UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Structure as support, not suffocation

Last week,  I wrote a blog post about observations from the first few weeks of an online course I am co-teaching about Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  As my co-teacher and I met with our colleagues/peers/participants in initial meetings and online conversations, I heard a lot about the need for variability and choice.

Another theme I started to hear was the sense that people are looking for structures to provide a support for that choice.  This is always a tension–choice is wide-ranging and messy.  Choice without structure is chaos, but structure often becomes misinterpreted as restriction.  That balance is important to explore and poke at as well.

I started this post at home at the end of June, and will publish it now at the of July, but I wrote the bulk of it while in Pennsylvania for a family funeral.  The whole weekend became a meditation for me on the value of structure and the work it takes to find the balance point between “structure as restrictive” and “structure as supportive.”  After almost ten years of exploring what diet best supports my health needs, I am currently taking baby steps into another new approach, built on a known set of foods that I eat in rotation, ones that do not make me sick.

In general, after years of experimentation, I know I can eat out at only a few, select places, such as a local health food restaurant that locally sources its food and prepares most items in-house.  The dietary restrictions have become second-nature at this point, so I simply don’t think about ice cream (even dairy-free) or pizza (every prohibited food all in one).  With this structure in place, I am working on my health on every front.

I’ve learned not to list off my food restrictions any more, since it inevitably leads to “what DO you eat,” which is clearly not an issue.  I am far from skeletal.

Most people consider my diet to be restrictive, to be a punishment.  On this trip to Pennsylvania, rather than trying to pack non-perishable food that would survive the airplane, make it through security, and be consumed on whatever schedule the trip set, I told myself I would be fine, that I could eat whatever snacks or dinner came my way.  I didn’t bother trying to go road-tripping through the Pennsylvania countryside to find something I could eat without penalty, nor to bring back food that I maybe could leave in the fridge at the B-and-B (if that was even okay to do).  After all, if I see my diet as a restriction, then this was an opportunity to break free, guilt-free.

Or not.  I returned home to a full-day headache, despite taking my migraine medications and downing a half-gallon of water in a few hours.  My nose was stuffed, my stomach was upset, my acid reflux was back.  And the headache morphed into five migraine incidences in three days and starting a heavy-duty migraine medication I had tried to avoid taking for the past five years.  I would rather never eat pizza again.

Why I am talking about my diet on this UDL blog?  Because it reminds me of the push me-pull me we all face when trying to work in the UDL framework.  We need to give the students the wings to try, to take off, to flop and fail.  But we also can’t just cut them loose without support.  Structures provide support, provide an exoskeleton for pre-teens whose worlds are overwhelming and confusing.  Structures provide comfort when the world has asked you to make too many decisions and you didn’t do the best decision-making on each one.  Structures allow us to fall back on experience and collective information-gathering for reassurance.


I think the way we hold the cognitive dissonance of “structure as supportive” and “structure as restrictive” can be productive, rather than overwhelming.  To get to that point, I look again to UDL, especially around offering choices AND following up with the students with reflection.  I know I am reflecting on my choices from that weekend of travel and, three weeks later, I am grateful for the support of the structures I have built that allowed me to both calm my body down and also try out some tacos at a new Mexican restaurant down the street!

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