TIES Belonging Resources


needed section of belonging wheel highlighted

The richest forms of community are marked by a real reciprocity among all members. Every person is seen as having skills, talents, and strengths that can benefit others and the broader community. The same is true in schools—every student should be seen as a significant member and recognized for the contributions they can and do make. To be needed involves being valued by others and considered an indispensable member of the community. It is not uncommon, however, for some students to feel less needed than others. Students with significant cognitive disabilities are often viewed as being in need of support and assistance from others. Rarely are they acknowledged as individuals whose presence and contributions enrich and enliven the learning community. When students with disabilities are known personally and seen for their strengths, schools are in a much better position to find ways for them to contribute meaningfully within and beyond the classroom. When others come to need you, your absence is missed. And when you are missed, you can be certain you belong.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Whenever Grayson was absent from school, he was definitely missed by his peers. The members of the Robotics club all rely on Grayson’s insights into coding, and they count on his wry humor to brighten up their conversations.
  • Aria has become the unofficial “tech support” for Ms. Sedgewick’s 7th grade science class. She loves to distribute the tablets, set up the projector, adjust the lighting, and troubleshoot the interactive white board. No one is surprised anymore that someone with a visual impairment can play such a helpful role.
  • Although Chloe was the first student with Down syndrome to be elected to the Bledsoe Middle School student council, it was the creative proposals she put forth for Spirit Week that garnered the most attention. Her clever ideas for the pep rally and pre-game celebration were a hit with all of her schoolmates.
  • Yusuf was quite proud to be one of the two students from his school to be picked to present at the state education conference. Using a switch to activate his slides and voice narration, he gave a stellar speech about the impact of inclusion at Grassmere Elementary School.
  • Whenever his group met in class to work on their history project, Xavier was always picked to serve as timekeeper and chief encourager. He has a real knack for keeping everyone on track and motivated.

What Can You Do?

  • Provide leadership opportunities for students with significant cognitive disabilities within and beyond the classroom. Likewise, teach students the skills needed to carry out any of these activities well.
  • Help connect every student to at least one extracurricular activity in which they can play an active role and contribute to the group.
  • Involve students with disabilities in service-learning projects. This allows them to meet the needs of others and showcase their talents and contributions to the community, all while learning and serving alongside their peers.
  • Make a list of the classroom roles responsibilities that students tend to value or enjoy. Identify the adaptations and supports that students with significant cognitive disabilities will need in order to assume these same responsibilities.
  • Use cooperative learning activities that require and reward interdependence. As students work together and rely on each other, they come to recognize each person’s district contributions.
  • Make sure students with significant cognitive disabilities are considered for schoolwide recognitions and superlatives available to any student.

Questions for Reflection

  • Think about a community in which you play an active part. How does having valued roles in that community shape your sense of membership and belonging?
  • Create a list of all the ways that students at your school take on leadership roles or important responsibilities. To what extent are students with significant cognitive disabilities also contributing in any of these ways? Why or why not?
  • Throughout society, individuals with significant cognitive impairments are often seen first and foremost as the designated recipients of assistance and support, rather than as people who can provide assistance and support to others. Are similar views evident among students and staff at your school? What could you do to shift these perspectives in more affirming directions?
  • Who do teachers at your school tend to turn to when they need help or assistance from students? Identify a few practical ways that you could help them consider a broader range of students who might have something to contribute.


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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'