Do you know what Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Until just a few weeks ago, I knew next to nothing about UDL!
That’s when my wife, an Understood expert, was invited to this summer’s “UDL for Social Justice” symposium in Boston, and I went along.
Now, I’m not an educator. I was going into this strictly as a parent of two kids with learning and thinking differences. But wow, was it an eye-opening experience!
In one exercise, the keynote speaker, Katie Novak, asked everyone a series of questions about education. She had us go to different corners of the room depending on our answers. As we moved, Katie flashed several pictures on the projection screen.
After everyone returned to their seats, she asked about the images that were shown. Almost nobody even noticed them. The exercise showed us how much the human brain can miss when we don’t stop to reflect.
A big part of UDL is reflecting on how we learn. According to Understood founding partner CAST, UDL is a “framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” So in my own layman’s language, this means we all learn differently. And UDL is a way that helps teach to people’s unique learning strengths, based on science.
Pretty neat, right? UDL has three main principles:
Offer kids information in multiple ways, like text, audio or video, or some combination, to make sure they understand.
Let kids show what they know in multiple ways, since kids express themselves differently.
Find multiple ways to engage kids in learning, from traditional books to projects to games, or some combination.
I left the conference excited. Frankly, I hoped my kids’ teachers would be using UDL in the classroom.
But since I’m not an educator and I don’t work in the classroom, I was also at a loss for what I could do as a parent. That made me wonder: Could I use UDL with my own kids at home? After a little thought, I came up with a few concrete ideas for using UDL with my sons.
1. Try new ways to ensure my kids “get” what I’m talking about.
My two boys both have learning and thinking differences, but they are also intellectually gifted. In fact, they often surprise me with how many vocabulary words they know. Because of their vocabulary, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget that they have challenges with communication.
UDL means stopping to reflect on whether my kids understand when I tell them something, like instructions or our plans for the weekend. It means presenting information in multiple ways to ensure they “get” it. And not automatically assuming they know what I’m talking about.
For instance, both my boys are very good at and enjoy wordplay. One way to check if they understand something might be to make puns or word games around a topic.
Me: Next week, we’re going to the friendliest state in America. Son: Where? Me: Oh, Hi-o! Son: Cool!
2. Let my kids communicate with me in a medium they prefer.
Both of my boys sometimes struggle to explain what they are thinking. They both also have different skills and passions that they could use to help them convey information.
My older son deals with things in a very logical manner. He’s also a photographer and prefers visual over verbal information. This made me wonder if, when he’s having trouble communicating his thoughts, he could draw me a flowchart or diagram. Maybe that’s a more efficient way of him saying what he wants to say.
My younger son is very imaginative and likes to illustrate his points with hypothetical situations. He often wonders what others are thinking. He also loves to draw. So maybe when he’s struggling to communicate, he’d like to draw a panel-based comic that portrays one of his hypothetical situations.
3. Use visual schedules to help with their executive functioning issues.
OK, so this is something my wife and I were already doing. But, until the conference, I didn’t know that what we were doing was UDL.
Both of our sons have executive functioning issues. They’re also very routine-oriented. Sometimes, a checklist of tasks or activities doesn’t cut it, because they have trouble doing things in a particular order.
That’s why we took a different approach to morning and afternoon schedules—one that allows our youngest to do tasks in an order that makes sense to him and plays on his love of vehicles.
The schedules are on laminated paper. On it we attach pictures of cars with Velcro. The cars have strips of paper on them that list the tasks that have to happen in the morning and afternoon. And since they’re attached with Velcro, our youngest son can move the cars around. He just has to follow the arrows on the “roads.”
I’m sure there are other ways that I could be incorporating UDL into our home life. UDL isn’t a rigid program. It’s a framework for thinking about how kids learn, so there are infinite possibilities.
The one I’d like to work on next at home is thinking about more ways to engage with my kids. How can I offer them multiple ways to connect with me and learn?
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