What is Least Restrictive Environment?

Dr. Ellen Mauer
Dr. Ellen Mauer
Elementary school principal; Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies
‘Least restrictive environment’ is written on a clipboard and sits on a desk next to a pair of glasses and books.

When referencing the “least restrictive environment”, it sounds like a place. It is not one place; instead, it is a philosophy schools must use according to least restrictive environment federal law.

Schools are supposed to make a good faith effort to place students in that least restrictive setting until they cannot meet their goals and access the regular education curriculum using support services and accommodations.

Only if those end goals cannot be achieved with those supports can the child be placed in a more restrictive setting. This idea aims to make sure that students who receive special education are included in a regular education environment as often as possible.

What Does the Law Say about Least Restrictive Environment?

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), section 1412 (a) (5), it states that children with disabilities are to be educated in an environment with children who are not disabled and that removal from such an environment only occur when the severity of the disability, with supports and accommodations, prevents that child from achieving their goals.

It also states that lack of funding may not be used to violate this act. This federal law gives disabled students a right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Least Restrictive Environment in Practice

Many newer teachers wonder about how this works in real-life situations. For most mild issues, such as speech and language articulation, mild learning disabilities, and some physical disabilities, inclusion into a regular education setting is very easily achieved. When the disabilities get more complex or as students get older, difficulties occur.

In the primary grades, students are not usually exploring complex issues and are all learning beginner reading and math skills. They are learning background knowledge concepts in social studies and science.

This is very different from the higher-level courses at the middle school and high school levels. Kids can get basic instruction in a whole group setting, then move to a series of small groups based on their ability to learn what they need. It can be fairly easy to include students with mild disabilities in this kind of setting.

The gap tends to widen as the child gets older, depending upon the severity of the disability. Once a student has IEP goals that require them to be outside of the general education setting more often than they are inside that setting for their instruction, it may be time to move to a more restrictive setting.

If a student is still working on how to construct a sentence with a noun and a verb, and the rest of the class is working on five paragraph essays, it is unlikely that the student will be able to get a lot out of the classroom teacher’s lessons. They will need a smaller group or individual instruction.

It is important to note that even when a student is placed in a self-contained special education setting, they can still be mainstreamed into a regular education class for social situations in most cases. These would include, but not be limited to lunch, recess, P.E., art, music, class parties, field trips, and more.

Behavior and emotional disorders are typically the ones that most stand out to a regular education teacher and can cause the most angst. Children with these disorders will demonstrate one or more of the following five characteristics:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and adults
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms for fears associated with personal or school problems

These students may disrupt the educational environment a teacher strives to create, because it does not properly fit their needs. Different types of accommodations and services must be tried and data must be stringently kept from the behavior plan in place. Various plans should be tried before a child can be placed in a more restrictive environment. Schools often use one-on-one teaching assistants to keep the child in a regular education environment for a more extended period.

There is no one recipe or method to use when determining the least restrictive environment. Each child’s case must be looked at and handled individually; their needs drive the IEP and the placement. The ability of the child to meet the goals while getting service minutes and accommodations in the regular education setting will ultimately determine the correct placement.

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