If you, like me, are over the age of 30, you probably do not remember having students with disabilities in any of your classes throughout the entirety of your school years.
This is because educational inclusion is a relatively new concept. Though the concept of "least restrictive environment" was first put forth in 1975, most of us were long outside of our school years by the time students with disabilities were routinely included in the general education classroom.
Prior to this, most students with disabilities were educated in self-contained special education classrooms or in special schools that were intended solely to serve students with disabilities.
The IDEA mandate for "least restrictive environment" (or LRE) sets the expectation for how and where students with disabilities are to be educated in their local school system.
“To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily." Section 612(a)(5) (italics mine)
Yes, you read that correctly! Students with disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate, are to be educated with children who are not disabled.
As such, a student's LRE, or Least Restrictive Environment, is the most inclusive placement possible that still meets the student's needs.
I like to think of LRE as the center of a Venn Diagram that has "student's needs are met" in one circle and "student is included with peers without disabilities" in the other. For some students, the two circles overlap-- this would be full inclusion. For others, the circles are totally distinct, i.e. for the student's needs to be met, s/he doesn't have any interaction with students who don't have disabilities (as is often the case for medically-fragile and homebound students).
LRE is not "inclusion" or "the general ed classroom" or any particular space in a school building. LRE is a spectrum, with full inclusion on one side and full exclusion on the other, and a lot of different stages and options in between.
What is an appropriate LRE for one child may not be appropriate for another, even those who have the same diagnosis.
But how do we make sure that a proposed placement truly is the LEAST restrictive possible?
We work OUT, not IN!
While many school teams do not function this way, it is appropriate and necessary that the operating expectation is that all students can be educated in an inclusive setting. As such, when discussing placement, the team must start from a place of full inclusion and move to more restrictive environments as dictated by the student’s needs.
What often happens instead is that the school team will start with an assumption that the student will be in a restrictive environment, such as a self-contained special education classroom, and will then try to figure out how to build in inclusion time for an hour here and an hour there—perhaps at lunch or in a special like art.
This is NOT how it's intended to work. Because children with disabilities are to be educated with children who are not disabled (and again, that's language from IDEA), school teams must work OUT from a place of inclusion, rather than IN to a place of inclusion.
So what options are there in terms of special education placement? First, know that anything is possible if the student’s needs dictate it (and as a result, I hate prescribing options because these are not hard-and-fast). However, since this can be a confusing concept for some parents to wrap around, here's how I see it from most inclusive placement (at the top) to most restrictive placement (at the bottom):
1. Full inclusion in a general education setting
2. General education classroom with "push-in" support (from a teacher or therapist)
3. General education classroom with "pull-out" support (i.e. the student is pulled out for certain subjects, interventions or therapies)
4. 50/50 split between general education and special education
5. Most of the day in special education with some inclusion time here or there (typically specials, lunch, recess)
6. All day in a special education classroom
7. Special school
8. Homebound or hospital-bound placement
You want to start at number 1 and only move down as far as necessary to get your child what they need. Often school teams try to start at 5 or 6. Many, many, many students with different diagnoses and needs can be served in placements 1-4. I get incredibly wary of schools who want to put kids in a 4, 5, or 6 placement before they've even tried a less restrictive environment.
That said, some kids truly do need a more restrictive environment, and for them, a number 6 or 7 placement is the least restrictive they can go while still having their needs met. In these cases, their LRE would be that special classroom or special school.
So what do you do if you feel like your child's LRE isn't truly the least restrictive possible?
That's more than I can include in one blog post! Check out the IEP Guru Digital Course for full lessons on inclusion and all-things-IEP!