TIES Belonging Resources


supported section of belonging wheel highlighted

Our true capabilities are evident not in what we can do on our own, but rather by what we can do when given the right opportunities and support. To be supported means having the individualized resources needed to reach one’s full potential and thrive in everyday life. Supports are a bridge—they help people go from where they are to where they want to be. Supports can involve changes to the physical environment, adapted materials, technology, or other tools. But feeling supported is more than these resources—it is a social experience. Students are most likely to feel supported when they are part of a community in which they are known personally, where people see their potential, and where they are provided the assistance they need to be successful. However, teachers sometimes struggle to know how to support the potential of students with significant cognitive disabilities. Or, teachers may provide numerous supports without a strong student-centered plan, resulting in students receiving more support than is actually needed. When students receive the right types and amount of support from teachers and peers to reach their full potential, it provides assurance that their presence and involvement is truly desired. It reminds them and everyone that they belong.

What Does It Look Like?

  • Andi always works with Brittany and Gretchen, two classmates who are part of her peer support arrangement. Ms. Davis, a paraprofessional, provides periodic support to all three students as they work together during English class. Andi prefers working with her classmates “just like anyone else,” rather than always sitting next to an adult.
  • Mr. Walker enjoys getting to know each of his 3rd grade students at a personal level. When he learned that Joseph loves drawing, he worked with Joseph’s autism support teacher, parents, and the principal to make sure that support was in place so that Joseph could be part of the afterschool art club.
  • Treshon and his friends love to play basketball during recess. With input from the physical education teacher and Treshon’s physical therapist, the students made some simple changes to the way they play so that Treshon could fully participate while using his wheelchair.
  • Ms. Bowman never wants to haphazardly plan students’ supplementary aids and services. She conducts observations, gathers feedback from team members, and has conversations with the student to learn what support is working and where more support is needed. All of this work helps the IEP team carefully plan the individualized system of support that meets each student’s needs and helps students reach their full potential.

What Can You Do?

  • Rather than relying primarily on paraprofessional or adult support, consider how peers can provide natural support to students with significant cognitive disabilities. Be sure to encourage peers to provide support as a classmate or friend, not as a teacher or “helper.”
  • Identify support that would be beneficial to all students in a classroom (sometimes called “universal supports”) and support individual students might need (sometimes called “individualized supports”). Combining universal and individualized support can help teachers more feasibly meet the educational needs of all of their students.
  • Learn how to use an ecological assessment to individualize support planning in inclusive school settings, such as classrooms, cafeterias, or playgrounds. An ecological assessment helps educational teams identify needed support by examining the demands in specific settings and comparing them to students’ individualized strengths and challenges.
  • Ask students about their goals for school and the support they think would help them reach these goals. Use visual supports (such as pictures) as response options for students who may have trouble communicating their ideas on their own.

Questions for Reflection

  • Reflect on a time when you felt deeply supported and on a time when you did not. What distinguished these two experiences? What impact did each have on your sense of belonging?
  • This week, look for instances when students seem to be receiving just the right amount and types of support. What lessons can you learn from these situations that could be applied to other students, activities, or goals?
  • Some types of support can be stigmatizing and stand in the way of belonging. Talk with other teachers or service providers at your school about their approach to supporting students with significant cognitive disabilities throughout the day. How can support can be provided that enhances belonging without increasing stigma?


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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'