In KGMS/Maplewood we have a kaleidoscopic array of learning differences. Visual supports are of particular value to students with challenges in executive function; working memory, spatial memory or auditory processing. They are equally useful to those who have an identified strength in visual memory and processing. For everyone else, they provide a constant reinforcement of things that they have heard or have stored in their working memory.
It is a given in UDL that the learning environment needs to reflect the differences among learners. If the school does not respond to learner variability, then curriculum ceases to be accessible to each and every student. Learning is the dynamic interaction of the individual with the environment, and learner success is at the intersection of individual needs with the supports that their learning environment provides. Modifying and customizing visual supports is a critically important way of applying UDL principles to improve educational practice throughout the school, and even a casual stroll through our halls, and a visit to its classrooms, should provide you with ample evidence of both visual supports in place, and universal design for learning in action.
What might you see in one of our classrooms? You should look for a visual schedule with pictures and words that is referred to throughout the day; visual and obvious non-verbal prompts from the teachers (pointing, raised hand, gentle touch) to focus attention or encourage expected behaviours; visual cues or graphics depicting problem solving strategies, zones of regulation or work initiation procedures; visual timers; colour-coded timetables; etc. You should see active use of the SMART-board; instructional and calendar pop-ups on student laptops; and students consulting visual dictionaries and text simplification software to remove visual clutter from their screens.
What might you see in the hallway or other high traffic areas? Look for colour coded doorways; body break symbols; pictorial depictions of room names/functions (open book; saxophone; basketball; test tube; hammer/saw; and so on).
So, do all students need these visual cues? Of course not, but some do. Do all students (and adults) understand what they mean? Of course they do. Universal supports are necessary and essential for some students, and beneficial and informative for all.
So the next time you walk into a classroom make yourself a mental checklist to answer these five questions:
1. Is today's visual schedule posted and accessible to all students in the class?
2. Are there visual reminders for expected classroom norms in terms of how students/teachers act, speak, and interact with other members of the classroom community?
3. Do the adults in the room use consistent visual prompts to help students to keep focussed and on task?
4. Is there effective use of assistive technology (or signage or manual timers, etc.) to reinforce task and time management
expectations and to remind students about upcoming transitions?
5. Is there signage or are there other visual prompts to indicate differentiate parts of the classroom used for self-regulation or
quiet work and reflection?
If you can find most of them, then it is probably a pretty inviting and accessible classroom environment. If more than two are missing, then perhaps it is time for a little coaching about the role of universal design as a strategy for inclusion.
Visual supports are among the most effective strategies for universal access to learning. The bonus is that they are by far the easiest to implement and, for most of us, visual images tend to stick. Just ask anyone who has visited our library, what a dead dinosaur has to do with reading, and you will find out what I mean!