Universal Design For Learning In Practice: Principal 2

Glad y’all are back for the next part of this series where we discuss the second principal of Universal Design for Learning’s (UDL): representation! If you need a refresher jump back to last week’s post on utilizing the UDL principal of engagement. Over there I also provided a brief overview of UDL in general.

Feeling good about it? Let’s get into today’s principal of universal design for learning and how I used it as a school-based physical therapist!

How a School-Based Physical Therapist Utilizes UDL Principal of Representation

Representation: Representation is the ‘what’ of learning and involves the recognition networks of the brain (i.e. the temporal, occipital & parietal lobes). These networks are responsible for how individuals perceive, interpret and understand information. Certain factors can impact this such as sensory disabilities like visual, auditory, or tactile impairments, differences in language or culture, cognitive ability, etc. This principle stresses the importance of presenting information in a variety of ways as most individuals require more than one means of representation in order for true learning to occur.


  • In order to ensure that information is accessible it must be equally perceptible to all learners: 1. by utilizing different manners or modalities to present the same information & 2. presenting information that can be adjusted by the learner. As I’m not a formal educator, I do not have a set curriculum, but instead address physical impairments & participation limitations which can vary greatly from student to student. However, when addressing these impairments I often have situations when I need to teach/educate a parent/caregiver, teacher, and/or student about factors regarding this such as diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, how to perform an activity/skill, etc. 
  • When educating a parent/caregiver or teacher, I try to provide this education through various modalities and ask how they learn best & prefer to receive information (visually, verbally/auditorily, tactilely/kinesthetically). If I feel like this is still not effective and I have not been able to get my point across then I will provide information in other ways. Typical ways that I provide education/info are through: handouts/written resources/videos (visual), verbally explaining (auditory), demonstrating either with my own body or with the child (visual), or by having the parent try it themselves with their child or with their own body (tactile/kinesthetic). I also try to provide these resources in different languages or have a translator present if the teacher or parent/caregiver are not English speaking or prefer the info presented in a different language. 
  • When I am teaching a student a gross motor skill I may utilize visual information or input such as modeling/demonstrating the movement to them initially or during the activity/skill, have them watch a video or another child perform the activity, place them in front of a mirror so they get visual feedback about how they are performing the activity, or utilize visual cues such as arrows, foot prints, and/or pictures to assist. For children with visual impairments, I may utilize auditory cues such as giving them feedback about what position their body is and how their body is positioned in relation to people or things in their surroundings (i.e. the desk is to your right, the door is about 3 steps in front of you, etc.). I may also tap objects that the student approaches in order to alert them to obstacles in their path (almost like how bats or dolphins use echolocation); this has been super effective for several students I have worked with who have visual impairments. I may also utilize tactile cues such as tapping their right or left hand/arm/shoulder in order to direct them with turns or changes of direction when navigating their school environment. 
  • I also try to utilize resources & information that can be manipulated to the preference of the user like larger text, different language, faster/slower speed (videos), etc.
Language & Symbols:
  • Ensure that there are multiple forms of representation for learners to increase understanding & comprehension. Information should not only vary for accessibility purposes (such as for sensory impairments like we discussed above in perception) but also vary for different cognitive levels in order for learners to clarify and comprehend information.
    • I do not often utilize a ton of symbols in my role as a school-based PT. What I do utilize fairly frequently are arrows within an obstacle course or activity. Occasionally I have used a visual schedule (a short schedule that has images to symbolize the activity instead of words – i.e. a picture of a swing to symbolize swinging). I occasionally will utilize this for students I have that are very routine oriented and find it dysregulating not to know the plan. I will often let them choose 1-2 activities to put on the schedule while also putting several of mine to ensure that we complete it. For some of my older students who are learning to identify common symbols & signs (i.e. stop sign, yield sign, crosswalk, etc.) I will often practice negotiating areas around the school or while on field trips with them and have them tell me what it means and how we should respond to it. You’d be surprised how many kids with disabilities do not recognize these as they are usually in group settings and in situations with a lot of supervision and direction!
  • The ability to convert accessible information into useful knowledge that can be utilized for future decision making is an active process involving information processing skills. Learners vary greatly with information processing skills thus necessitating information that is designed & presented with appropriate scaffolding to ensure knowledge is accessible to all learners.
    • When teaching a student a skill I may reference prior knowledge that I know they already have in order to teach them. For example if I am teaching them how to skip and I know they already know how to hop on one leg I may break down the skill utilizing a step then hop method (i.e. taking a step with left leg & then hopping on left leg while driving right knee up & then performing on the other side). This often really helps students as it references a base of knowledge about a skill or movement that they already have in their movement repertoire which makes learning the new skill easier as they already have a foundation.
    • When teaching a student a new skill, I will also utilize verbal, visual, and/or tactile cues to draw their attention to what’s crucial in order to be able to learn & perform the new skill. For example, when teaching a child how to swing, I may draw their attention (while also tactilely cueing by tapping their quadriceps and/or providing verbal cues of in/out to help them find an appropriate timing & rhythm with their legs) to another child swinging near them that is appropriately & effectively pumping their legs and shifting their body weight forward & backward and point out the importance of coordinating these movements for successful swinging. 
    • Another important part of comprehension is the ability to utilize mental strategies and skills such as selective attention, metacognition, time management, problem solving, self-awareness/self-monitoring, planning & organization, etc. for processing & learning information. One way I work on these processing or executive functioning skills with my students is through multi-step motor planning activities like an obstacle course. I often will have a student help me set-up an obstacle course for them to perform, prompting them to think through how certain activities will be performed and in what order they will be performed. The student and I will then attempt the obstacle course and I will often ask reflective questions about how best their body should be positioned in order to be successful while offering advice/suggestions about what is working for me. 
    • In order to ensure a student has truly learned a skill, they must show an ability to transfer & generalize the skill in different contexts. For example, if I am working with a preschooler on riding a trike and they are only capable of riding one particular trike out of several and only on a flat, smooth, paved area then they haven’t truly learned how to ride a trike. Thus, when I work with a student on riding a trike I will have them practice with different trikes on different surfaces (grass, gravel, pavement, etc.) and in different environments (empty/quiet versus crowded/loud). 

        Hopefully this was informative and gave you a little peek into the 2nd UDL principle, representation, and how I use it in my profession as a school-based PT. Next week I’ll discuss the 3rd and final principle, action & expression, so be there or be square! For more information about CAST’s UDL follow this link(CAST.ORG).

        Stay rad,


        Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

        Pediatric Physical Therapist

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