool was ensured (physical action) and the tool did give the learners a platform to compose their own definitions, further connecting them to the vocabulary, but this was a choice that Rebecca and her colleague made. They could have easily added in definitions for the learners to memorize or had the learners simply use dictionary-generated definitions. Rebecca and her colleague knew the value of learner ownership. While the exercise of learning more vocabulary would help the learners become more knowledgeable, they needed to ensure a different use of the tool to ensure their learners gained skills related to becoming more resourceful. They knew this through their work with UDL. Finally, Rebecca and her colleague worked with their learners on appropriate goal setting. This was part of the learning environment. They knew that their learners needed this support to be successful in their strategizing and goal setting.

What made this lesson even stronger, though, was the clarity Rebecca and her co-teacher have around what I call the roots of UDL. This is a fully inclusive setting, so Rebecca and her colleague are always working to ensure full access for every learner. They understand that the methods and the materials chosen for the environment need to be flexible and need to be used flexibly. They know that the lesson needs to be goal driven so the students know what they were working toward and how they will know when the students have met their learning targets. The rigor is still high even through the barriers are lowered and the students are provided choice within the structure of the lesson. Some of that choice is inherent within the online tool, but choice actually begins outside of the technology. In the case of the shared lesson, it was in the selection of the vocabulary.

This podcast provided a wonderful example of how the design of the lesson and learning environment is what provides a way for expert learner growth. It is a solid combination of goals, methods, materials, and assessment. None of those can stand alone and all must be influenced by the entire UDL framework. When that happens, we watch the growth of expert learners.

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”

The title of this blog comes from Comments on the Civil War (Commenterii De Bello Civili, c. 52 B.C.) written by Julius Caesar. It is likely Caesar was reflecting on the hard-won lessons of war. There were things he and others might have read about or talked about but they would have never truly understood them unless they had the experiences they had.

Leaving behind the connection to war, I find that the quote is applicable to all experiences. My first job was at a garden shop. I knew how to keep the plants in my home alive and loved reading books about plants (I was passionate about my high school botany class), but I learned through experience that each plant within the cells of the flats were individual organic beings. If I wasn’t careful, I could easily kill a number of them. Maybe the water wouldn’t reach the roots of one plant because its foliage was thick and then the soil would dry up. Or the sun would scorch the plants closest to the blacktop so it was important to rotate them or move them up a shelf. It was also my first lesson in the economics of business. Dead plants can quickly eat into the bottom line of a family-owned business. Respect the plants.

Flats of plants on greenhouse shelves with handing baskets overhead

Justin Freedman puts this quote to work within his college course at Rowan University. He knows that his pre-service teachers not only need the experience of using the UDL framework to consider the design of the lessons and learning environments they hope to construct in the future, they also need to use the framework as a lens to observe the lessons they view and learning environments they visit. But here’s where Justin makes this a 365-degree experience. Justin designs his own learning environment and lessons using the UDL framework. His students experience what it is like to be in an environment that responds to their variability. The environment is flexible, accessible, goal-oriented, rigorous, and driven by choice.

During the podcast, Justin talks about his dissertation study. It focused on the professor-student relationship as perceived by students requesting disability-related accommodations. One of his findings was that many students did not want this request to be the basis of the initial relationship with their professor. They did not want to be perceived as asking for anything special and would, in fact, clarify that they would not take advantage of the requested accommodation unless absolutely necessary. The conversation made the students feel disempowered versus empowered. This was a catalyst for Justin in the design of his own learning environment. His purpose for using the UDL framework is to ensure all students experience emotional, physical, and academic access to learning.

You hear Justin discuss the design of his course, how he clarifies his expectations, and the flexibility he provides to all learners, but my biggest take-away is how powerful these pre-service teachers are going to be in the classroom. I know they will be powerful because these learners spend time thinking about their experiences in their own learning environment and then reflect on how those experiences might align with their future students’ experiences. How does the environment make them feel as a learner in relationship to themselves, to others, and as a community? Are there issues around equity? If a student is allowed to use a computer to write her exam essay versus hand-writing the essay, is that advantage harmful to others who also have choice in how they express their knowledge? (The answer here is no. When all learners are given the opportunity to best express their knowledge and skills, everyone has the advantage). These learners are experiencing a learning environment designed using the UDL framework. They are learning that there is not a stand-alone example of UDL. They are learning that they have to take more responsibility for their learning. They are learning how to be purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed learners. They are learning how to be expert learners.

Executive functioning skills: Start early!

My podcast interview with Karlene Warns focuses on self-regulation skills, but in other conversations, Karlene and I talked about how important those skills are in conjunction with executive functioning. That’s probably why the smart people at CAST put them in the same row of the UDL Guidelines! Because you heard some great examples from Karlene of how she supports the development of her students’ self-regulation skills, I’m going to continue down the pathway of executive functioning so you can link them together.

Executive functioning (EF) is “the self-management system of the brain”. If you do a simple Google search of just those two words to get more information, you will see 113,000,000 results. One would need extraordinary EF skills to get through that list! (I admit it. That’s bad UDL humor). To give us direction, CAST broke down EF into four main areas that we can support in the classroom: guide appropriate goal-setting, support planning and strategy development, facilitate managing information and resources, and enhance capacity for monitoring progress. But Karlene is a kindergarten teacher. Do those students need to be so focused on such seemingly complex skills?

In those initial Google search results, you will find reports on a 3-year study that looked at how the executive functioning skills of kindergarteners were predictors of future academic outcomes. The authors (Morgan, Farkas, Wang, Hillemeier, Oh, & Maczuga, 2019) used modeling to show that executive functions exemplified by kindergarteners predicted academic outcomes in second grade. In another published paper on the same study, the researchers reported that children with EF deficits, especially in working memory, were at risk for repeated academic difficulties in future years. As a reminder, working memory is the part of executive functioning that helps us hold onto information in the short term so we can make it through an assignment or task. Why is this so important? Because there have not been many robust studies that have looked at the risk factors for repeated academic difficulties in elementary school. Moreover, this study looked at reading, math, and science. In short, executive functioning is a really, really important set of skills that deeply affect future success in academics.

Though I’ve only mentioned this one study, there is a significant amount of research that aligns with and backs up the idea that we need to provide our youngest students opportunities to build their executive functioning skills. Learners of all ages need guidance in how to set and achieve goals, plan out their tasks and choose a strategy to complete the tasks, figure out how to manage all of the information and resources coming their way, and continue to build their ability to monitor their own progress. So, can you work in this kind of skill building in the midst of heavy academics? Yes, you can! A more focused and purposeful approach like Karlene models with self-regulation is much, much more effective, but you can tuck activities and small tasks in here and there.

  • Edutopia offers a list of nine ways you can support students develop executive functioning.
  • LDonline offers some straightforward tips that can easily be nestled within your day-to-day work.

Because executive functioning skills are a major part of our daily success, there are tons of videos and articles written about it, but remember that all learners are variable and that variability is due to context. How does your context support your students to practice their EF skills? In each case, the focus should be on providing your learners with as many opportunities as possible to build these skills sets throughout their academic careers and help them understand that these are part of their own lifelong journey toward becoming expert learners.

Little girl with flower in her hair looking up and thinking

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Wang, Y., Hillemeier, M. M., Oh, Y., & Maczuga, S. (2019). Executive function deficits in kindergarten predict repeated academic difficulties across elementary school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 46, 20-32.