TIES Belonging Resources


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Everyone wants to feel heard and understood. Knowing that your voice is really valued is not only empowering, but it also helps you feel more connected to others. To be heard means that your perspective is sought, listened to, and respected. Amplifying the voices of students promotes their self-determination, self-worth, and sense of belonging. Whenever students feel heard at school—by both adults and their peers—it reminds them they are important, that their voice matters, that they have ideas to contribute, and that they are valued. However, students with significant cognitive disabilities rarely have opportunities to be heard. Instead of getting to share ideas, set goals, express preferences, or contribute to meaningful conversations in the classroom, teachers and other adults make important decisions for them or without their input. Students may also be overlooked by their peers and never get asked what they think or want to do. It is important to ensure that students have everything they need to share their views—and that everything is in place for their voice to be truly heard.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Mrs. Yates makes sure that Antonio gets to speak for himself, rather than having others speak for him. At the beginning of the year, classmates would usually ask questions about Antonio’s wheelchair or hearing aids right in front of him. Mrs. Yates found a natural way to redirect those questions (for example, “How about asking Antonio?” “Antonio, do you want to show anything cool about your wheelchair?”).
  • Mikayla uses a communication device. She used to miss out on sharing her ideas with her classmates because their conversations moved so fast. Her teacher talked with peers and helped them think of what they could do differently. Several of Mikayla’s classmates are now more aware. They stop to ask Mikayla “What do you think?” and they wait to listen to what she has to say.
  • Every morning, Tyler’s 1st-grade class starts with a morning meeting focused on social-emotional learning. It provides a time to greet one another, build relationships, and talk about important topics. With the right support in place—such as visual supports, wait time, and occasional encouragement—Tyler is able to share his ideas during these conversations with his peers.

What Can You Do?

  • Make sure all students have reliable ways to communicate their thoughts, goals, and preferences in every school setting. Get to know the various ways each student communicates. Use communication supports such as picture symbols or communication devices for students with disabilities who need them.
  • Identify how student choice, goal setting, and preferences can be integrated more fully into lessons and other class activities. Include these elements of student voice every day in some way.
  • Teach students with and without disabilities about respect and interpersonal skills like active listening and asking questions. Give students opportunities to practice, role play, and provide positive feedback.
  • Consider times when students with disabilities might be misunderstood because they have trouble communicating. Identify ways to support students in repairing communication breakdowns and making sure their ideas are heard and understood. For example, instead of nodding, saying “mmhmm,” and moving on, ask the student, “I didn’t quite understand. Can you tell me again in a different way?”

Questions for Reflection

  • Think back on a time when you felt misunderstood, ignored, or overlooked in an area that was important to you. How did this experience impact your sense of belonging?
  • How often and how well do peers invite, listen to, and understand the perspectives of students with significant cognitive disabilities at your school? Observe students’ interactions to discern what you could do to support peers in each of these areas.
  • Talk with teachers, paraprofessionals, service providers, or others about the strategies they used to address student choice, goal setting, and preferences. What steps could you all take together to help all students feel heard, especially students who may have a harder time sharing their perspectives?


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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'