TIES Belonging Resources


befriended section of belonging wheel highlighted

There is nothing quite like a friendship. Friendships are among our greatest sources of support, affection, understanding, comfort, and fun. To be befriended means having peer relationships marked by mutual affection and reciprocity. Having a friend means having someone in your life who says, “I choose you too.” A friend provides someone to play with, talk with, spend time with, and grow up with. There is no denying that friendships contribute to our well-being. They give meaning to our lives, make us who we are, help us navigate challenges, and bring us joy. Every student needs enjoyable and affirming relationships with their peers that provide companionship and fun. Yet, friendships can be quite rare for many students with significant cognitive disabilities. In the absence of inclusion, students with disabilities have far fewer opportunities to meet and get to know their fellow schoolmates. There may be no greater way to strengthen belonging than by creating environments in which friendships can bloom.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Nikita was so thankful to have a friend like Reagan. Reagan just seemed to really “get” her. They met at an inclusive service-learning club at their school in 6th grade, and now, two years later, they remain inseparable.
  • Drew’s parents were worried about whether he would make friends in kindergarten because his classmates might notice he was “different.” Drew’s teacher, however, was committed to fostering a culture of inclusion in her classroom. Drew was never without a friend—in the classroom, playground, or lunchroom.
  • Alejandro would help Deandre out when his wheelchair got stuck, when he couldn’t reach something, or when he struggled with an assignment. But their relationship was really more of a friendship. No one could make Alejandro belly laugh like Deandre, and Alejandro loved having Deandre over to play after school.

What Can You Do?

  • Promote a classroom culture of inclusion and acceptance. For younger children, incorporate a “morning meeting” during which students with and without disabilities can talk about friendship, learn valued social skills, and get to know one another better.
  • Ask students with significant cognitive disabilities which peers they would like to get to know better. Then, identify ways the students could spend more time together. Friendships usually develop when students have multiple opportunities to spend time and have fun with one another during shared activities (for example, working on a project, playing, eating lunch, joining the same club, doing a classroom job).
  • Be mindful of the roles you ask peers to take on in their relationships with students with significant cognitive disabilities. Although there is nothing wrong with giving and receiving help, a friendship is quite different from a “helping” relationship. Encourage peers to be friends and classmates rather than teachers or helpers.

Questions for Reflection

  • Think back to your own friendships when you were in school. How would you describe what it meant to you to have (and be) a good friend? How did these relationships change as you moved through school? How did friendships impact your sense of belonging?
  • Take time to learn about the peer relationships of students with significant cognitive disabilities at your school by observing and talking with students. To what extent are peer relationships marked by qualities of friendship? For example, do students talk, play, and spend time together across settings? Are the benefits mutual? Do students feel like they can be themselves in these relationships?
  • Work with educators at your school to brainstorm a list of the practices at your school that are supporting or hindering the development of friendships among students with and without disabilities. Choose 1-3 practical things you can do together to provide greater opportunity and support for students to become and strengthen friendships.


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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'