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Setting Up For The (UDL) Buffet Dinner

Laura Lee Smith
Laura Lee Smith
September 2, 2021

It’s about creating an environment where learners can excel and bring out the best in everyone around them.

- Katie Novak, Innovate Inside the Box

After an isolating year amid the Pandemic, 2021 has brought forth the ability to come together and join hands (cue song here). Yet, in doing so, there are nuances to these gatherings that make an impact on guest’s engagement and enjoyment. 

Equally so, our students have returned to their classrooms (in one form or another) and need to remain engaged in their learning experiences. Therefore, it’s critical to address the nuances that impact their learning engagement. 

With this, I’m going to utilize the dinner table analogy to expand on how to intentionally design sensory friendly learning environments to ensure engagement for the learning community.

Therefore, I would like to explore another layer to the dinner party experience - the environment and experience itself. Where you sit, how you sit and what you use to eat/drink contributes to your engagement and experience.  

Designing for Engagement

Have you been to a social gathering that is too loud? Or awkwardly quiet? Have you been to a dinner where you are sitting too close to your cousin (or won’t stop talking uncle)? As a host, you intend to create a welcoming environment and for your guests to feel like they belong at the gathering. No one wants to feel like they are putting on a boring get-together. Thus, you must consider the options of the space and place to make the gathering rewarding for all participants. Planning with a “sensory lens” will help you achieve engagement through sensory awareness and environmental design. 

Using the “sensory lens” for dinner party planning, you need to consider how lighting (visual input), seating arrangement (body positioning), utensils used (tactile input), background noise (auditory input) influences engagement and enjoyment of the experience. And there is a fragile line- determining what is too many choices, or too little. Therefore, with intent, you can balance sensory input needs.

Let us get metaphorical here and apply the same elements of planning for the dinner party to the classroom environment and experience. We are going to use a ‘sensory lens’ to connect dinner planning and classroom environment set up. 

As you go back into your classroom you will now put on your ‘sensory glasses (lens).’ You are looking for what can activate or distract from learning based off of sensory input triggers. Your goal is to now identify these triggers and intentionally design your learning environment. You’ll begin to ask…  how could I be unintentionally creating a sensory stressful environment? 

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

- Wayne Dyer

Before we explore learning considerations, I want to validate not all students need the same sensory system supports, yet there are some universal tools and options to provide them to ensure they are regulated and ready to learn. 

Providing Purposeful Options

In the table below are explicit connections between sensory processing and learning environment/instructional considerations. It has been utilized to connect to the dinner party set up as described above. These learning considerations should be used as universal choices for engagement. 

Dinner Party Set Up Sensory Processing Connection Learning Considerations
Using the Sensory Lens for Learning Engagement


What combination of light am I providing? What is the set up for decorations?

Having neutral decorations balances the visual system stimulus. Providing contrast between text and background creates focus on key elements.

Limiting visual stimulus allows for engagement and focus. Too many visuals make the visual system work harder and become fatigued.

Provide dim light (non-fluorescent) and lighting options to amplify text and color (desk lights, spotlights for key content).

Minimize displays on walls (provide predictable locations for key instructional/learning displays)

Get to know your students’ visual needs. Visual impairments? Visual tools of support to amplify/dim lighting?

Seating Arrangement:

What are my seating arrangement options? Are guests able to stand/sit?

Proprioception (Body Position) and location impacts engagement. Sometimes sitting still limits processing and engagement.

Provide options for seating and set parameters of effective choice. Teach that these options are for engagement, not distraction.

Allow students to stand and move if not distracting others when processing or engaged in new learning.


What kind of plates/utensils will I be using?

Providing purposeful options allows for our brain to choose what tool supports our engagement best. Yet providing too many choices of how to engage can create an adverse reaction of overwhelm. Therefore, it is important to be purposeful.

Allow different modalities for students to process their learning (eg. White board vs. Paper).

Provide different writing utensils for students to choose from (including computer processing).

Background Sound:

What kind of background sound do I want to provide? Natural talk? Music? Nature?

Sound level (low or high) can trigger subconscious activation of the stress response system

Be aware of white noise and or unexpected noise. Be aware of behavior response with sound triggers and provide sensory support such as a brain break.
Allow for students to listen to approved music and or have noise cancelling headphones.


Just like for your dinner party guests, you want your students to feel welcomed and regulated so they can be ready to engage in their learning experience. 

To further apply this understanding in the UDL Framework, it is critical to acknowledge the foundational neuroscience behind engagement and sensory input awareness is a strong beginning. By understanding how sensory inputs contribute to learning engagement, you are able to knock down barriers you didn’t know were up.

UDL provides a framework (or buffet) of options to ensure authentic engagement in the learning process. Students learn to take responsibility for their learning as they experiment what impacts the affective network of their brain for engagement. To access learning goals, it’s crucial to use a ‘sensory lens’ to lessen learning barriers so your students are engaged in their learning experience. 

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