Just as every child is unique, so is each child’s Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for learning. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that provides protections for students with disabilities, is based on six foundational principles, one of which involves LRE:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  2. Appropriate Evaluation
  3. Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
  4. Parent Participation
  5. Procedural Safeguards
  6. Least Restrictive Environment

The LRE principle establishes that children with disabilities are to be educated in the least restrictive environment to the maximum extent possible with children who lack disabilities.

Where to Start

LRE is not decided by disability category, but by the strengths and needs of each child. As a best practice, the IEP team should begin by considering the general education classroom to be the least restrictive learning environment and then use data and observations to identify any supplementary aids and services the student needs to remain there. It’s only when data show that this setting is not meeting the student’s educational needs that the IEP team should begin considering a continuum of more restrictive environments.

Although the term environment tends to conjure the idea of a setting or location, it is important not to think of LRE as just a place. Instead, LRE should be thought of as all the supports and services that lead to a meaningful education.

These supports and services do include the setting or location, and also any accommodations or modifications addressed by the IEP team, the materials used, the student’s peers, where the student is sitting in the classroom as well as adult assistance.

Monitor Student Progress

If the student is still not being provided with a meaningful education, even with the use of universal design, assistive technology, staff development, differentiation of instruction and curricular accommodations or modifications, then the IEP team should look at what other resources and placements are available. Keeping the student in a general education classroom just for the sake of being “fully inclusive” may not be what is best for that individual.

Additional Considerations

When LRE is done correctly, learning in the environment should not be too hard, where the student becomes stymied or frustrated, but also not too easy, where the teacher and student have low expectations of what can be learned. Furthermore, appropriate LRE should give the student:

  • Opportunities to fully engage using language or other forms of communication
  • Access to educators and staff who have the right training and tools to create a purposeful educational experience
  • The ability to participate in a social setting that offers meaningful time to interact with worth and dignity among grade-level peers

If we want better outcomes for all our students and the assurance that what they are learning is suitably ambitious, then we, as part of the IEP team, need to create for each student the best learning environment—one that does not restrict their opportunity to meet challenging but attainable goals. LRE is in place to assist us in doing so.

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About the Author
Oran Tkatchov has worked in the field of education for over 15 years as a secondary school teacher, charter school director, and state-level director of professional development in the areas of special education and school improvement. He has authored several books and publications in the areas of supporting learning and improving outcomes for students and teachers. He earned a Master of Education from Northern Arizona University.