TIES Belonging Resources


known section of belonging wheel highlighted

Children love to hear their names—whether announced across the cafeteria, shouted on the playground, or called upon in the classroom. But the joy of being known involves more than just being noticed and recognized by name. It also comes from being understood deeply and personally. To be known is to be seen as a unique individual and appreciated for all of who you are. Having relationships with people who really understand and affirm you is an important aspect of belonging. Sadly, students with significant cognitive disabilities can sometimes feel like strangers in their own schools. They are often overlooked or known impersonally (for example, by their disability label or as someone from the special education classroom) rather than personally. Disability is so often defined in terms of limitations, challenges, or deficits. Emphasizing a students’ special education label often serves to flatten the portraits of how these students are known. Students with significant cognitive disabilities also have wonderful strengths, talents, personalities, character, and interests that are exciting to get to know—just like anyone else. Students should be known by their teachers and peers by their names instead of their labels; by their strengths, interests, and personalities instead of by their struggles.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Jamal is known far and wide as the Celtics' “number one” fan. The day after each game, scores of students at his middle school seek him out to share a celebratory fist bump or to express their condolences.
  • Jackson might seem a bit reserved at first, but his classmates know how quickly he lights up when the conversation turns to The Mandalorian or the Skywalker Saga. There is no one in second grade who knows as much about Star Wars as Jackson. Conversations between Jackson and his friends in the cafeteria often explore the intricacies of every story line and character.
  • Although Riley does not speak, her friends know that she is never short on things to say. Using her communication device, Riley is always quick with a comeback or a clever comment. They always appreciate her unique sense of humor and thoughtful insights.
  • Luciana had developed quite a reputation at Millersville Elementary—the good kind. After nearly five years of being fully included in classes, clubs, and every other school activity, almost everyone at the school had come to know and love her.

What Can You Do?

  • Use strength-based assessments as part of Individualized Education Program (IEP) planning so that other educators will come to know the positive qualities of students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • Learn about each of your student’s interests, preferences, passions, abilities, and talents through observations and conversations with others. Seek out other students in the school who share any of these same things in common as a way of facilitating introductions.
  • Look for opportunities to highlight the positive qualities of students with disabilities throughout the school day. This could involve inviting students to talk about their interests, affirming aloud the things that they do well, or incorporating their strengths into class activities.
  • Create opportunities for students with and without disabilities to work together in pairs or small groups during each of their classes. Shared activities increase the likelihood that students will have the chance to meet and get to know one another.

Questions for Reflection

  • Think back to a time when you felt like a stranger or outsider within a particular group or community. What did it feel like? What helped you move from the periphery to the center of those relationships?
  • What was your “reputation” back when you were an elementary or middle school student? How accurately did it represent the whole of who you were? How did it impact your sense of belonging at school?
  • Listen to the ways people talk about students with disabilities at your school. In what ways might the disability labels people use present an incomplete or inaccurate portrait of the students they serve? What alternatives are there for describing these students?
  • How well are students with significant cognitive disabilities known at your school? Do the places they are taught and ways they are supported inadvertently limit the number of people who get to know them personally? Talk with your colleagues about any changes you could make to service delivery at your school.


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'