The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that every student with a disability be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). More specifically, LRE is a legal term referring to IDEA’s requirement that, “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities . . . be educated with children who are not disabled, and that in special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment may occur only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily” (20 U.S.C., Sec. 1412 [a] ).
Thus, the LRE is the educational setting that most closely approximates the regular school program (i.e., that of nondisabled students), while also meeting each child’s special educational needs. IDEA establishes a presumption in favor of inclusion in the regular classroom in that it requires that a student’s individualized education program provide justification of the extent to which a child will not participate with their nondisabled peers in the general academic curriculum, extracurricular activities, and other nonacademic activities (e.g., mealtimes, dances, transportation, recreation).
The LRE is an individualized and somewhat fluid concept; the LRE for two children served under the same disability category may be different, and the LRE for both may change over time. Furthermore, the environment deemed least restrictive for a child depends in part on the nature of the exceptionality. Most students with speech impairments and learning disabilities can be appropriately served primarily in regular classes, but those with more severe impairments might require resources only available in separate classes or schools.
Fundamental to the LRE is the notion of a continuum of services. This continuum is provided by school systems and includes a wide range of special education placement and service options to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. The service delivery options comprising the continuum can be conceptualized from least to most restrictive. At the less restrictive end are placements in the regular classroom (with or without consultation from a special educator) and resource room (where a special educator provides instruction to students with disabilities for part of the school day), whereas more restrictive placement options include separate classrooms (also referred to as self-contained classrooms), separate schools, residential placements, and hospital settings. The majority of students receiving special education services have mild disabilities and are served in regular classrooms (with support services provided as necessary), but those requiring more intensive services may be served in more restrictive settings. However, that a greater proportion of children with severe disabilities are served in placements other than general education classes in no way presumes that the LRE for such students is categorically restrictive, that is, automatically a separate class or school.
The major principle underscoring the LRE is that students are served most effectively and most equitably when they are in settings in which they can learn and that are as similar as possible to those of their nondisabled peers, and when they can possibly move to less and less restrictive classroom settings. Therefore, determining the LRE is a significant task, one that is typically undertaken by a multidisciplinary team (MDT) made up of various school personnel (e.g., general and special education teachers, school psychologist, speech therapist, counselor, physical therapist, occupational therapist) and the child’s parent/guardian. This team determines the appropriate placement for a child following an evaluation of what the child’s needs are as a result of the disability, and which special education and related services will be required to meet those needs. This important decision is to be made on a student-by-student basis, with any level of the continuum potentially functioning as the LRE for the student.
Special education placement should not be assumed permanent. The continuum of services idea is a flexible one, with students moving from one placement to another as dictated by their educational needs. In fact, the MDT is required to review the goals and objectives for students annually to determine if new placements might be warranted. Moreover, parents must be informed of any change in placement considerations and accorded the right to consent or object, and to provide additional information on their child if they wish.
- Douvanis, G., & Hulsey, D. (2002). The least restrictive environment: How has it been defined by the courts? Retrieved June 9, 2006, from http://www.cec.sped.org/ AM/Template.cfm?Section=Search&template=/CM/HTM LDisplay.cfm&ContentID=2550
- Hallahan, D. P., & Kauffman, J. M. (2006). Exceptional learners: Introduction to special education (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
- Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives: Special education in today’s schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
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