Removing Systemic Barriers in Education Through Universal Design for Learning (Guest blogger: Jana Nicol, M.Ed.)

“Fair doesn’t always mean equal.”

As an elementary school teacher, sometimes it is necessary to help young students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of fairness. Part of building classroom community is helping students understand that we all have different needs, and that everyone has an equal right to learn. ​This picture usually comes to mind when I think of this topic:

In the first image of this picture, everyone is given the exact same support. They are being treated equally, but they are not being treated fairly. If we are striving to teach all of our students fairly, then some students may be given different supports which gives everyone an equal chance of success. This often results in accommodations, such as providing extra time, or printing worksheets in larger print for those who need it.

The picture above is definitely more widely distributed than this one:

The third image in this picture is an excellent example of Universal Design for Learning. The need for additional supports is eliminated altogether because the systemic barrier has been removed. For teachers who wish to implement UDL in their classrooms, we must think of ways to reduce the need for additional supports.

As teachers, we may not have the ability to completely remove the need for accommodations in our classroom, because we lack control over some of the systemic barriers that make learning challenging for some students. For example, we may lack funding for technology, or we may be obligated to follow a set regulations for the administration of standardized assessments.

But we can at least make the effort to empower ourselves to remove as many barriers as we can in our own classrooms in ways that are affordable and feasible. Here are just a few ways that we can help remove barriers in our own classrooms to benefit all students:

  • We can make classroom materials accessible – we can put materials within everyone’s reach, add labels with words and pictures, keep them in a consistent location so students can remember where they are kept, and make small purchases that increase accessibility in the classroom (e.g. left-handed scissors, magnifying glasses, fidgets).

  • We can offer flexible seating – we can have a variety of seating arrangements in the classroom to maximize comfort for all students (traditional desk and chair, stools, stability balls, yoga mats, standing desk, milk crates, etc). We can allow students to sit on the floor, under tables, anywhere where they feel comfortable, provided that they are following classroom expectations for work. We can also allow movement from one seat to another and provide movement breaks for the whole class throughout the day because some students need more movement than others.

  • We can offer accommodations to all students – not everyone will need them, but making them available to everyone takes the stigma away from those who rely on them and can benefit everyone. For example, taking away time limits from a test is not only beneficial for those who need more time, but it can also help alleviate anxiety for those who become anxious when they are being timed.


  • We can establish and follow predictable routines – many students thrive on routine, and they like to know what to expect. We can have well-established routines for passing out and collecting materials, transitioning between activities, getting ready to go outside, etc. We can post a visual schedule in a prominent area of the room and follow it. I use a visual schedule that is changed daily. Each card has text supported by visuals, which makes it more accessible to those who struggle with reading.

  • We can activate background knowledge before discussing a given topic. Students come to school with a diverse range of experiences and some students may benefit from learning a little bit about a topic before jumping into a lesson. For some students, skipping this step can make a learning activity completely inaccessible to them. And for other students, we can improve the quality of their work by refreshing their memory about a given topic. For example, if we are asking students to write out instructions for making a snowman, we cannot assume that every student has experience with this. Maybe their parents do not allow them to play outside, or perhaps they have moved from a warmer climate. Before the writing activity, we can discuss the steps involved in building a snowman, watch a video of children building a snowman, or take the entire class outside to build snowmen (if you live in a snowy climate).


  • Heighten the salience of goals/objectives – Some students need to have a sense of purpose in learning tasks. They need to know why they are doing what they are doing… or what the point of an activity is. Taking time to review a lesson’s objectives in simple language at the beginning of a lesson can help students understand what they need to know and why. Here is a picture of the goal board I use in my classroom, which is written in student-friendly language.

Jana Nicol, B.A., B.Ed., M.Ed., is an elementary school teacher in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. She has researched Universal Design for Learning (UDL) extensively, having written essays on better practices of implementing UDL in elementary school classrooms. She also led a team of teachers through an action research project which sought to increase student engagement through the implementation of UDL practices. She authors the website, where she has shared the findings of this action research, and writes blogs about UDL. She has also facilitated professional development workshops on UDL.

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