In recent years, general education teachers have joined special education teachers in emphasizing the need for inclusivity in the classroom. By creating inclusive classrooms, educators aim to foster learning environments that are equitable and nurturing to every student. Inclusive educators often use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to provide students with consistent access to engaging content and effective paths for achieving educational goals in classrooms where they experience a greater sense of belonging.

UDL, which is a set of principles for curriculum development that aims to provide all students an equal opportunity to learn, can be used by educators at any grade level or subject area. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, “UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

If you are a teacher looking to create a more inclusive learning environment in your classroom, understanding the principles of UDL can give you an edge. While many educators who are interested in working effectively with diverse groups of students go on to obtain a masters degree in education or seek other formal training, there are a few steps you can take today to make your classroom a more nurturing and equitable space.

Here are five ways you can start implementing inclusivity into your classroom today:

1. Use Varied Strategies to Present Content

The first principle of UDL invites teachers to use “multiple means of representation.”

With this in mind, we ask, “How do you share content with your students?” Through lectures, readings, discussions, graphic representations, videos, and hands-on artistic models, teachers have ways to share information. While each of these may be useful, using a variety can ensure that content is accessible to everyone.

Sixth grade social studies teacher, Ashlynn Sandoval provides content by showing a video that has captions. This way, students have auditory and visual input—more than just one mode. The addition of captions improves access for a variety of students, those with hearing impairments, those learning a new language, and those working to improve reading or spelling skills.  Using different mediums to present information and engage students is important in inclusive classrooms.

2. Invite Students to Show What They Know in Varied Ways

As the second principle of UDL calls teachers to use “multiple means of action and expression,” we ask, “How do you allow students to show understanding?”

Some students may find that their best outlet and means of expression comes through writing while others excel in giving an oral presentation, acting out a play or creating a piece of art. When we provide students the opportunity to express their knowledge through multiple means, we learn what works best for them and can often find strengths we hadn’t identified before.

After learning about UDL, Shanika McCarty, an 8th grade English teacher, decided that she would “provide more options and student choice for how they will present” projects. In doing so, she alleviates anxiety and sees more students showing quality work in the classroom.

(Next page: 3 more ways to leverage UDL for inclusivity)

3. Motivate Students By Getting to Know What They Care About

The third principle of UDL encourages teacher to use “multiple means of engagement” which can require some creativity and genuine connection to students.

While a diversity of materials and mediums (theater, art, video, computer software) can engage students, connecting lessons to the what students care about is key for engagement as well.  Sarah Fehrman, MEd and University of San Diego alumni, admits that she invests a lot of time in asking students about their families, weekends, and interests. “Not only does this build our relationships, it also gives me great ideas for connecting content to what students care about. It’s never a waste of time and students love coming to my classroom.” Invest time in talking to students about their life experience and offer choices and flexibility whenever possible.

4. Reflect Diversity in Teachings

No matter how homogeneous or diverse a classroom may be, every student benefits when inclusion and diversity is a priority.

When curriculum depicts characters, language and culture from a diversity of backgrounds, students learn understanding, empathy, and acceptance. A sense of belonging is created as students with a wide range of cultural experiences see themselves reflected positively in the classroom materials and teachings. Ultimately, they see that their teacher sees the value each student brings to the community.

Tiffany Saunders, MEd and University of San Diego alumni, who spoke to her school’s librarian about providing more books about disability and diversity in the school and classroom libraries, said “Talking about disability and looking at disability as an issue of diversity will help our school community and hopefully others to see that diversity is ‘normal’.” Imagine how excited students might be to read Leroy Moore’s new children’s book, Black Disabled Art History 101,which celebrates black disabled and deaf artists from the early 1900’s to today.

5. Support Fellow Teachers in Addressing Social Justice Issues

Grappling with issues such as bias, inequality, conflict and social justice can be difficult for teachers. Connecting with other teachers about ways to address concerns can help us navigate the topics within our communities.

When these issues are taught and discussed with care and respect, students are given lifelong tools for succeeding in a diverse world. When teachers value diversity and their classroom materials and curriculum reflect this value, students can develop essential critical thinking skills that have been proven to counter prejudice and create empathy.

About the Author:

Suzanne Stolz, Ed.D. serves as an Assistant Professor of Special Education. A former high school English teacher, administrator, and leader of disability programs, she has expertise in online instruction, curriculum design, school culture, inclusive education, and disability studies.