TIES Belonging Resources


Involved section of belonging wheel highlighted

Learning is a primary purpose of school, but not as a solitary event. A distinctive feature of school is that students are all learning together—not alone. To be involved is to be actively engaged with and alongside peers in shared learning and common goals. Learning together is a magnificent way to learn. Students are meaningfully involved when they participate in cooperative learning with their classmates, work toward collective learning goals, and navigate challenges together as peers. Teachers support this deep involvement in the curriculum when they hold high expectations for all students and design opportunities for students with varying abilities, strengths, and needs to learn from and with one another. Unfortunately, students with significant cognitive disabilities are sometimes “included” in a class without really being very involved. They may be passively sitting while others are working. They may have goals that are substantially different from any of their classmates. Or they may have few meaningful interactions and collaborations with fellow classmates. Fostering belonging in school means ensuring all students are actively involved in meaningful learning together.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Amaira and her classmates are learning how to measure objects, which helps Amaira master early number concepts. Her classmate, Sarah, says “Let’s count together to see how long it is.” Sarah counts out loud as Amaira touches each number in sequence on her communication device.
  • Dante’s 8th grade English Language Arts teacher posts a brief “Do Now” assignment on the board for all students to work on as they enter the classroom. Dante works on his “Do Now” with his friend Terrance, who knows how to support Dante in answering each of the questions.
  • Ms. McLoughlin uses journal prompts at the end of most of her 4th grade social studies lessons. After their lesson on the Gettysburg Address, Nicholas drew a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his journal and wrote “All people are equal.” When he showed it to his classmate, Jessica, she said “I wrote something like that too!”

What Can You Do?

  • Identify ways that students can interact and collaborate more in their learning. Be sure to think about the support students with significant cognitive disabilities need to participate in these learning activities with their peers.
  • Use creative ways to support collaboration between general and special education teachers, such as using shared cloud-based documents online. Focus this collaboration on identifying support for students with significant cognitive disabilities to be more involved during lessons and learning activities.
  • Learn how Universal Design for Learning principles can help you plan classroom activities that support the learning and involvement of all students, including those with disabilities.
  • Teach students with and without disabilities the interpersonal skills they need to participate in and benefit from cooperative learning.

Questions for Reflection

  • Reflect on a time when you successfully navigated a shared challenge or met a learning goal with other people. What is different about learning together compared to learning alone? How did learning together contribute to your sense of belonging?
  • Observe students in their classrooms to determine the extent to which everyone is involved in common learning goals and activities. What do you notice about the involvement of students with significant cognitive disabilities?
  • Talk with fellow teachers about their learning goals for students with significant cognitive disabilities who take general education classes. What can collectively be done to help promote high expectations in your school?
  • Brainstorm several ways that you can support the learning and active involvement of all students in the classroom. What is one new strategy you can try out first to help students with and without disabilities make progress in the curriculum together?


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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'