Federal law requires children with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE), as outlined in The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The goal of this regulation is to have children with special needs receive their daily instruction alongside their non-disabled peers as much as possible, with supplementary aids and services provided if deemed necessary. Examples of services the Department of Education (DOE) can provide in order to ensure children are able to learn in the LRE are (1) 1:1 paraprofessionals/aides, (2) consultants/SEITS, and (3) assistive technology.
Who determines the LRE?
The Committees on Special Education (CSE) or Preschool Special Education (CPSE) determine the most appropriate setting for students based on their needs, and what aids and services if any would be required in order for them to participate and succeed in that setting. This team includes the student’s parent or guardian. These decisions are then outlined in the children’s Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which are legally binding documents. Placements are reviewed annually or more frequently if requested.
Types of LREs
If a general education classroom (with or without supports) is not an appropriate setting for a student, the next option would be an inclusion classroom. An inclusion classroom is a common LRE placement that has students with disabilities learning alongside their typically developing peers. These classrooms, run by general education and special education teachers, ensure the fulfillment of IEP goals in an inclusive setting, with students only being pulled out for additional supports, such as occupational or physical therapy, if necessary.
If the nature or severity of a disability is such that it would prevent an individual from receiving an appropriate education in a general education or inclusion classroom, the next step would be a self-contained special education placement, optimally located in the home district. In these placements, it is common for students’ IEPs to allow for them to participate in lunch, classroom activities, and “specials” like art, library, and music with students that are in general education classrooms. The IEPs may require students in self-contained classrooms to join their typically developing peers for academic instruction in subjects in which they excel, with modifications and accommodations put in place when necessary.
What if a student’s placement is restricted?
Students may require somewhat restrictive environments throughout their education, and those placements are likely ideal for them at that given time. Placement decisions are made on an individual basis by each student’s IEP team and at times, it is deemed in a student’s best interest to be placed in a self-contained classroom or special education school. While these placements are not with general education students, they are still made with the goals of the student in mind, and still comply with the LRE regulation. The IEP must clearly outline why the placement decision was made.
It is important to remember that IEPs are fluid and that placements may change throughout the duration of schooling. Placements are made along a continuum and the amount of integrated experiences outlined in a student’s IEP should be clearly specified. Self-contained classrooms or special education schools may be the best fit for children throughout their career. Parents and guardians are active members in their child’s IEP team and can request a team meeting at any time if they feel their child’s placement needs to be changed.