A to Z’s of Early Childhood

The Science of Child Development and Learning

U is for Universal Design

Supporting the Needs of Diverse Learners

Universal design began in the field of architecture with a focus on making buildings and surrounding environments accessible and usable for all people (e.g., adding Braille to elevators for individuals who have loss of vision or cut-out curbs to sidewalks for people who use a wheelchair or walker).  The concept of universal design also applies to learning and is referred to as universal design for learning (UDL).  UDL provides practitioners with a framework for intentionally and proactively addressing the needs of diverse learners, thus ensuring their access, participation, and progress across all learning opportunities. The needs of each child are considered relative to three principles of UDL based on the what, how, and why of learning. Research shows universal design for learning is helpful for all children, including those who are dual language learners and those who have disabilities1

UDL Strategies for Supporting Diverse Learners

To implement universal design for learning in early childhood settings, practitioners follow three strategies, based on guidelines developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology,2 that address the what, how, and why of learning.

Strategy 1: Provide multiple means of representation (the what of learning).

Learning happens when information is available in ways that children can access, understand, and have experienced previously.  Provide communication and learning opportunities in different formats and levels of complexity based on each child’s language, cultural background, or disability. Think about what needs to happen in the early childhood setting so that every child will be able to communicate with adults and their peers.


In order to provide multiple means of representation, practitioners can:

  • Support all children in an early childhood setting to learn words in the primary language of a child who is a dual language learner to facilitate communication. For example, pause during a shared book reading activity to say a key word from the book in English and in the primary language of a child who is a dual language learner.
  • Provide opportunities for all children to share culturally relevant objects or pictures with their peers (e.g., a child could bring in a musical instrument or piece of clothing that represents their culture).
  • Ensure all children in the early childhood setting learn frequently used signs or gestures to facilitate communication and interaction for a child with a hearing loss.
  • Include visual examples or demonstrations with verbal instructions for all children and to benefit children who need additional visual supports (e.g., refer to a visual schedule as you describe the next activity in the early childhood setting).

Strategy 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression (the how of learning).

All children need to be able to move independently; engage with objects, toys, and materials in their environment; and communicate with others. These means of action and expression are important for play, social interactions, and learning within an early childhood setting. Think about what needs to happen so that every child is able to participate and learn within their everyday routines and activities.


In order to provide multiple means of action and expression, practitioners can:

  • Make changes to the environment to accommodate each child’s physical needs (e.g., add a ramp in addition to stairs and adaptive swings on the playground).
  • Arrange centers and furniture so that there is enough space for all children, including a child who uses a wheelchair, to access all areas of the early childhood setting.
  • Display a visual daily schedule with pictures that facilitates all children’s understanding and communication about everyday routines and activities, particularly for children who are dual language learners.
  • Check in with children regularly during activities to make sure every child understands directions.

Strategy 3: Provide multiple means of engagement (the why of learning).

Children are engaged in learning activities when objects, toys, or materials in the environment attract their attention. Facilitating children’s motivation to engage in exploring and learning is an important part of the why of learning. As you think about universal design and the why of learning, consider learners with diverse needs, either a child whose primary language is not English or a child who might have a disability. Explore ideas about what changes are needed so that every child will be motivated to engage in learning activities.


In order to provide multiple means of engagement, practitioners can:

  • Say relevant words and phrases in English for a child who is a dual language learner to facilitate the child’s engagement with materials and others during play activities.
  • Organize play with a “play script” so that all children have a role and interact during play.
  • Use language to describe materials and activities that are available and interesting to the child and physically orient the child to the location of the materials within the activity and the early childhood setting. 
  • Establish a routine for increasing each child’s ability to access and engage independently with the materials.

What We Are Doing

The Anita Zucker Center and our collaborators are helping early childhood professionals support the needs of diverse learners through Universal Design for Learning. 

Learn More:

Embedded Instruction Goal 3
The Impact of Professional Development on Preschool Teachers’ Use of Embedded Instruction Practices: An Efficacy Trial of Tools for Teachers is a Goal 3 research project funded by the National Center for Special Education Research in the Institute of Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education. In this project, we compare several approaches to professional development to determine which are efficacious for helping teachers implement embedded instruction practices with young children with disabilities. Embedded instruction helps preschool teachers understand the three principles of UDL.

Embedded Instruction for Early Learning, California
The Embedded Instruction grant connects the California Department of Education’s Desired Results Developmental Profile assessment to the California Early Learning Foundations and classroom curricular and instructional practices to strengthen the relationship between assessment and instruction and provide planned and intentional instruction for children with disabilities during everyday activities. Embedded instruction helps preschool teachers understand the three principles of UDL.

CHILD Center for Early Learning
The Anita Zucker Center partners with local groups, including the Southwest Advocacy Group (SWAG), the Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County, and Episcopal Children’s Services to maintain the CHILD Center for Learning, a model high-quality early care and education demonstration program for young children in Gainesville, FL. Principles of UDL were used to design the CHILD Center and to inform classroom environments, materials, and interactions.

Other Resources

About Universal Design for Learning
Visit this website for a brief overview of Universal Design for Learning framework, including a short video and links for more information on engagement, representation, and action and expression.  

The UDL Guidelines
This website by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) details UDL guidelines and how to use them as a tool in the implementation of Universal Design for Learning.

Universal Design for Learning: A Checklist for Early Childhood Environments
Download this checklist of the equipment, tools, and materials educators need to ensure they design the learning environment to be responsive to all children’s needs. 

Integrating Principles of Universal Design Into the Early Childhood Curriculum
Read this article about how teachers of young children can ensure all children have meaningful opportunities to learn. It also includes proven and effective implementation recommendations for diverse learning settings. 

Take a Look! Visual Supports for Learning
This article focuses on visual strategies that are considerate of diverse learners. It includes specific recommendations on visual supports that help children know what to do, learn new skills, and feel included.

Using a Universal Design for Learning Framework to Enhance Engagement in the Early Childhood Classroom
This article from the Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship provides a brief overview of evidence-based UDL practices, with a specific focus on the use of engagement strategies for young children. 

Articles by Center Members and Collaborators

McLean, M. (2002).  Assessing young children for whom English is a second language.  In M. Ostrosky & E. Horn (Eds.), Assessment: Gathering meaningful information: Young Exceptional Children Monograph Series no. 4.  Sopris West Publishing.

McLean, M. (2001).  Conducting culturally sensitive child assessments.  In Serving the underserved: A review of the research and practice in early intervention for culturally and linguistically diverse young children.  Council for Exceptional Children/ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ED), Washington, DC. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED454640.pdf

McLean, M. (1998).  Assessing young children for whom English is a second language. Young Exceptional Children, 1(3), 20-25. https://doi.org/10.1177/109625069800100304

Mayfield, P., McLean, M., & Baird, S. (1993). The effect of signing key words with young children who are hearing impaired.  Infant Toddler Intervention, 3(2), 109-118.

References

  1. Mistrett, S.G. (2017).  Universal design for learning: A checklist for early childhood environments.  Center on Technology and Disability. Retrieved from  http://www.CTDinstitute.org.
  2. Center for Applied Special Technology (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines (Version 2.2). Wakefield, MA.

Additional References

  1. Brillante, P. & Nemeth, K. (2018). Universal design for learning in the early childhood classroom. Routledge.  
  2. Conn-Powers, M., Cross, A., Traub, E., & Hutter-Pishgahi, L. (2006). The universal design of early education: Moving forward for all children. Beyond the Journal: Young Children on the Web.
  3. Darragh, J. (2007).  Universal design for early childhood education: Ensuring access and equity for all. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(2), 167-171. 
  4. Harte, H. (2013). Universal design and outdoor learning. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 41(3), 18-22.
  5. Horn, E., Palmer, S., Butera, G. & Lieber, J. (2016). Six steps to inclusive preschool curriculum: A UDL-based framework for children’s school success.  Brookes Publishing. 

Dedicated to supporting the well-being of young children and their families, the Anita Zucker Center has engaged with its partners to launch an ambitious initiative designed to provide accessible and practical information about child development and learning to support parents, caregivers, professionals and policymakers.

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