Design Thinking and Universal Design for Learning as a Way to Combat Unwanted Behavior in the Classroom

Image shows students working out of textbooks.

Cassandra L. Hunt M.Ed. Doctoral Student, University of Kansas

Design Thinking (DT) is a five-stage humanistic approach to solving real-world problems that revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we are designing. These problems can come in all forms, but here we are going to discuss utilizing its five stages combined with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a way to redesign the learning environment to combat unwanted behavior in the classroom. Having a greater understanding of the DT process allows teachers to more effectively implement UDL to design more personalized learning environments for all students. As a design framework, UDL integrates both proactive and iterative instructional design approaches for supporting both academic and behavioral needs of learners (Basham & Marino, 2013). Let’s begin with the stages of DT which are: Empathize, Define (the problem), Ideate, Prototype, and Test (Dam & Siang, 2018); and how the UDL framework can be supported/implemented within each phase.

When teachers encounter unwanted behavior in the classroom, DT encourages them to first Empathize with the student to gain an empathic understanding of the problem behavior that is occurring. Empathy is crucial to a human-centered design process such as DT, and empathy allows design thinkers to set aside his or her own assumptions about the student to gain insight into the student’s needs. Depending on time constraints, the team will gather a substantial amount of information at this stage to use during the next stage and to develop the best possible understanding of the student(s), their needs, and the problems that underlie student behavior.  When thinking of Empathizing in relation to UDL, this is where teachers should start identifying barriers in the environment that could be contributing to the unwanted behavior in the classroom. It’s important to remember that barriers occur where the student interacts with the learning environment (CAST, 2018). Thus, when unwanted behaviors are occurring look for who, what, when, where, and how students are interacting within the learning environment.

In the next stage, you want to Define the problem. Educators should seek to define the problem as a problem statement in a human-center manner (Dam & Siang, 2018). For instance, instead of saying “Sami is disruptive in math class” a much better way to define the problem would be, “Sami needs more options for engagement in math class.” The Define stage will help the designers (e.g., teachers, support staff, administrators) gather ideas to establish features, functions, and any other elements that will allow them to solve the problems or at the very least, allow students to resolve issues themselves with the minimum of difficulty. When defining your problem consider what supports are missing from the environment, this way when you begin to implement UDL you’ll have a better idea of exactly what guidelines and checkpoints can assist you in solving the problem.

After the problem has been defined, then the team moves into the Ideate stage. The Ideate stage of the DT process is where teachers or “designers” are ready to start generating ideas for possible solutions to the problem behavior. As the teacher, one has grown to understand their students and the barriers they encounter in the Empathize stage, and observations have been analyzed and synthesized in the Define stage and ended up with a human-centered problem statement and needed supports.  With this solid background, the teacher and their team members can start to “think outside the box” to identify new solutions to the problem statement they have created and can start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem. Within the Ideate stage teachers can begin to come up with ideas on how they want to implement UDL in order to provide (a) multiple means of representation—that is, offer flexible ways to present what we teach and learn, (b) multiple means of action and expression—that is, flexible options for how we learn and express what we know, and (c) multiple means of engagement—that is, flexible options for generating and sustaining motivation, the why of learning (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

Once ideas have been generated, the team moves into the Prototype stage of DT. The design team will now produce several inexpensive, scaled down versions of a product or specific features found within a product, so they can investigate the problem solutions generated in the previous stage. Solution-prototypes are either accepted, improved and re-examined, or rejected based on students’ experience during UDL implementation. UDL is an iterative process, thus, if there is a need to design and redesign the environment DT allows you to do so.  By the end of this stage, the design team will have a better idea of the constraints inherent within the design, the barriers that are present, and have a better/more informed perspective of how students would behave, think, and feel when interacting with the end implementation plan.

Finally, teachers move into the Test stage of DT. The Test stage of DT is where teachers rigorously test the complete implementation plan using the best solutions identified in the prototyping phase. This is the final stage of the five-stage model, but in an iterative process, the results generated during the Testing phase are often used to redefine one or more problems and inform the understanding of the student. We may have outlined a direct linear DT process in which one stage seemingly leads to the next with a logical conclusion at student testing. However, in practice, the process is a more flexible, non-linear procedure.

Research suggests that all students benefit from evidence-based instruction and proactive instructional designs (Basham & Gardner, 2010) that are responsive to learner strengths and preferences (Tomlinson, 1999) and promote academic engagement (Greenwood, Hart, Walker, Risley, 1994). These are key concepts of UDL, an instructional design framework that calls for teachers to design lessons accessible to all students thereby eliminating the need for accommodations and modifications for students with high incidence disabilities (Rose & Meyer, 2002).  UDL calls for teachers to design lessons that incorporate student strengths, interests, and preferences by planning (or Ideating) a variety of learning activities and assessment options along with supports for perception, understanding, comprehension, interest, and effort (Rose & Meyer, 2009). In addition to the flexibility and support of instructional materials and lesson plan design, UDL calls for teachers to support students’ executive functioning skills and self-regulation skills (CAST, 2011). One would expect, then, that with Design Thinking, UDL would be an ideal instructional design framework for students who are at-risk for academic failure due to behavior problems because it provides the support they need without their being singled out, and it allows them and all students to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.


Basham, J., & Gardner, J. E. (2010). Measuring Universal Design for Learning. Special Education Technology Practice, March/April, 15-19.  

Basham, J. D., & Marino, M. T. (2013). Understanding STEM education and supporting students through universal design for learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 45, 8-15.

CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from

CAST. (2011). UDL Guidelines – Educator Checklist Version 2.

Dam, R., & Siang, T. (2018, June). 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process. In Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

Greenwood, C., Hart, B., Walker, D., & Risley, T. (1994). The opportunity to respond and academic performance revisited: A behavioral theory of developmental retardation and its prevention. In R. Gardner III, D. Sainato, J. Cooper, T. Heron, W. Heward, J. Eshleman & T. Grossi (Eds.), Behavior Analysis in Education: Focus on Measurably Superior Instruction (pp. 213-223). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Rose, D.H., and Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2009). A practical reader in universal design for learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Tomilnson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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