LRE is an acronym for Least Restrictive Environment. The least restrictive environment definition in the law states that every child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is to be educated in their least restrictive environment. Least restrictive is referring to how much the child is educated away from neurotypical peers in the general education setting. Children with IEPs must have some form of a disability that negatively impacts their ability to achieve reasonable educational benefit from the general education curriculum and structure alone.
In the United States, prior to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) children with disabilities were usually removed from and educated away from their “typical “peers. This removal often led to stigmatization, isolation, discrimination and misunderstanding of children with disabilities well into their adulthood. This law requires that special education teams carefully consider whether and how much a child with a disability needs to be educated separately from their neurotypical peers.
Each child’s LRE differs depending on their disability, their level of impairment, their educational needs, their behaviors and their learning styles. For example, many children with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) and Physical Disabilities will benefit most from full inclusion. Although some children with SLDs and Physical Disabilities have significant deficits that will need specialized instruction in a resource room or therapy room type of setting. Likewise, many children with moderate to severe Autism will benefit most from a self-contained program that is specifically designed to maximize the learning of children with Autism. However, some children with Autism will be able to be included into general education for specials and for academic content. It is not a cut and dry decision based on disability. Each child’s individual education needs should drive the placement decision.
For some children their LRE may be a general education setting with specific accommodations and/or modifications that assist them to gain educational benefit from the regular education content. Another child may be able to be fully included in the general education setting with support from a special educator. Some children may need to go to a separate classroom for specialized instruction in one or more content areas. For example, a child with a math disability may need specialized small group instruction in just that content area and may not need assistance in any other content areas.
Some children who have more significant disabilities that greatly impact their ability to learn in a general education setting may need to be educated in a smaller special education classroom for the majority of the day. For these children there is still a responsibility to establish as much interaction with non-disabled peers as possible. This may include attending specials, such as PE or music with their “typical” peers. It could also mean exposure to non-disabled peers through lunch in the cafeteria, recess on the playground and/or school-wide assemblies.
Some children’s disabilities so significantly affect their ability to be educated in a regular public school that they are placed by the special education team at an out-of-district special school. Whenever this decision is made, it is always the hope and desire that the child will gain enough skills to come back to a public school setting in the future as to not be isolated from non-disabled peers. Placement and service delivery decisions must always be made based on what the child’s educational needs are and what environment is the least different from a general education setting for the student to meet his/her goals and objectives adequately.
In my experience, school personnel often make a decision about where they want to place a child before the IEP meeting has even taken place, even though this should be a team discussion that involves the parents. As a parent, you have a say in this matter. I encourage you to ask questions about the placement recommendation and make sure you feel comfortable with the placement. For many students it is highly beneficial to be included in the general education environment for the whole day, while other students have significant needs that require some or all of their education to occur in a different setting. Make sure you understand what type(s) of environments your child will be educated in and that you feel this matches what your child’s educational needs are. It is important to note that if your child’s stated education needs from the IEP require a certain type of program or a certain environment the school district is required to provide that either within their own school district or find an appropriate out-of-district placement.
What has been your experience with your child’s placement decisions? Did you feel like you had a voice in the decision making process? Did you want your child to be more integrated into general education or were you advocating for a more specialized program to meet their educational needs?