One of the most important components of IDEA is the legal requirement that a child be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) necessary to meet the child’s needs. IDEA also states that students with disabilities are entitled to be educated with students who do not receive special education services, to the maximum extent appropriate. To determine a student’s placement, IDEA requires that the IEP team consider the supplementary aids and services a student may need in the general education classroom to be successful. The law also states that students should only be removed from the general education classroom if supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom do not meet the student’s unique needs. We spoke with Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher educator, and faculty at UCLA, to learn more about LRE.

What does the law say about LRE?

IDEA states that every public agency (including public schools and districts) is required to ensure that:

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. (P.L. 108-44 20 USC 1412 (5) (B))

What is the least restrictive educational environment?

The least restrictive environment is one that most optimally:

  1. Supports a student’s progress and growth academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.

  2. Provides students with access to the general education curriculum.

  3. Provides students with opportunities to learn both academic and social skills.

  4. Eliminates barriers and provides access to the learning environment through the use of supplementary aids and services.

  5. Provides ample opportunities to engage meaningfully with non-disabled peers.

  6. Provides opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities (such as track and field or LEGO club) as well as other nonacademic activities (such as school dances and football games).

Of the educational placement options available, the least restrictive option along the continuum of placements available is the general education classroom that corresponds to a student’s chronological age — for example, if a student is 8 years old, the LRE would be a third-grade general education classroom. That is not to say that every student’s LRE is the general education classroom without supplementary aids and services; it is merely to say that the least restrictive option along the continuum is the general education classroom.

How is a student’s least restrictive environment decided?

A student’s LRE is decided annually by the IEP team before or during the student’s IEP meeting. LRE determination is a team decision that requires input from all members of the student’s IEP team. Because parents or guardians are an integral part of the IEP team, they should always be included in the LRE determination process. When students are in upper elementary school or middle school, they should also have a say in determining their own LRE. Regardless of whether a student has been in the same placement year after year, determining a student’s LRE is a process that must take place annually regardless of the educational placement options available at a given school site.

To determine a student’s LRE, the IEP team discusses the student’s individualized program which consists of goals, instruction, related services, and any supports the student needs to make meaningful progress academically and socially. The first educational placement all IEP teams must consider is the general education classroom.

Even if an inclusion program does not exist at a school site, students receiving special education services have the right to be in the general education classroom if that setting is the student’s LRE. Before considering an alternative placement, the team must consider the services and supports the student would need in the general education setting to be successful. The services and supports considered should allow the student to progress in the general education curriculum and in their annual IEP goals and objectives, and participate in extracurricular and nonacademic activities with peers without disabilities.

If the team believes that the student’s needs cannot be met in the general education classroom with supplementary aids and services, the team can then consider services that take place outside of the general education classroom. If the team believes that a primary general education placement with pull-out services is not sufficient for the student to make progress, the team may consider a special day classroom (SDC) setting with allocated time or subjects spent in general education classrooms. This means that the student would spend the majority of their day in a special day classroom but would go to the general education classroom or setting for specific periods such as science or math, for example. This sequence of incremental considerations must be applied at each step on the educational placement continuum until the LRE is determined.

It’s important to note that many schools and districts are beginning to adopt better processes for determining LRE; however, some still use outdated LRE practices. Providing information to your IEP team about the LRE determination process may be a helpful practice.

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