Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Encourages Inclusion

A Brief Overview

  • LRE has been an aspect of special education law since 1975, when there was widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated and denied equitable education.
  • Research shows that children of all abilities learn social skills from one another when they learn side-by-side.
  • Some Washington schools struggle to support access to general education programs and settings for students with disabilities. In 2019, only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.
  • Under federal law, a student is placed in a more restrictive setting when the IEP team agrees that the student needs a different placement for education to be appropriately accessible.
  • Help from a paraeducator might be part of the support services that enable a student to access learning in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Note that a paraeducator is a service, not a placement. Having a 1:1 to help in the classroom does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Schools are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. One of the defining principles of special education law is that students with disabilities have access to general education, with nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent possible. That requirement is called Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

LRE is a key feature of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has been part of disability rights for students since 1975. PAVE has articles about special education history and key principles of the IDEA. The LRE requirements are a response to widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated in institutions, separated from peers and removed from neighborhood schools.

A student qualifies for the protections of the IDEA and special education services when a disabling condition severely impacts access to learning and specially designed instruction is needed. An eligible student is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The IEP includes specially designed instruction and goal monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations and intentionally chosen spaces to meet the student’s needs. Those thoughtfully chosen spaces are a student’s “placement.” A decision about placement is made after programming decisions are made by the IEP team.

Parents can learn this terminology to help in their advocacy. Here’s a statement that incorporates key terms: Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is part of a school district’s responsibility when providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student who receives special education services.

General Education is the first LRE option

The general education setting is the first LRE placement option, and how placement is designed is unique to a student’s individualized needs. Research demonstrates that students with disabilities perform better academically and learn social skills when they have access to the general education setting with proper support.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to schools in Washington State, “The body of research consistently supports the positive link between access to core instruction in general education settings and improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

“Inclusion is the belief and practice that all students have the right to meaningfully access academic and social opportunities in general education settings.” 

Still, some Washington schools struggle to provide meaningful access to general education programs and settings. In 2019, the state reports that only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.

The 2019 Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1109 to provide $25 million in 2020-21 to  implement professional development in support of inclusionary practices, with an emphasis on coaching and mentoring. Information about the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project is available on OSPI’s website.

What the law says

The IDEA states that schools are required to provide FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Each state is required to implement the IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website that shares language directly from the federal law. According to Sec. 300.114:

 “Each public agency must 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 nondisabled; and
  • “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.”

LRE decisions follow a 4-part process

OSPI’s website includes information directed toward parents: “Placement decisions are made by your student’s IEP team after the IEP has been developed. The term “placement” in special education does not necessarily mean the precise physical building or location where your student will be educated. Rather, your student’s “placement” refers to the range or continuum of educational settings available in the district to implement her/his IEP and the overall amount of time s/he will spend in the general education setting.”

Selection of an appropriate placement includes 4 considerations:

  1. IEP content (specialized instruction, goals, services, accommodations…)
  2. LRE requirements (least restrictive “to the maximum extent appropriate”)
  3. The likelihood that the placement option provides a reasonably high probability of helping a student attain goals
  4. Consideration of any potentially harmful effects the placement option might have on the student or the quality of services delivered

What if placement in general education isn’t working?

If a student is unable to access learning in an appropriate way (FAPE) because of the nature or severity of the disability, then the IEP team considers alternative placement options. It’s important to note that a student is placed in a more restrictive setting because the student needs a different location within the school, not because it’s more convenient for adults or because it saves the school district money.

According to IDEA, Sec. 300.114, “A State must not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability FAPE according to the unique needs of the child, as described in the child’s IEP.”

Placement options are vast

IEP teams consider a wide range of placement options. They may discuss whether there’s a need for a small classroom setting, for example, or home-based instruction. For a child with a behavioral health condition, the team may discuss whether a “day treatment” school staffed with specialists in behavior management might provide the best access to FAPE.

The continuum of placement options includes, but is not limited to:

  • general education classes
  • general education classes with support services and/or modifications
  • a combination of general education and special education classes
  • self-contained special education classes
  • placements outside of a school district
  • home instruction
  • residential care or treatment facilities

School districts are not required to have a continuum available in every school building. A school district, for example, might have a self-contained setting or preschool services in some but not all locations. This gives districts some discretion for choosing a location to serve the placement chosen by an IEP team.

Placement and location are different

Note that the IEP team determines the placement, but the school district has discretion to choose a location to serve the IEP.

For example, an IEP team could determine that a student needs a day treatment/behavioral health-focused school in order to access FAPE—an appropriate education. If the IEP team chooses a Day Treatment placement, then the school district is responsible to find a location to provide that placement. Following this process, a public-school district might pay for transportation and tuition to send a student to a private or out-of-district facility. If a request for a specialized placement is initiated by the family, there are other considerations.

OSPI’s website includes this information:

“… if you are requesting that your student be placed in a private school or residential facility because you believe the district is unable to provide FAPE, then you must make that request through a due process hearing.”

Note: Due Process is part of the “procedural safeguards” available to family participants on the IEP team. PAVE has an article and a webinar about options when family members disagree with the school.

1:1 is a service, not a placement

The IDEA specifies that a more restrictive placement relies on data showing that “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.”

Supplementary aids and services can include a wide variety of supports. The student might use assistive technology, for example, or teachers could craft unique ways to present the curriculum. The student may get individualized help from an adult.

The LRE requirement means that schools document efforts to enable a student to access general education, however that might be possible. General education access includes classrooms, programs like PE and art, extracurricular activities, recess…. IEP team members can get creative about how to help the student succeed. Some students design their own clever accommodations. Family members and outside therapists or behavioral specialists also contribute ideas.

A common conflict with families and schools is whether a 1:1 paraeducator might enable access to FAPE in general education. Some parents and schools may have conversations about whether a helper might “restrict” a student’s ability to develop independence. Sometimes those conversations lead to misunderstanding about LRE. A 2017 case in Washington addressed the topic and clarified that a 1:1 is a service, not a placement.

In response to a Citizen Complaint filed by parents in the Lake Washington School District, OSPI issued a public report,  with a finding in favor of the family. The parents wanted their child to get help from a 1:1 aide and disagreed with the school that it would “restrict” the student. According to OSPI’s report, parents had requested a 1:1 aide because they wanted the school to provide more support in order to increase the student’s time in general education. School staff on the IEP team said no to the request, citing a belief that a 1:1 aide “is the most restrictive level of service…”

OSPI rejected that argument, stating:

“The District is incorrect in its belief that 1:1 paraeducator support is the most restrictive environment for all students. Paraeducator support is a supplementary aid and service, not a placement option on the continuum of alternative placements….

“Based on the documentation in this complaint, the District did not base its decision to deny the Parent’s request for 1:1 aide support on the Student’s individualized needs. The District erred in failing to properly consider if the Student could participate in a general education setting with the provision of 1:1 aide support.”

LRE does not mean students are on their own

The conversation about what creates “restriction” is complex, and sometimes school staff bring up the concept of “learned helplessness” if they believe that children learn better with less instead of more support. Each conversation and circumstance is unique, but parents can research the topic of learned helplessness to understand various ways that data are interpreted to generate opinions.

Generally, when someone receives help–including education provided by a teacher or a teacher’s aide–that person learns how to do something and eventually models what is taught, with mastery over time. Revoking help before a person is ready to do something independently may create a help”less” situation. A person who cannot perform a task with success and doesn’t get the needed help to get better at the skill may over time give up and become helpless. Some articles on the subject relate to individuals who have been unable to cope or problem-solve independently and therefore “learn” to be helpless.

Parents talking with the school about LRE and appropriate support can do their best to provide accurate and comprehensive information about a student’s unique disability condition and what is needed to meet the student where he/she is ready to learn.

Following are a few additional resources:

An agency called Teaching Exceptional Children Plus features an article by a parent about the value of inclusion in general education. The January 2009 article by Beth L. Sweden is available for download online: Signs of an Inclusive School: A Parent’s Perspective on the Meaning and Value of Authentic Inclusion.

Understood.org offers an article and a video about the benefits of inclusion.

An agency that promotes best-practice strategies for school staff implementing inclusive educational programming is the IRIS Center, a part of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Sharing Down Syndrome in Pierce County Support Group

Sharing Down Syndrome in Pierce County is a program of Pierce County Parent to Parent through PAVE. Our mission is to facilitate opportunities for community connections for individuals with Down Syndrome and their families, to build awareness and provide resources for our medical community so they can better serve our families!

What is the Big IDEA Behind Inclusion Webinar

This webinar was recorded in the summer of 2018.

About this Webinar – Topics will include:

* Why inclusion is important in schools, classrooms and communities
* What inclusion is and what it is not
* Who is involved in making meaningful inclusion successful
* Underpinnings in federal law

Presented by, Jen Cole
Director, Parent Training and Information

Inclusion Vs. Self-Contained Opportunities for Students in School

Debate continues even today on whether students should be educated in inclusive programs or self-contained programs.

When looking at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law never uses the word “inclusion,” instead the law refers to “Least Restrictive Environment” or LRE.

For some students LRE cannot be achieved in a fully “inclusive” classroom. There are a number of reasons based on the individual needs of the child.  For instance, in a fully inclusive classroom the level of stimulation may be too high, the classroom size may limit the student’s ability to gain the knowledge they need or there are language barriers.  If a student is deaf and uses sign language, for example, the inclusive class may not have the ability to allow the student to “communicate with their peers in their language or mode of communication.”* However, opportunities for people with disabilities to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent “appropriate” for the student with the disability is an essential part of the law. There is the expectation that the student with disabilities is a general education student first. Therefore, removal from the general education environment should only occur when it is determined that even with appropriate aids and services the student will not benefit.

So how is all of this decided and is there a blanket process? The answer is no. Each child’s program and services must be decided on an individual basis. The decision is not “one size fits all’ nor is it a decision that is only made once and then continued for the rest of the student’s educational career. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) Team must consider the student’s placement each year as they review the IEP and develop the new goals. Only after the goals have been created should placement be discussed. Placement does not drive services, but services drive placement options. This means that the parent needs to be a large part of the team discussions and, as appropriate, so should the student. The IEP team should consider the many factors that can have an impact on the quality of the education the student will receive.

To address these different factors the IEP team may wish to consider the following questions:

If the student is going to be in an inclusive class setting:

  • Is the learning environment able to support the child’s academic needs? For some students, the need for more specialized instruction may make learning in the inclusive environment more difficult unless supports are put in place to assist in that instruction.
  • Can the child sustain attention among the 25 to 30 students in the classroom? Classes can be large, especially as students get older, and such increases in student count can cause some students to become anxious or to lose the ability to stay focused. The need for accommodations, such as sitting at the front of the classroom or wearing earplugs, may be needed to support the student.
  • What are some of the unwritten “social skills” that a student is expected to follow and how will the learning of social cues be provided? Social skills are an area that has long been challenging for some people with disabilities. If they have not had the opportunity to learn the social cues they are at a disadvantage that can cause difficulties in learning. Some have the opinion that social cues and social skills need to be a part of the learning environment, not just for students with disabilities, but for all the students.
  • What opportunities will be made possible for the child to display their newly learned skills in different settings or with different people? Studies show that until a skill can be demonstrated in more than one setting, it is not truly learned. Therefore, when considering the inclusive environment, opportunities to demonstrate new skills should be available in different settings.
  • How will the team know if the child is gaining the needed skills outlined in the IEP? Measurable goals require the ability to show data and track progress. When considering goals in an inclusive setting the data collection should not be overlooked. The goals need to be well defined and the tracking needs to be done on a consistent basis using measurements that are understood by all.

If the team is considering a self-contained environment they may wish to consider the following questions:

  • Is the learning environment able to support the child’s academic needs?Research has shown that students who are educated in separate settings from those of their peers without disabilities, have greater learning gaps as they get older. The expectation for learning can be decreased because the student is not challenged at the same level that their peers in the general education setting might be. So, it is important to consider whether the child is being appropriately challenged academically. The team may want to look at the learning objectives for all students of that age or grade and then consider how they can adapt or address those learning objectives in a manner that will support the student.
  • Is the teacher able to address the varied needs of the all the students in the classroom? Many times, a self-contained setting will have students with a wide-range of ages and learning needs. While in an inclusive classroom students will have varied learning styles and skills, the expectation is that the students will all receive instruction in a universal manner that addresses those different learning styles. In the self-contained setting there is still the need for the learning strategies to be universal in their design to provide the greatest opportunity for the student to gain the expected skill.
  • Is there ample opportunity for the student to practice the new skills they have learned? Just as in the inclusive setting, students need the opportunity to test their knowledge and skills with different people and in different environments. If the self-contained setting does not provide for opportunities to test these new skills, it may limit the child’s learning.

The options are there for parents to consider. The questions and how they are answered may help determine the approach that is used to support the student. Remember, that while students with disabilities are to be considered general education students first, it doesn’t mean that the need to look at the full range of placement options shouldn’t occur. The decisions will be made by the team with the expectation that all decisions are based on what is appropriate for that student at that time.

Websites used for this article:

Inclusion vs. Self- Contained Education for Children with ASD Diagnoses

Mainstreaming and Inclusion Vs. Self Contained Classrooms: https://prezi.com/4-eoazdwxtey/mainstreaming-and-inclusion-vs-self-contained-classrooms-for-special-needs-education/

Wisconsin Education Association Council: http://weac.org/articles/specialedinc/

IDEA – http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view