‘Quiet Hour’ – Varying Sensory Stimulation

A supermarket trolley and stocked shelves.
Vary sensory stimulation to make learning accessible to all students. Image: Tumisu on Pixabay.

In 2018, Coles Supermarkets expanded a trial of their Quiet Hour. Quiet Hour provides a low-sensory shopping experience by making changes in store, such as reducing noise and distractions. These changes are designed to help make a difference to customers who find it challenging to shop in a heightened-sensory environment. We can relate this to Universal Design for Learning. 

Coles partnered with Aspect to develop the program. The aim is to support customers who are, or have family members, on the autism spectrum. During Quiet Hour, the supermarkets’:

      • Store lighting is reduced
      • Coles Radio is turned down
      • Register and scanner volumes are reduced to the lowest level
      • No trolley collections
      • Roll cages are removed from the shop floor
      • No PA announcements are made except in the case of emergencies
      • Additional team members are available to support customers

This is UDL checkpoint 7.3: Minimise Threats and Distractions

CAST, the home of UDL, explain that one of the most important things an educator can do is to create a safe space for learners. To do this, teachers need to reduce potential threats and distractions in the learning environment. When learners have to focus their attention on having basic needs met or avoiding a negative experience they cannot concentrate on the learning process.

The physical safety of a learning environment is of course necessary. But subtler types of threats and distractions must be attended to as well. What is threatening or potentially distracting depends on learners’ individual needs and background. For example, an English Language Learner might find language experimentation threatening, while some learners might find too much sensory stimulation distracting.

The optimal instructional environment has options to reduce threats and negative distractions. It’s about creating a safe space for everyone in which learning can occur.

 Practical Strategies

    • Creating an accepting and supportive classroom climate
    • Changing up the level of novelty or risk through
    • Including charts, calendars, schedules, visible timers, cues, etc. that can increase the predictability of daily activities and transitions
    • Creating predictability through class routines
    • Alerting and previewing so that learners can anticipate and prepare for changes in activities, schedules, and novel events
    • Providing options that can, in contrast to the above, maximize the unexpected, surprising, or novel in highly routine activities
    • Varying the level of sensory stimulation by providing variation in the presence of background noise or visual stimulation, noise buffers, number of features or items presented at a time
    • Options for the pace of work, length of work sessions, availability of breaks or time-outs, or timing or sequence of activities
    • Considering the social demands required for learning or performance, the perceived level of support and protection and the requirements for public display and evaluation
    • Involving all participants in whole-class discussions 

Connect to Your Practice

How could you enhance the sense of safety and support in your learning environment? Consider one or two ways that could reduce threat or discomfort for your learners. Small changes result in huge outcomes for learners in accessing their learning.

See more in this latest collection of posts, where illustrations of universal design (the design for ease and accessibility in the community) are shared. The goal is to connect these to ways we can design teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students.

Reducing cognitive load

graphic of a side-on view of a head with a mosaic of brightly coloured triangles filling the space. Minimise brain drain to reduce cognitive load.Reducing cognitive load means reducing the mental effort required to do something. Making designs easy to use and understand is part of the solution. Whether it’s digital information or walking the street, we can all do with some help by reducing cognitive load so we can process the important messages. 

Jon Yablonski developed seven design principles for reducing cognitive load in relation to user interfaces in the digital world. But these are useful tips for other fields of design. The seven principles make a lot of sense and are explained simply. The principles are:

      1. Avoid unnecessary elements: less is more
      2. Leverage common design patterns: keep things familiar
      3. Eliminate unnecessary tasks: make it easy to stay focused
      4. Minimize choices for easy decision making
      5. Display choices as a group: to help with decisions
      6. Strive for readability: make it legible
      7. Use iconography with caution: they aren’t always intuitive

Yablonski’s website explains further the concept of cognitive load.  Every time you visit a website or a new environment your brain has learn something new. You have to do two things at once – focus on learning how to get around and at the same time, remember why you are there. The mental effort required is called cognitive load. If you get more information than you can handle, the brain slows down. We can’t avoid cognitive load, but designers can help minimise it. 


Twist Taps are Not Tip-Top Taps

A lever mixer tap. Twist taps are not tip top taps.
Consider the tools needed for learning and how they can be accessed by all students. Image: Ron Porter, Pixabay.

In this latest collection of posts, I’m sharing illustrations of universal design. My aim is to connect these designs to ways we can consider the design of teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students. Twist taps are good design example.

Many of us in Australia take for granted free and quick access to water from a tap, but not everyone can do this due to the way taps are designed. My very precious granny had arthritis in her hands and she sometimes experienced weakness. So turning traditional twist taps was hard at the best of times and not possible at some times.

A small but significant change to the tool needed to do the job was all that was required. Adopting a lever style tap eliminated this access barrier for my granny. Consider then the tools that our students require to access their learning.

This connects to Checkpoint 4.1 of the UDL Framework: Vary Methods for Navigation

CAST explains that learners differ widely in their capacity to navigate their physical environment. Educators must reduce barriers to learning that might occur due to the motor demands of a task. This can be achieved by providing alternative means for our students to respond, choose, and compose.

Practical Strategies

Learners differ widely in their optimal means for navigating through information and activities. To provide equal opportunity for interaction with learning experiences, we, as teachers, must ensure that there are multiple ways for students to navigate and control their learning. Some recommendations from CAST include:

    • Providing alternatives in the lesson requirements. Cater for rate, timing, speed, and range of motor action required to interact with instructional materials, physical manipulatives, and technologies
    • Considering alternatives for physically responding or indicating selections (e.g., alternatives to marking with pen and pencil, alternatives to mouse control)
    •  Offering options for physically interacting with materials by hand, voice, single switch, joystick, keyboard, or adapted keyboard

Connect to Your Practice

Can you think of a student who may benefit from being able to select alternatives for accessing physical materials or technologies? Including options in your lesson design that caters for that student will likely provide better access for some of your other students, too.

Check out the other posts in Lizzie’s UDL File

One in a Thousand

Bankwest fees and charges in pictures.
Bankwest fees and charges

Have you ever signed an important document, skimming over the terms and conditions, not reading the fine print because it is not written in plain English? Or perhaps you fall into the one in a thousand who reads the terms and conditions of each contract you enter? 

A 2014 study revealed that only one in a thousand shoppers accessed license agreements. The researchers looked at the internet browsing behaviour of nearly 50,000 visitors to 90 online software retail companies in a month. They found that accessing it is one step, but of those who do, they read only a small portion.1 Reading and comprehending the fine print was the real barrier to being informed of contractual obligations. 

Pages and pages of difficult to comprehend text, written in a small font can be off-putting for many consumers. These factors are barriers to many for making sense of transactions they make. But small changes can minimise barriers. 

Small Changes Create Fewer Barriers

While adults may experience this in our daily lives, students may also face similar experiences. As CAST, the founders of UDL explain, classroom materials are often dominated by information in text. However, text can be an inferior format for presenting some concepts and for explicating most processes.

Also, text is a particularly weak form of presentation for learners who have text or language-related disabilities. Providing alternatives—especially illustrations, simulations, images or interactive graphics—can make the information in a text more comprehensible for any learner and accessible for some who would find it completely inaccessible in text.

In May this year, Bankwest, a division of the Commonwealth Bank in Australia, released their Terms and Conditions in illustrated format. The bank partnered with the University of Western Australia to reinvent the way their fine print is presented. They claim it as a banking ‘first’ in Australia.

The goal was to eliminate confusing fine print and simplify the product schedule to make it easier for customers to understand what they need to know about certain account products and how they work.

Practical Strategies

This is a great example from everyday life that educators can take back to their learning spaces. CAST recommends:

    • Presenting key concepts in one form of symbolic representation. For example, an expository text or a math equation with an alternative form. For example, an illustration, dance/movement, diagram, table, model, video, comic strip, storyboard, photograph, animation, physical or virtual manipulative.
    • Making explicit links between information provided in texts and any accompanying representation of that information in illustrations, equations, charts, or diagrams.

For further posts on everyday examples illustrating lessons for educators in reducing barriers to learning see the latest posts here.

1Bakos, Y., Marotta-Wurgler, F., & Trossen, D. (2014). Does Anyone Read the Fine Print? Consumer Attention to Standard-Form Contracts. The Journal of Legal Studies, 43(1), 1-35. doi:10.1086/674424

One Billion Hours of Video

iPad showing a video with closed captions
Closed captions break barriers to accessing social media content.

Over one billion hours of video are watched daily, according to YouTube. Whether scrolling your socials or watching the television at the medical clinic, it’s hard to avoid the audiovisual onslaught. But what if you are hearing impaired? What if you are in public? What if your family or housemates don’t want to overhear the latest funny cats video?

Thanks to the wonder of captions, scrolling social media on public transport or in the company of others doesn’t have to be a shared event. Captions are written support for understanding audio and come in three formats: open, closed or real time. They are vital to providing broad access to television, cinema movies, online and other audiovisual content.

Types of Captions

The text of open captions are embedded in a video and can’t be switched on or off. Closed captions, denoted by the CC symbol on the video player, can be toggled on and off. The text is pre-written and saved as a file attached to the video file. Real-time captions transcribe audio of live events verbatim. The captions are created as it happens during a live event.


Initially designed for hearing-impaired audiences, captioning offers access to content for a much broader audience than originally intended. For students with learning difficulties, captions may assist learning by reinforcing in writing what the user is watching and hearing on the video. Another way captions break barriers to accessing learning is by supporting learners who have English as a second language or dialect. Captions may be supplied in multiple languages. This means learners can access the text in their native language and hear it in English. Or they have the English text matching the spoken word.

Not only does captioning allow audio-free access to audiovisual content but some captioning systems allow for searching text. This feature provides deeper accessibility. The user, or in education, the student or teacher, has the power to search the caption text to locate a particular word or point in the video.

Link to the UDL Framework

Captioning relates to Checkpoint 1.2, Offer Alternatives for Auditory Information, in the Universal Design for Learning Framework. We can break barriers to learning by sharing everyday examples of UDL, which can occur in small and familiar ways.

Read our other article relating UDL to everyday life and pop-culture here.

UDL Through Real-World Examples

Sesame Street characters dancing in the street.
Sesame Street promotes diversity and inclusion. Image: ScribblingGeek on Pixabay.

Introducing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into education settings is often met with a murmur of, “Oh no, something else that has to be done.” School teachers, early childhood educators and university academics all carry an extraordinary load. Taking on something new can feel burdensome, at times. One strategy to help this be less so, is to illustrate concepts of UDL through real-world examples.

This post, and a collection of future posts, will draw attention to principles of UDL in everyday life and pop culture.  And where better to start than with the Sesame Street?

Sesame Street and UDL

Features of Sesame Street relate to several the UDL checkpoints. This post explores Sesame Street and UDL Checkpoint 7.2, Engagement through optimising relevance, value, and authenticity.

For more than 50 years, Sesame Street has been entertaining children with an educational focus. Throughout its long history, it constantly sought to represent all people, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Just as UDL aims to make education inclusive and accessible, so too does Sesame Street.

Sesame Street creates its program to be appropriate for different racial, cultural and ethnic groups. Teaching about racial difference is one example, through its multi-coloured Muppets, and then more explicitly with the introduction of black characters.

Cultural responsiveness is shown through different focal points for different countries. Kami, a Muppet in the South African series, is HIV positive. His representation aims to support people to recognise themselves or promote understanding of others. Kami’s friends make explicit that HIV cannot be spread by touch or by being friends with someone who is HIV positive.

In the Nigerian series, the focus moves to religious and ethnic diversity. Diverse religious iconography, food, names and clothing have all been included to promote cultural responsiveness and relevance.

Creating a range of Muppets with diverse characteristics, such as Julia, being on the autism spectrum, characters having mixed race relationships, and, for example, characters with physical or neurological disabilities promotes personalisation and contextualisation, ensuring the lessons learnt through Sesame Street are relevant and valuable to its viewers.

Relating strongly to Checkpoint 7.2 of the UDL guidelines, these features of the Sesame Street characters help optimise relevance and authenticity. Through making its characters representative of the broader community, Sesame Street increases accessibility through diversity and inclusion – a great illustration for consideration in our formal education contexts.

See more of Lizzie’s posts on UDL for specific teaching and learning strategies. 

Visit the Universal Design for Learning section of this website for more information on UDL.

An occupational therapist’s view of UDL

A young woman is sitting with piles of books and is frowning. Special arrangements for university students who identify as having a disability is not an inclusive response. Hence many will try to manage without the assistance available to them. But taking a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach can provide both assistance and inclusion. A thoughtful article by Bethan Collins provides an occupational therapist’s view of UDL and the benefits for all. 

Collins writes from her experience as a disability officer with a university.  Students struggle for a variety of reasons such an inaccessibility of classrooms and reading material. The social aspects are essential for group work and discussion sessions but often disregarded. And of course, if one aspect of learning is a struggle it reflects on other aspects. 

Occupational therapists understand the importance of meaningful activity, not just doing the task. Collins makes the point that the three tenets of UDL are a good start, but the importance of the activities around learning are not discussed. 

UDL fits well with occupational therapy philosophy. Each client is treated as an individual with personal goals. Choice in how to do something is key. 

As a disabled student, occupational therapist and lecturer, Collins concludes with,

“… that there is a very important place for an inclusive curriculum (based on UDL) and also that we, occupational therapists, are in an excellent position to promote this approach.

The title of the short article is, Universal design for learning: What occupational therapy can contribute. The article shows how UDL and occupational therapy work hand in hand. The Universal Design for Learning section of this website has more on the topic. 

Interoception: A universal design approach

Interoception is an internal sensory system where you notice physical and emotional cues. Most people develop this system and gain awareness of their internal cues as they grow up. But not everyone does. Dr Emma Goodall’s workshop, Interoception: A universal design approach, enlightened us and linked it to universal design in learning (UDL).

Emma explained how poor awareness or misinterpretation of our internal body state, like feeling thirsty or hot, makes it difficult to regulate our emotions and behaviour. Then she took us through some interoception activities so that we were all able to notice our own bodies.

One of the slides showing atypical interoception and difficulty noticing body signals, and difficulty interpreting them.
One of Emma Goodall’s slides showing atypical interoception.

After understanding the theory and having a practice, we were able to consider interoception in our own lives and apply it in other settings. It is particularly useful for teachers of school children who have difficulty learning. Emma explained how students and teachers are more engaged at school and there are fewer suspensions and exclusions. 

Emma made the point that when children and young people have not yet developed interoception skills they will struggle with their emotions and with social interactions. Even just being around others may be difficult for them to manage. This will, of course, affect their ability to learn in and out of school.

Presentation slides and paper

The slides from Emma’s presentation give an overview of interoception and how it applies to children and young people. The title of her presentation is, Interoception as a universal design for learning strategy to support well-being and engagement in learning in education for all children and young people.

There is more in Emma’s published paper where she explains how educators, families and other professionals can implement interoception activities. Other contexts where it is useful is the justice system, mental health and aged care. 

Emma has more resources and information on the Positive Partnerships website

Post by Dr Emily Steel

Filling a Balloon with Water

A leaking water-filled balloon.
A leaky bag filled with water serves as an analogy for the pressure on the working memory. Image: 77 Fotos

The challenge of working memory. Imagine filling a balloon with water. Keeping the balloon open whilst pouring in the water is challenging. As capacity is reached, excess water spills over, even going in many directions. If the balloon is degraded by sunlight or has sustained a small hole, the water seeps out. This is like our working memory. Too much input, competing sources of information and limited capacity affect its ability to manage and manipulate complex information.

Working memory is a key element of executive function. It is crucial to learning, reasoning and making sense of the world. CAST explains that working memory is limited for every learner, but can be further limited in learning difficulties. So, what can we do to support learners?

Key Strategies to Support Memory

All of the following strategies are taken from Pooja K. Agarwal, PhD and Patrice M. Bain, EdS from Powerful Teaching.

Retrieval practice

“Retrieval practice” is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out of our brains. Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory for that information is strengthened and forgetting is less likely to occur. Retrieval practice is a powerful strategy for improving academic performance. It requires no special technology, no cost and no significant additional class time.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice involves taking a given amount of time devoted to learning and arranging that time into multiple sessions that are spread over time. In this way, the learning sessions are said to be “spaced” apart in time. Contrast this with cramming, where learning is conducted in a short, massed manner.


Interleaving supports learning by mixing related concepts, encouraging students to discriminate between approaches or similarities or differences. Often used in maths, practice problems are interleaved if the maths problems are arranged so that the same strategy cannot solve consecutive problems.


Feedback-driven metacognition develops students’ cognition of what they know, and what they don’t. It can be valuable in guiding students’ decision-making when learning, applying and transferring skills or strategies.

Future posts will explore practical strategies related to each of these concepts. They will be linked to this post once released.

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous UDL File posts. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.

Strategy and Planning for the Win

A child's hand moving a chess piece.
Strategy and planning for the win. Image: Anna Ventura

A business-owner friend in a professional occupation recently shared lessons from the field. Laughing as she spoke, my friend commented that it was a good place to be, when now she could look back and laugh at the chaotic, out-of-control experiences from which she learnt. She regaled me with stories of staff members who consistently operated outside of best practice and far beyond the desired culture of her business.

‘But how did it get to that?’ I queried.

With honesty and courage, my friend acknowledged that her business culture was neither explicit, nor regularly referenced, nor was any staff member addressed when breaches were made. She knew what she wanted from her colleagues and business life, but had not developed a strategy to ensure this nor planned for its success.

This intelligent, dedicated, often inspiring friend felt frustration and defeat. The business was floundering.

Think, now, about learners. In a previous post, guidance for student goal-setting was highlighted. For effective learners, after setting their goals, they will formulate a plan or develop a strategy to achieve their goal. But what of students with compromised executive function? Or those who learn a completely new skill or in a new field? Or those who are yet to develop their executive function?

To avoid feelings of being defeated by the goals or floundering trying to work towards the goals, principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) help. By providing phased scaffolding, educators support the development of strategic planning.

Practical Strategies

    • ‘Think alouds’, where the teacher explicitly talks through the strategy they are using, models strategic thinking.
    • A ‘traffic light’ prompt, embedded throughout different phases of the learning process guides students as to the pace of their work. Red means stop-and-think. Explain that the students need to plan a strategy to achieve the goal. In this scenario, the orange light signifies action towards the goal that is reviewed regularly to ensure the strategy is appropriate. The green light signifies the plan is moving the students effectively towards their goals, encouraging the student to continue with the plan.
    • Scaffolds, templates and checklists support the development of a plan at each stage of the process. Scaffold support for determining the goal or problem. Scaffold support for setting priorities and determining milestones. And, scaffold support for determining each step of the task, the resources required and ways to identify achievement of the step.

As for my friend – with support, she developed a culture and staff strategy and now her business hums – staff who share her vision, clients who benefit from clear and rigorous best practice procedures, and a business owner who feels immense job satisfaction, and who is an effective and inspiring leader. Strategy and planning for the win!

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous posts from Lizzie’s UDL File. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.