TIES Belonging Resources


accepted section of belonging wheel highlighted

Schools are unique communities in which the lives of students from many different backgrounds come together. As students learn and play alongside one another each day, they regularly encounter others whose characteristics, experiences, and circumstances differ from their own. Promoting acceptance amidst this diversity is central to supporting belonging. To be accepted is to be embraced gladly without condition and viewed as an equal. Knowing for certain that you are liked by others contributes to feelings of self-worth, gives you a sense of roots, and makes school a more enjoyable place to be. Yet, acceptance is not always assured for students with significant cognitive disabilities. What children know and think about disability varies widely within and across schools. In some places, negative attitudes, stereotypes, and stigma are all too common. In other places, though, acceptance abounds. Transforming rejection or tolerance into acceptance and a true embracing often requires promoting awareness, providing accurate information, affirming strengths, and supporting shared activities.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Although a first-time visitor might notice Tyler’s twirling and hand-flapping, his peers talk most about his deep knowledge of all-things-science and his incredible creativity. Tyler is usually the top choice when students pick their lab partners.
  • Imani knows she matters to others in her school. She loves the compliments she regularly receives on her unique fashion choices. She also knows that her classmates will be excited to see her each day.
  • Although Kai cannot read at the same level as his classmates or grasp every concept in quite the same way, no one ever questions his presence in general education classes. Like every other member of his class, Kai is there to learn, grow, and connect with others.
  • Ms. Turner was adamant that students should not have to perform at a certain academic level to take any of her classes. With a motto of “no exclusions,” she welcomed any student simply by virtue of their being enrolled at Slater Middle School.

What Can You Do?

  • Find creative ways of integrating disability awareness into classes through carefully chosen books and group activities.
  • Undertake schoolwide events in conjunction with national awareness days or months focused on developmental disabilities (March), Down syndrome (March 21 and October), cerebral palsy (March), autism (April), and inclusive schools (December).
  • Provide well-supported opportunities for students with and without significant cognitive disabilities to spend time together within and beyond the classroom. Preconceived ideas or misconceptions about people with disabilities are most likely to get overturned through personal contact.
  • Ask students with and without disabilities at your school to brainstorm ways of ensuring students with significant cognitive disabilities experience greater acceptance. Students are often the most well-acquainted with the culture at their school and they have creative ideas for changing it for the better.
  • Invite guest speakers with disabilities to talk with your class—or present during a schoolwide assembly—about their experiences and advice.

Questions for Reflection

  • Everyone has experienced rejection at some point in their lives. How would you describe the feeling of being left out of a group that was important to you? What impact did this have on you?
  • Reflect on the culture of your classroom or school. What are the attitudes of peers and staff toward disability? Do their words and actions tend to communicate true acceptance, or something else such as rejection, discomfort, or mere tolerance?
  • What active steps is your school taking to promote an understanding and embracing of diversity? Consider how these efforts could also focus on the acceptance and belonging of students with disabilities as a part of a broader focus on equity, inclusion, and diversity.
  • What do you think peers and staff at your school need to know in order to be more accepting of students with significant cognitive disabilities? How might you equip them with this information and guidance?


All rights reserved.


TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota (# H326Y170004) and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education.

See our full attribution statement in 'Creating communities of belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities'