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What is LRE (least restrictive environment)?

Posted Jan 27 2009 8:13pm
This week I'm going to focus on LRE (least restrictive environment). To me, it's one of the most important components of IDEA, and often misunderstood. I've actually had more than one special education teacher explain it to me incorrectly.
So, what is it? School districts are required to educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate. That is what LRE means.
There is actually an Indiana document that explains it in greater detail. The link I have for it is no longer valid, so I'm posting excerpts of it here. If you are struggling to secure LRE for your child, and would like the entire set of guidelines, please email and we will send the document to you.

Guidelines for Implementation of the Least Restrictive Environment Provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Indiana’s Article 7

The material is intended as a practitioner's guide to the complex decision and planning process that addresses a key element of each student's free appropriate public education: the requirement that special education support be provided in the environment that is least restrictive of interactions with nondisabled peers. 

Despite substantial progress serving students with disabilities, a number of problems persist.

Over referral. More students are referred for special education than are actually eligible under state regulations. Significant resources are spent on assessment to determine eligibility without yielding educationally useful information, or providing assistance with the problems that lead to the referral. Many students who need support to succeed "fall through the cracks" and have no access to services because the system serves only those who meet stipulated criteria. Out of frustration, teachers and psychologists may continue the process of assessment until they find an instrument which enables a child to qualify under a particular categorical designation. Qualifying a student as eligible takes precedence over dealing with the presenting educational problems.

Stigma. Eligibility for special education is intended to provide access to an appropriate array of specialized services to meet the needs of the student with a disability. Unfortunately, labeling a child can result in stigma. The existing systems of classification and labeling promote stereotypical images and result in the child being seen in terms of a label, not being viewed as a whole person. The child may experience a diminished self-concept, reduced interest in learning, and a social circle limited to others within the labeled group.

  • Isolation. Many students served by special education spend little or no time in the general education environment. The delivery of educational services in separate classrooms and with special staff creates a climate of educational and social isolation. Children with disabilities lose valuable opportunities to learn and play with their non-labeled peers. Research has shown this isolation typically extends well into adult life.

Programmatic disruption with pull out model. When students are pulled out of the educational mainstream to provide the supports they need to succeed, there is considerable programmatic disruption. Research demonstrates that the "pulled-out" child spends no more time on task than in the general education classroom and that teacher expectations are significantly lowered.

Dislocation from home community. At present, many students with disabilities receive special education and related services, not in their neighborhood school but in "cluster" schools. Students may be bussed to a school not in their neighborhood to receive educational services. Students and their families are denied the opportunity to participate in neighborhood parent-teacher associations, after school activities, and to attend class with their friends and neighbors.

Many of these difficulties are not limited to special education per se. They are characteristic of the larger system that has tended to respond to increasing diversity of the student body by a succession of categorical programs that add to, rather than change, the nature of the basic system. Questions of stigma, disruption, and isolation are raised in contemporary discussions of services for students identified as gifted and talented, for students served by English as a Second Language Programs, and for students served by Chapter I or at-risk programs.

Special education cannot remain a separate or second system of schooling where "regular education" teachers refer out those students who do not fit the status quo. It is time to shift thinking to emphasize that all children belong to the mainstream community school system and that the role of special education is to provide the supports necessary for each student to have the opportunity to participate and experience success to the fullest extent possible in that system.

The inclusion of all students in effective neighborhood schools is not exclusively a special education issue. The student body in today's schools is increasingly diverse, racially, ethnically, culturally, and economically. The overarching goal of our public schools must be to cope successfully with, and incorporate this diversity, rather than continuing to develop more programs for more students outside the educational mainstream. Quite naturally, realizing the goal of effectively serving all students presumes a restructured "mainstream" where diversity is valued.

Underlying assumptions. A number of assumptions are basic to Indiana's guidelines for implementing the least restrictive environment provisions of state and federal law. These are briefly discussed below.


1. The goals of schooling for all students-including those with disabilities-- include more than academic achievement. Home school attendance and community integration significantly influence outcomes of employment, community life, and productive citizenship. Participation in the mainstream of school life facilitates the development and maintenance of social interaction skills, self advocacy, and critical decision-making. The inevitable and powerful socialization process provided during the school years also forms the basic self worth/self concept of the student. These opportunities are lost or underutilized in isolated educational arrangements.

2. The characteristics of excellent schools and effective instruction are consistent across "general" and "special" education. Excellent "general" education schools are shifting from a focus on improving curriculum and instruction to accommodation of an increasingly diverse school population. Effective schools are characterized by strong instructional leadership, high student expectations, multiple opportunities for learning, and parent and community involvement. Best practices in special education also emphasize high student expectations, social and academic integration, diverse learning opportunities, and active parent and community involvement.

3. Students with disabilities are more like typical peers than they are different, and the delivery of special education must reflect that similarity. The practice of removing students from general education classrooms (or never serving them in general education) must shift to the practice of providing all students an opportunity for appropriate instruction within typical classrooms. Service delivery methods must focus on adding resources to the classroom rather than removing students from the classroom. In-class support will benefit the many students who may not be eligible for special education but who still need education support to succeed. Bringing resources to the general education classroom also promotes collaboration and cooperative teaching between special and general education professionals and related service personnel such as occupational and physical therapists and speech/language specialists.

4. Implementing the least restrictive environment provisions with require systems change. It is a truism that change is difficult. Re-examining the LRE provision with the perspective gained from nearly 20 years experience will undoubtedly set change in motion. The shift to emphasize that students with disabilities should attend their neighborhood schools, unless specifically required and justified by their IEP goals to attend elsewhere, will result in attendance patterns that are quite different from the status quo in most communities. When students are served in their neighborhood schools, no school would have disproportionately large numbers of students with disabilities or serve students from a single disability category, but most schools would serve students with a range of disability labels.

Placement decisions that reflect the LRE provisions will require problem-solving, and in many instances, the initiation of service patterns that are quite different from the status quo. As always, there will be some discomfort in moving to a new way of thinking--and implementing--the least restrictive environment provision for students with disabilities.

Key Elements of the LRE Provisions

The principle of the least restrictive environment guides decisions regarding where and how a student's IEP will be implemented and the extent to which each learner will participate in the general program of his or her school. Least restrictive environment comprises a number of key provisions:,

• Education with typical peers. Federal regulations require that to the maximum extent appropriate children with disabilities are educated with children who are not disabled. This emphasis on an integrated education extends to children who receive their education in public or private institutions or other care facilities. Integration with peers without disabilities is a concept that extends to nonacademic and extra- curricular activities as well as the academic components of a school's program.

• General education as the initial consideration for planning. Special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment should occur only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes, even with the use of supplementary aids and services, cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

Indeed, the federal regulations identify only three reasons for removing a student with a disability from placement in a general education class.

1. When the nature or severity of a child's disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily .

2. When the regular class placement would have a harmful effect upon the student with a disability or the quality of services .

3. When the child's placement in the general class is so disruptive that the education of other students is significantly impaired .

As a rule, students with disabilities should be counted as part of the general class roster in order to ensure that teachers understand that students with disabilities are a shared responsibility of the entire educational system.

• Individualization. Federal regulations stress that the placement of each child must be made on an individual basis and that an army of possible service options must be available to each child. The decision where to implement a student's IEP comes only after careful decision making about what academic, social, or other goals are appropriate for him or her.

The individualized education program required by law creates the opportunity for a personalized education for each student with a disability and sets the occasion for team problem-solving around each student's educational needs. There is the expectation that the general education environment will make "reasonable accommodation" or "reasonable modifications" in order to support students with disabilities. Accommodations may include modification of curriculum, instructional methods, staffing, materials and equipment, classroom organization, physical environment, assessment of learning, and reporting of pupil progress to permit effective participation of eligible students.

 Attention to neighborhood school placement. While emphasizing individual decision- making, the regulations are clear that unless the IEP require some other arrangement, the student must be educated in the school that he or she would attend if not disabled .

 Concern for services close to home. If it is not possible to implement a student's IEP in the neighborhood school, the regulations stress that services are provided as close to home as possible. Indiana regulations require documentation when transportation time for a student with a disability is longer than the transportation time of peers without disabilities .

The regulations leave placement decision making to the case conference committee that is convened annually to review and the IEP. Nonetheless, federal monitoring guidelines do clarify several impermissible grounds for decision-making, used alone or in combination. Placements may not be based upon:

 The category of handicapping condition. Each student's educational needs, as indicated in the IEP, must be examined individually. Although a student may be eligible for special education and related services because of a specific disability, the disability category per se does not determine the placement nor dictate the specific special education or related services to be provided to support learning.

 The current configuration of the service system. Decisions concerning where special education services are provided cannot be determined based on the existence of categorical program in the district. Where to implement a student's IEP comes only after a determination of appropriate academic, social, or other goals. While common practice may be described as "label and place" in categorical programs, both federal and state regulations require that students are provided access to the general education program in both academic and nonacademic programs. In addition, provision must be made to provide specialized services in conjunction with a general class placements .

 The availability of space. Lack of space in a particular building cannot be a consideration for placing a student outside his/her home school. Educational space for students enrolled in special education must be consistent with students of the same chronological age in the same building .

 The availability of educational or related services. Placement decisions must not be based on the availability of specialized educational or related services. The guiding principle of "portability" establishes the requirement to determine whether a needed method or related service could be feasiblely provided locally. As a rule, special education and related services are to be taken to the child rather than the child moved to the site of services. (Roncke v. Walter 700 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir., 1983)

• Curriculum content or methods or curriculum delivery. If a curriculum approach needed by a student is currently used at a school other than the student's neighborhood school, it is generally not permissible to send the student away from the home school. Curriculum content and methods (such as community-based training or whole language instruction) are clearly portable and thus able to be brought to the student rather requiring the student to travel to a different school.

• Administrative convenience. Grouping similarly labeled students may not occur for cost or other reasons of administrative convenience (i.e. transportation costs for related services, concentration of "expense").

The determination of least restrictive environment is a complex and dynamic process and one of the most important tasks of each case conference committee.

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