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Which to Choose? Universal Design for Learning or Accommodations

Originally published:

chld drawing on paper that is taped to table

In early childhood classrooms, children develop at different paces. Some children follow a typical developmental path, while others receive support for a developmental delay or a disability such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). No matter who the child is or how he or she is developing, each child deserves access to the fun and engaging activities and learning experiences in your classroom. There are two main ways access can be provided: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accommodations.

Universal Design for Learning

According to Amanda Morin, Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed. One example of UDL is an interactive Velcro visual schedule that Miss Jones created for her preschool classroom. Previously, Miss Jones had posted a written schedule with no pictures or ways to indicate an activity was finished. Kelly, a young girl with autism in her class, had difficulty understanding when activities were starting and ending. This misunderstanding resulted in challenging behavior.

With the new visual schedule in place, Kelly can see the picture icon and understand that “gym time” is next on the schedule. She also knows that “gym time” is over when Miss Jones removes the “gym time” card from the schedule and places it in the “finished” bin. While the Velcro schedule works well for Kelly, it also supports her peers without disabilities. Universal design is one change that makes an item or activity in the learning environment work for everybody.


In contrast, Andrew M.I. Lee says accommodations match the specific needs of one child. One example of accommodations is an adapted name writing activity that Miss Jones uses in her preschool room. To support Bodi, who has a developmental delay and visual impairment, Miss Jones highlights the visual directions in color, creates more white space, and increases the font size on the paper. Bodi uses this adapted activity while the rest of the class uses the original activity. Accommodations make a learning activity accessible to the particular needs of one student.

How do you choose between the two?

How do we know when to use UDL and when to use accommodations? Good question! As much as possible, use UDL, but this takes preplanning and knowing about each child’s particular needs before you implement a learning activity. UDL allows a child to participate fully without changes to an activity. For example, if you know that one child in the class has fine motor difficulties, you may plan a large group game that does not require fine motor skills.

Sometimes, if an activity is already planned or is under way, you can provide an accommodation for a certain child. For example, if a child with fine motor difficulties is having trouble coloring, you might tape his paper to the table to make it more stable. Accommodations are often listed in a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Be sure to read and learn about a particular child’s accommodations when a child with disabilities joins your class. If you have questions about how to implement a required IEP accommodation, check in with your director, principal, or coach.

Universal design for learning and accommodations take intentional planning from you as the educator. With these techniques in place, a child with a delay or disabilities, together with his or her peers, can access—and participate in—all the fun learning activities you design.

Natalie Danner

Natalie Danner

Dr. Natalie Danner is a Content Specialist for the Illinois Early Learning Project. She has worked in university-based early childhood teacher preparation programs in Nebraska, Oregon, and Connecticut and as an early childhood teacher and school leader in New York City and Arizona. She earned her Ph.D. in early childhood special education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020