Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Least Restrictive Environment

Parents of students with learning challenges who receive special education or related services from the public schools need to be familiar with the term Least Restrictive Environment – LRE.

The use of the term stems from language in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that requires that students receiving special education services be educated, “to the maximum extent appropriate … with children who are not disabled” and further provides that placing such children in separate classes or separate school settings or otherwise removing them from the regular educational environment occur 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.”  There is an excellent discussion of the issues relating to LRE from the U.S. Department of Education that appears on the Wrightslaw website.

The goal of LRE is to prevent children with any sort of disability (we don’t like that terminology, but it is the language used in the statute) from being removed from the regular classroom unless it is truly necessary. It is the basis for the variety of inclusion settings that schools have implemented to provide support for students with learning challenges while addressing the needs of their classmates. One model is Collaborative Team Teaching classes that use a special education teacher in a regular classroom to provide support needed by students with learning challenges. Other examples of LRE at work are “pull out” supports that keep students in regular classes while providing special education supports in a separate setting for only for part of the school day, or the inclusion of children who require a separate classroom setting for most of the day in non-academic activities (lunch, gym, recess) with their typically learning peers.

What does this mean for a child with learning difficulties who has an IEP – an Individualized Education Program? It means that for all children full time presence in a regular classroom is the “default” setting and that the IEP team (called the CSE -- Committee on Special Education -- in many locales, including here in New York) needs to consider each step away from this default and determine if it is truly necessary, before removing a child from that setting for even part of the day. It doesn’t mean that some children are not placed in separate classrooms or even separate schools, just that such placements must be justified as truly necessary for the child’s education.

Of course, as with many laudable goals, there are complexities and agendas at work when considering LRE. Children with behavioral issues who may be disruptive to their classmates may be placed in a separate setting, even when they could benefit from a regular classroom. Schools have generally found that inclusion classrooms, where children with and without IEPs are educated together, are less expensive than maintaining separate special education classes and may be reluctant to appropriately place a child in a separate class even when that would be the best setting for him or her.

Furthermore, as with much of special education, LRE is applicable only in the public school system. Parents of some students with learning issues are very eager to have them enrolled in private, special education schools whose entire mission is to educate students with learning difficulties, even though such schools are definitely a most restrictive environment.

Photo background used under Creative Commons by Horia Varlan

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