TIES Belonging Resources

Creating communities of belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities

By Erik W. Carter & Elizabeth E. Biggs

School should be a place of belonging for every student. This aspirational statement would certainly be affirmed by educators, school leaders, and families alike. We all hope that students will feel truly “at home” in their classrooms. We want them to feel valued and accepted by their peers and teachers. We strive to create connections among students that lead to reciprocal relationships. We work to ensure they feel like true members of their school. Every student should know for certain that they belong (Slaten et al., 2016).

Although the experience of belonging is equally important for students with significant cognitive disabilities as it is for their peers, it has remained far more elusive. The history of schooling has long been marked by exclusion and segregation (Agran et al., 2020). Students with disabilities were once denied a free appropriate public education. They were sent to separate special education schools apart from their peers. They were left out of so many of the ordinary educational experiences that could promote their flourishing. This sustained separation has had a negative impact on the relationships and learning outcomes of so many students.

Efforts to promote the integration of students with significant cognitive disabilities in their neighborhood schools sought to remedy this isolation. Local schools created special education classrooms that brought students into the midst of their same-age peers without disabilities, at least within the same school building. However, the lives of students with and without significant cognitive disabilities still rarely intersect. The clear divide between general and special education classes meant that students with and without disabilities learned near one another, but not with one another. In the absence of shared activities, strong social connections are unlikely to form. Integration falls short of fostering true belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities within their school communities.

The current movement toward the full inclusion of students with significant cognitive disabilities aims to break down this enduring divide. Within inclusive schools, students with and without disabilities learn together in the same classrooms throughout the entire day. Educators and specialized instructional support personnel (for example, physical therapists, school counselors speech-language pathologists) collaborate closely to deliver strong instruction and individualized support. As a result, students with and without disabilities are engaged together in accessing and making progress in the general education curriculum. Learning becomes a shared endeavor and interactions among students abound.

This long journey from exclusion to segregation to integration to inclusion has been a protracted and winding process. Movement has not always been in one direction and progress has sometimes stalled. Indeed, all four of these terms could be used to describe aspects of the educational experiences of students with significant cognitive disabilities in nearly every state and country. Yet, there seems to still be one more destination worth pursuing. Yes, students should be included in all aspects of everyday school life. But they should also participate in ways that lead to a deep sense of belonging. School should be a place of belonging for every student.

Dimensions of Belonging

Belonging is easy to affirm but much harder to define. What does it really look like for students with disabilities to experience belonging within inclusive schools? What are the experiences and relationships that will assure them that they have a cherished place within their learning community? How would you know whether your students have found a place of belonging in your school? Schools that are committed to the concept of belonging must have a strong understanding of the practices and postures that contribute to this goal.

Research and practice each provide valuable insights into what leads to belonging. Through reviewing the literature and conducting numerous studies on inclusive education, we have identified ten essential dimensions of belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities (Biggs & Carter, 2017; Brock et al., 2020; Carter, in press). Belonging is experienced when students are present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, involved, supported, heard, befriended, and needed (see Figure 1). When each of these areas is addressed well, schools become learning environments in which students with disabilities thrive and are seen as valued and indispensable members of the school community. We present this framework for belonging as a helpful guide for schools that want to press even further on this important journey.

Figure 1. Dimensions of belonging

Overview of the Belonging Mini-Guides

We have developed a series of practical mini-guides that unpack each of these ten dimensions of belonging. Although our accent is on how each area could be advanced for students with significant cognitive disabilities, you will quickly see that each has salience for any student who might be on the margins of their school. Belonging matters for everyone.

The opening section of each mini-guide defines each dimension and addresses why it is so important for students with and without disabilities. We then provide brief snapshots of what it might look like when students experience each aspect of belonging. These examples are certainly not exhaustive, but they do illustrate small ways in which students’ school days could look different. Next, we present several steps schools can take to promote change in each area. For example, educators can rethink how they provide instruction, arrange supports, engage peers, and design environments so that belonging is more likely. Finally, we suggest areas of reflection for individual teachers, related service providers, school counselors, and school leaders. These questions encourage you to consider the importance of each dimension and the ways they are experienced in your classroom or school.

Reflecting Together (Belonging Reflection Tool)

We also encourage you to reflect as a team on how belonging is experienced by students with disabilities throughout your school. Gather fellow teachers, specialized instructional support personnel, administrators, and other school staff. Invite the perspectives of students with and without disabilities. Speak with parents and other family members of students with and without disabilities. Each will have unique insights into this topic, as well as diverse recommendations on how to move forward.

We've created a simple reflection tool that can help structure this collective conversation. For each of the ten dimensions of belonging, ask: What are we doing really well right now in this area? What could we be doing better or differently in this area? The first question encourages celebration. Make sure that everyone knows what is going well, and keep doing these same things in the future. The second question invites action. Compile all of the ideas people share about what could be going better or differently and identify common themes. After addressing both of these questions for each of the ten dimensions, ask: What actionable steps should we be taking next to change how students experience belonging in our school? This last question leads to improvement. Commit to making noticeable changes throughout the school year that will transform the current landscape for students with and without disabilities to experience greater inclusion and belonging in your school. Good reflection should culminate in observable action (Forest & Pearpoint, 1997).

Moving Forward

Students will flourish most within a learning community where belonging is actively promoted and personally experienced. As you take steps to improve practices and postures throughout your school, continue to reflect on emerging opportunities and needs. Engage students with and without disabilities in efforts to promote inclusion and belonging for all students. Implement some of the powerful practices featured in the Peer Engagement Implementation Guides found on the TIES Center website (https://tiescenter.org/peer-engagement). Celebrate the difference your ongoing investment is making in the lives and learning of students with significant cognitive disabilities. We all want to belong.

References

  • Agran, M., Jackson, L., Kurth, J. A., Ryndak, D., Burnette, K., Jameson, M., … Wehmeyer, M. L. (2020). Why aren’t students with severe disabilities being placed in general education classrooms: Examining the relations among classroom placement, learner outcomes, and other factors. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 45(1), 4–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/1540796919878134

  • Biggs, E. E., & Carter, E. W. (2017). Supporting the social lives of students with intellectual disability. In M. L. Wehmeyer & K. A. Shogren (Eds.), Handbook of research-based practices for educating students with intellectual disability (pp. 235–254). Routledge.

  • Brock, M. E., Carter, E. W., & Biggs, E. E. (2020). Supporting peer interactions, relationships, and belonging. In F. Brown, J. McDonnell, & M. E. Snell (Eds.), Instruction of students with severe disabilities (9th ed., pp. 384–417). Merrill.

  • Carter, E. W. (n.d.). Dimensions of belonging for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In J. L. Jones & K. L. Gallus (Eds.), Belonging and resilience in individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities: Community and family engagement. Springer.

  • Forest, M., & Pearpoint, J. (1997). Four easy questions. Inclusion Press.

  • Slaten, C. D., Ferguson, J. K., Allen, K., Brodrick, D., & Waters, D. (2016). School belonging: A review of the history, current trends, and future directions. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2016.6

Attribution

All rights reserved.  Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Carter, E. W., & Biggs, E. E. (2021). Creating communities of belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities (Belonging Series). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

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. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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