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Least Restrictive Environments

Least Restrictive Environment Offers Opportunity for Children with Disabilities


When 4-year-old Kayla started at a Montessori pre-school and childcare program, the school district recommended that she leave Montessori daily and take a bus to another preschool for special services. At the other preschool, the district would provide time with an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher, as well as physical and occupational services.

“But once we tried the system, I started to wonder why I was pulling her out of a setting where she was functioning well,” said Kayla’s mother, Madeleine. “I wanted her to meet her IEP goals, but I didn’t want her to leave the Montessori school.”

Kayla’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) emphasized learning social skills and gross and fine motor skills. Specific activities included Kayla participating in a game of “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck” with her peers, going down the slide during playground time, initiating play with her classroom friends, and playing dress-up with her peers.

By being pulled out of the Montessori preschool program, Kayla was losing time needed to become acquainted with her peers, play confidently with them, and feel comfortable approaching them.

“How would she learn social skills, like playing ‘Duck, Duck, Grey Duck,’ without her peers?” Madeleine said. “I realized that pulling her out of the Montessori school didn’t allow her to function in her least restrictive environment (LRE).”

Least restrictive environment (LRE) is a requirement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which states that: “ the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public and private institutions or other care facilities, [be] educated with children without disabilities, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from regular educational environments 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.”

With that in mind, Madeleine questioned if Kayla would succeed in school while going back and forth between both programs. She asked the school district if they could provide the services at the Montessori school. Now, Kayla receives physical and occupational therapy for a half-hour every week with the peers she sees on a regular basis. Minnesota has had a long history of including children with disabilities in regular education and preschool environments, and there has been state support for inclusive services, said Norena Hale, state director of special education at the Minnesota Department of Education.

“But still, the model of services for 3-year-olds has been to try to serve them in a classroom instead of serving them where they are learning naturally,” she said. “Children have a right to a free, appropriate education in a setting that is as ‘normal’ as possible. You only remove children from that setting, even part-time, when support or adapted services would be more effective to provide in another way, and the IEP team, which includes parents, makes those decisions.”

For children ages 3-5, a childcare center could be considered the least restrictive environment, if that is where the child usually goes every day. For other children, the least restrictive environment might be the local Head Start program, a half-day preschool, or at home.

For Jolie Cummins, the least restrictive environment for her son, Charlie, is not the typical kindergarten program in his school district, but a slightly modified program with five other children with disabilities.

Charlie, who has Down syndrome and is nonverbal, attends a program where he experiences a typical classroom with 25 children as well as a self-contained classroom for six children with disabilities. With his aide, Charlie experiences circle time with the 25- student classroom, but then he goes to his smaller classroom to draw when the other students are working on writing the alphabet.

“This program gives the students a safe place to be,” said Jolie. “Charlie and the other children with disabilities start their day in the self-contained classroom where they hang up their coats, choose their lunch for the day, and receive some individual attention. If Charlie was always in the typical classroom, he could get lost in the shuffle.”

So far, Charlie’s program is a perfect fit. He goes on field trips regularly—bowling and swimming with the small class, for example—which would be very difficult in a typical kindergarten classroom, his mother said. He enjoys school, and he has been invited to a birthday party by one of the children in the typical classroom.

“My goal is for Charlie to be as independent as possible,” Jolie said. “I believe this program will help him reach those goals.”

Ask the Expert: Finding the Least Restrictive Environment


Shelley deFosset is Associate Director of the Partner Collaboration Unit at the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center. This center supports the implementation of the early childhood provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. deFosset is an expert in inclusion and least restrictive environment.

In the United States, almost 140,000 children with disabilities ages 3 to 5 are being served in segregated settings, according to national data from the 1998-99 school year. In Minnesota, almost 25 percent or 2,817 of young children with disabilities in preschool are placed in an early childhood special education setting.

Experts, such as Shelley deFosset, say that many of these children should be included in a typical early childhood setting. The experts worry that parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including “least restrictive environment,” are not being implemented. Least restrictive environment (LRE) means that to the maximum extent possible, a child with disabilities is educated with children who do not have disabilities.

“Least restrictive environment is a legal entitlement of a child,” said Shelley deFosset. “It clearly defines what a child needs and the environment in which a child would best flourish. With LRE, a child with disabilities is more apt to be part of the regular classroom or preschool program. However, in some cases, LRE can be a segregated program. It depends on the child.”

Deciding the least restrictive environment must be done on a case-by-case basis. A team including school staff and the family studies the assessment of the child and looks at how the child has managed in other settings, such as church or synagogue, play groups, or day care. A regular education teacher needs to attend the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings to discuss the skills that are expected of children in the classroom or program. With this information, a child can be placed in the least restrictive environment.

Scientific-based research has shown that children with disabilities learn more and socialize more when they are educated with their peers without disabilities.

“Inclusion is belonging,” said Shelley. “It’s about the child and their family members participating in community and school. It is good for children with disabilities, and good for their peers. It really sets a basis and expectation for school-age children.”

Shelley said that families need to be given the appropriate array of options by school staff. If parents aren’t aware that their child could receive services in the regular program, such as a Head Start program or other community program, their child may end up in the segregated program from the very beginning. Preschool staff also needs to relay to parents that inclusion with supports is a good option, she said.

“Parents often come with the idea that the more special education my child receives, the better,” Shelley said. “But we’ve found that many children with disabilities are very successful in inclusive environments. It works best when you start very early, such as preschool.”

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): An English Translation of Key Legal Requirements

IDEA Regulation

§300.114(a)(2) General LRE requirements

(i) Each public agency shall ensure—

(ii) 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 nondisabled; and

(2) That special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if 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.

§300.115 Continuum of Alternative Placements

(a) Each public agency must ensure that a continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of children with disabilities for special education and related services.

(b) The continuum required in paragraph (a) of this section must—

(1) Include the alternative placements listed in the definition of special education under §300.38 (instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions); and

(2) Make provision for supplementary services (such as resource room or itinerant instruction) to be provided in conjunction with regular class placement.

Common Translation

The “public agency” is the school. The school is responsible for making sure that children with disabilities are educated alongside children without disabilities as much as appropriate. “Appropriate” means that the education fits the child’s special needs and allows the child to make educational progress.

The regular education classroom is the first placement choice the IEP team must consider.

When an IEP team considers where a child will be educated, they must ask, What can we provide so this child can stay in the regular education classroom or activity? They must consider what “supplementary aids and services”—what extra supports—will allow the child to be placed in a regular classroom environment. Examples might include assistive equipment, special behavior strategies, use of a resource room, or changes in the curriculum or assignments.

If the IEP team decides a child cannot be educated in the regular classroom even with supplementary aids and services, then they must consider other options: special classes, special schools, home instruction, or instruction in hospitals or other institutions.

The school is required to make the appropriate option available, based on the child’s individual needs and the services required to meet those needs.

IDEA Regulation

§300.116 Placements

In determining the educational placement of a child with a disability, including a preschool child with a disability, each public agency shall ensure that—

(a) The placement decision—

(1) Is made by a group of persons, including the parents, and other persons knowledgeable about the child, the meaning of the evaluation data, and the placement options; and

(2) Is made in conformity with the LRE provisions of this subpart, including §§300.114-300.118;

(b) The child’s placement—

(1) Is determined at least annually;

(2) Is based on the child’s IEP; and

(3) Is as close as possible to the child’s home;

(c) Unless the IEP of a child with a disability requires some other arrangement, the child is educated in the school that he or she would attend if nondisabled;

(d) In selecting the LRE, consideration is given to any potential harmful effect on the child or on the quality of services that he or she needs; and

(e) A child with a disability is not removed from education in age-appropriate regular classrooms solely because of needed modifications in the general curriculum.

§300.117 Nonacademic settings

In providing or arranging for the provision of nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, including meals, recess periods, and the services and activities set forth in §300.107, each public agency must ensure that each child with a disability participates with nondisabled children in those extracurricular services and activities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of that child. The public agency must ensure that each child with a disability has the supplementary aids and services determined by the child’s IEP Team to be appropriate and necessary for the child to participate in nonacademic settings.

§300. 320(a) Participation with Nondisabled Children

(5) An explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and in the activities described in paragraph (a)(4) of this section.

Common Translation

Parents, as members of the IEP team, help decide what educational placement and services are appropriate for their child. The team must discuss educational placement at least once a year when a new IEP is written. Placement decisions must be based on the child’s individual needs for specific educational services.

The IEP team must consider whether the proposed placement will have any possible harmful effects on the child or on the quality of the services the child receives.

Further, children with disabilities should be educated in their home schools whenever possible, and they must not be removed from the regular classroom simply because they need a modified curriculum.

Children with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to participate in all activities sponsored by the school: counseling services, athletics, transportation, special interest groups and clubs, music, and other services and activities.

Anytime a child with disabilities has education or other school activities that include only other children with disabilities, the school must provide an explanation in the IEP.