Student Diversity and Equity: 3 Simple Ways for Teachers to Support All Learning Needs

Almost 7 million children in the United States have a disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law in 1975, and has provided regulations for individuals with disabilities to have access to an equitable education with resources that address their individual needs. Unfortunately, the reauthorization of  IDEA has been long overdue since 2010. Now, more than ever, students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) deserve an updated policy. Updating this policy can provide a blueprint for school districts and educators on utilizing the best resources to create an inclusive environment for all students. For years, I have witnessed educators develop learned helplessness and blame antiquated policies as the reason for schools struggling to teach students with diverse learning needs. However, even without an updated policy, there are various ways districts can empower schools to develop a blue print for teaching all students, not just students with an IEP.

I have become intrigued with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) because it provides a systematic approach that supports educators in holding high expectations while giving them the flexibility to meet the needs of all students, and not single out students identified as having a disability. UDL addresses the disabilities of schools and not students while focusing on Multiple Means of Representation, Multiple Means of Action and Expression, and Multiple Means of Engagement (CAST, 2014). Neuroscience shows us that everyone’s learning needs, skills, and interest are unique, just like our fingerprints and DNA (Salend, 2016). Universal Design for Learning originated from Universal Design, where the architectural design of buildings and products provide access to all individuals. For example, the most common Universal Design is a ramp. Ramps are not only used for people utilizing wheelchairs, but also used by people with bikes, strollers, or anyone who find the stairs compromising to their current ability.

The guiding principles of UDL is a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that (A) provides flexibility in the curriculum, the way information is presented, the way students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and, in the way students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, while maintaining high achievement expectations for all students. These areas support educators to create materials, assessments, and curricular goals that are designed from the onset to address the various learning styles students come in with, rather than retrofitting accommodations afterward (CAST, 2014). The myth about UDL is that it is only for students receiving special education services, when in fact, using a repertoire of strategies suited to each brain network and reducing barriers in instruction are best practices for all students. In fact, approaching instruction through the lens of UDL is right in alignment with the No-Nonsense Nurturer® four step model. For example, teachers may choose to chunk directions, write them on the board, or provide directions to common routines and procedures on an index card for individual students to keep at their desk. Teachers can also vary the way that students demonstrate knowledge of a subject by having students represent their cultural background or current hobbies, for instance. So, while educators are waiting for IDEA to be updated, we don’t have to wait on serving the needs of students because UDL is within an educator’s locust of control and can be done with low and high technological resources.

I remember one teacher I coached in a Jamaica, Queens middle school in New York City who felt that it was impossible for her to teach all students based on their learning needs. As her coach, I would support her on utilizing flexible media and diverse tools to support individualized learning. One strategy I used was having her analyze potential barriers in the curriculum and the materials that would prevent some students from having full access to the curriculum and the ability to complete tasks independently. Once she had a full understanding of what the barriers were, together, we worked on finding additional technological tools and programs that provided text-to-speech and text-to-image to support differentiated teaching methods.

The three main principles of UDL, listed below, have checkpoints with examples for educators to use when implementing it in their classroom. Principle I will support activating prior knowledge to identify, organize, and assimilate new information. Principle II supports educators to devise strategies that optimize learning, and Principle III supports educators to regulate emotional reactions that impede a student’s learning (CAST, 2014).


Multiple Means of Representation (Recognition Network)
This is the “what” of learning – how people gather facts, data, and recognize what they see, hear, and read. Identifying letters, words, or an author’s style are recognition tasks (CAST, 2014). The Parietal Lobe in the brain is used to process information, so how information is presented to people is very important in how they will process it. For example, when I was a teacher, I would enable the captions on every video I played in class because it supported my students to hear and see the words simultaneously. Teachers who are No-Nonsense Nurturers have students go beyond simply finding the definition of a word-they engage them in a way that is meaningful to that individual student. They also have students find examples in a text, act out the meaning, draw pictures, and find synonyms for vocabulary words prior to engaging with those words in a text (note that these are all examples that require low technology). Engaging the audio, kinesthetic, and visual learner to understand the origin, prefixes, and suffixes to unfamiliar words makes information accessible and fun for all types of learners. Both of these examples can increase reading comprehension and fluency because it allows students to access the content at their pace and preferred learning style, without compromising high expectations.

When designing curriculum or planning lessons, No-Nonsense Nurturers ask themselves questions like:

How will I present the information in a new or different way that ensures that key information is equally perceptible by all students to successfully complete the task?


Multiple Means of Engagement (Affective Network)

This is the “why” of learning; feelings and emotions are connected to this principle. This is how learners get engaged, stay motivated, challenged, excited, or interested. It is the most important principle of the three because this is the hook to engage your students or any audience you are presenting to. Consider the popularity of video games – most people are enthralled with video games because they enjoy the challenge. They’re designed to keep you engaged; therefore, it starts you off with easy levels, so that you are successful, before gradually increasing the challenge. People are then determined to keep playing to beat the next level. Similarly, lesson plans should be designed for students with tasks or activities that are both engaging and challenging.

For example, in an English, co-taught class in Boston, both teachers were challenged with Making the Declaration of Independence Come Alive for their students. To hook their students into the lesson, one of the teachers read a fake break-up letter in the beginning of class, pretending it was written from one student to another. As students revved up with excitement, laughter, and curiosity about who the letter was from, the teacher ended the letter by signing it “Love, The Declaration of Independence” and then transitioned into their independent task, getting 100% of their scholars to participate. Research shows that people mostly remember the beginning (primacy) and the end of something (recency) (Nee & Jonides, 2011). This process may be captured best by the show “Law and Order”, which often starts off in the middle of a crime in order to hook the viewers. These teachers used the primacy effect by relating potentially “boring” content to something the students found interesting. Chunking the information for students with engaging activities, relevant to their lives, to open and close a lesson is important for students to grasp pertinent information.

When designing curriculum and planning lessons, No-Nonsense Nurturers ask themselves questions like:

How does the task stimulate interest and motivation for learning?
How did I provide alternative ways to recruit student interest, ways that reflect inter-and-intra-individual differences among students, so that they will be able to complete the task successfully?


Multiple Means of Action and Expression (Strategic Network)

This is the “how” of learning – the planning and performance of tasks, or how we organize and express our ideas. Writing an essay or solving a math problem are examples of strategic tasks (CAST, 2014). The Frontal Lobe, located in front of both hemispheres of the brain, houses our conscious thought processes and is considered the “how” of learning. It’s centered on the various ways students can show you what they know and learned; where they problem solve and interpret the world around us. This part of the brain is not developed until 25, which is why teenagers often struggle with making good judgment before this age (Jensen, 2014). I remember walking into a classroom in Buffalo, NY where a teacher allowed students to step out of the traditional end-of-unit assessment of writing an essay, and provided them space to either write a poem, essay, or create a television or radio advertisement that summarized and captured their best learning. She recalled that this was the first time in her classroom that student participation increased to 100% because she stepped out of her comfort zone and created a learning space for creativity that was best for students, not what was best for her.

When designing curricula and planning lessons, No-Nonsense Nurturers ask themselves questions like:

How will I differentiate the task to get students to successfully demonstrate what they know?
How did I provide alternative modalities for expression, to level the playing field and allow all students the opportunity to express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment?

Educators must remember that designing curricula and lesson plans that provide support for multiple learning modalities does not dilute the learning process for any student in the room. Rather, it sends the class a message that learning differences are embraced and equally valued. No-Nonsense Nurturers always consider how they would support students to access content if they did not receive special education services. We can often subconsciously treat people the way we view them, and educators who see the disability before the person may inadvertently teach to the disability, feeling the need to “fix” what is wrong, instead of teaching to the student’s strengths.

By Karen Baptiste, CT3 Associate


Jensen, F.E. & Nutt, A.E. (2015).  The Teenage Brain. A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Toronto, Ontario: Collins.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2014).  The three principles of UDL.  Retrieved from

Nee D. E., Jonides J. (2011). Dissociable contributions of prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus to short-term memory: evidence for a 3-state model of memory. Neuroimage 54, 1540–1548

Salend, S.J. (2016).  Creating inclusive classrooms: Effective, differentiated and reflective practices (8th ed.).  Columbus, OH: Pearson.


For further reading on working with students of all abilities, click here. Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, and building relationships with students and their families.
Category: Teaching