TIES Belonging Resources


present section of the belonging wheel is high lighted

Belonging begins with presence. It is hard to feel like you belong if you are never or rarely part of the array of activities and events that make up the life of a community. To be present is to be involved each and every day in the same places as everyone else in your school. It means being part of the everyday fabric of school life—just like anybody else. Students with and without disabilities should participate together in the same classrooms, hallways, playgrounds, and cafeterias. In other words, the presence of students with significant cognitive disabilities should be natural and expected. Unfortunately, many students still spend most of their school day in separate classrooms. Even when students with disabilities are physically in the same spaces as their peers, they may not really encounter one another in ways that lead to belonging. For example, they may be sitting by a paraprofessional rather than their peers. Instead of playing with schoolmates on the playground, they may be more likely to be alone or spending time with adults. When students with and without disabilities are present together, they are more likely to get to know one another, accept one another, feel comfortable around one another, and build relationships with one another. This is sometimes called the “proximity effect.” The more students come into contact with one another, the more likely it is that their interactions will cultivate a relationship. Although there is much more to belonging than merely sharing the same space, being present is a necessary starting point.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Until she started taking general education classes, Dominque never had a chance to meet other kids in her school who shared her interests. Once she transitioned out of the self-contained special education classroom, the number of peers she spent time with each day jumped from 8 to 80.
  • Shareece, a middle school student who has Down syndrome, loves having a locker right next to Ayesha. They always smile, wave, or catch up between classes. This everyday routine has become a favorite part of Shareece’s day.
  • Upon walking into the cafeteria, you immediately notice the talking, eating, and laughing. Anika is right there in the middle of the fun. Because she is so integrated into a group of friends, most people would not know that she has autism and uses a communication device.
  • Michael used to sit with two other students with disabilities near the back of the classroom, flanked by a paraprofessional. His math teacher recently replaced all the student desks with tables, which work better for Michael’s wheelchair. He enjoys sitting with two peers without disabilities. The paraprofessional now circulates around the room helping everyone, providing direct support to Michael only as needed.

What Can You Do?

  • Along with other teachers (and perhaps even students), walk through your school buildings and grounds. Identify the physical or environmental features that could prevent students with disabilities from being fully present in all of the places in which their peers also have a presence.
  • During IEP meetings, talk about how supplementary aids and services could be provided that support a student to be a true member of their age-grade general education classroom. Supplementary aids and services can include modified but aligned instruction, peer supports, behavior supports, communication supports, and much more. Students should not be put in special education settings simply because they need a modified curriculum.
  • Prioritize involvement in extracurricular programs for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The more that students are involved in activities built around shared interests, the more likely it is that new relationships will form.

Questions for Reflection

  • Think about the relationships you have, both with close friends and acquaintances. How has being in proximity to one another (being present in the same spaces together) been part of helping these relationships form?
  • Look around your school building this week. Are students with disabilities a part of the everyday fabric of your school? What tells you that this is or is not the case?
  • Talk with others at your school. What are the barriers to presence that they notice? These might be physical barriers, attitudinal barriers, or practice barriers.
  • Make an action plan for your school. What steps can you take—individually and with others—to help students with disabilities have an everyday presence in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, and other school settings?


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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'