Least Restrictive Environment and Placement Options in an IEP
What Is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)?
One of the most important components of IDEA is the legal requirement that a child be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). IDEA also states that students with disabilities are entitled to be educated with students who do not receive special education services, to the maximum extent appropriate. To determine a student’s placement, IDEA requires that the IEP team consider the supplementary aids and services a student may need in the general education classroom to be successful. The law also states that students should only be removed from the general education classroom if supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom do not meet the student’s unique needs. We spoke with Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher educator, and faculty at UCLA, to learn more about LRE.
What is the least restrictive environment definition in special education?
IDEA states that every public agency (including public schools and districts) is required to ensure:
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 not disabled; and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
What should be considered when choosing a placement?
The least restrictive placement is the general education classroom that corresponds to a student’s chronological age — for example, if a student is eight-years-old, the LRE would be a third-grade general education classroom at the school where the child would be educated if they were not disabled. That’s not to say that every student must be placed there — for students who cannot be satisfactorily educated in a general education classroom, even after supplementary aids and services have been added, there is a continuum of other options.
The IEP team, including the parents, might consider whether the environment:
- Supports a student’s progress and growth academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.
- Provides students with access to the general education curriculum.
- Provides students with opportunities to learn both academic and social skills.
- Eliminates barriers and provides access to the learning environment through the use of supplementary aids and services.
- Provides ample opportunities to engage meaningfully with non-disabled peers.
- Provides opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities (such as track and field or LEGO club) as well as other nonacademic activities (such as school dances and football games).
How is a student’s placement decided?
A student’s placement is decided annually by the IEP team, during the student’s IEP meeting. The placement determination is a team decision that requires input from all members of the student’s IEP team. Because parents or guardians are an integral part of the IEP team, they should always be included in the placement determination process. When students are in upper elementary school or middle school, they should also have a say in determining their own placement. Regardless of whether a student has been in the same placement year after year, determining a student’s placement is a process that must take place annually regardless of the educational placement options available at a given school site.
To determine a student’s placement, the IEP team discusses the student’s individualized program, which consists of goals, instruction, related services, and any supports the student needs to make meaningful progress academically and socially. The first educational placement all IEP teams must consider is the general education classroom.
Even if an inclusion program does not exist at a school site, students receiving special education services have the right to be in the general education classroom if that setting is appropriate. Before considering an alternative placement, the team must consider the services and supports the student would need in the general education setting to be successful. The services and supports considered should allow the student to progress in the general education curriculum and in their annual IEP goals and objectives, and participate in extracurricular and nonacademic activities with peers without disabilities.
If the team believes that the student’s needs cannot be met in the general education classroom with supplementary aids and services, the team can then consider services that take place outside of the general education classroom, such as a resource room or learning center. If the team believes that a primary general education placement with pull-out services is not sufficient for the student to make progress, the team may consider a separate classroom, often known in California as a special day class (SDC) — a setting with allocated time or subjects spent in general education classrooms. This means that the student would spend the majority of their day in a special day classroom but would go to the general education classroom or setting for specific periods such as science or math, for example. This sequence of incremental considerations must be applied at each step on the educational placement continuum until the placement is determined.
An example of one district’s LRE analysis form can be found here. It’s important to note that many schools and districts are beginning to adopt better processes for determining placement; however, some still use outdated practices. Providing information to your IEP team about the placement determination process may be a helpful practice.
Educational Placement Options
Part B, Section 300.115 of IDEA outlines the continuum of educational placements that public agencies must have available to students receiving special education services. These include instruction in a general education classroom, specialized classes, specialized schools, home instruction, and instruction in residential facilities (more on this below). In addition, public schools must have available supplementary services, such as a resource room or itinerant instruction for students in general education classrooms. This continuum of placement options is available to students receiving special education services so that students with varying needs have access to appropriate placements at no cost to parents. However, school districts often don’t have the variety of placement options available. When this is the case, the district must find the appropriate placement by any means required.
We asked special education advocate Dr. Sarah Pelangka to give us the lowdown on some of the more common types of classrooms and/or schools.
General Education Class: This is always the starting point — the least restrictive environment. The district must attempt to make general education work with supplementary services and supports before moving to a more restrictive option.
General Education with Accommodations and Modifications: It is possible to be in a general education class with a modified curriculum. When this is a consideration, Dr. Pelangka largely recommends that the student have a formal inclusion specialist (a credentialed special education teacher) to support the general education teacher in ensuring the student has the modifications and accommodations they need to be successful.
Co-Taught Classrooms: More and more schools are adopting the model of co-taught classes. In this model, both a special education teacher as well as a general education teacher work together in the same classroom for the full day.
Resource Pull Out/Push In: A student can be pulled out to work in a small group setting with a credentialed special ed teacher in a separate room. This is not a classroom model and the resource teacher is not instructing a class; rather, the resource teacher is working exclusively on IEP goals with the student and their peers in a very concentrated fashion. In the push-in model, the resource teacher comes into the student’s general education class to provide IEP goal support. In the push-in model, the resource teacher can enter the student’s general education class to provide IEP goal support.
Mild/Moderate Special Day Class (SDC): This is a more restrictive class (specific to California) that uses the general education curriculum and may also include intervention curriculum. These classes are smaller and are taught by a credentialed special education teacher, ideally targeting grade-level curriculum at a slower pace. Children can also be “mainstreamed” to general education environments at the same school, such as art or PE. Note: every district is different, and names for these classes may differ from one district to another, so it’s important for parents to make sure they understand which class is being discussed for their child.
Moderate/Severe Special Day Class (SDC): This is a more restrictive SDC class (specific to California), which uses a modified curriculum. The curriculum taught in a moderate–severe special education class is often called “Life Skills” or “Functional Skills.” If a student is placed in this setting and remains there until high school, they are unlikely to earn a diploma, but are on track to receive a Certificate of Completion. This is important for families to be aware of, as being in this placement up until high school can put the student so far behind that they likely will not have access to a general education curriculum. Note: every district is different, and names for these classes may differ from one district to another, so it’s important for parents to make sure they understand which class is being discussed for their child.
Autism SDC Class: As a result of the increase in students with autism, many districts now have autism-specific classrooms in which the special education teacher is also certified to support students with autism. Although legally, districts cannot say that only students with autism can be included in this class, the strategies used within these classrooms should be evidence-based to support the autism population.
ED Classes: Districts have programs specific to students with emotional disturbance eligibility. These programs support behavior and social-emotional wellbeing and development, and generally have ready access to a therapist daily. Students are generally on a general education curriculum.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing; Blind and Visually Impaired Classes: Districts may have classes specific to their Deaf and hard of hearing and Blind and visually impaired populations. If they do not offer the programs within their district, they may look to the neighboring district, a SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area) program, or a county placement. They also may hire an itinerant teacher to provide curricular support and/or related services. Such programs specialize in what those students require to access their education such as sign language, room acoustics, Braille, etc.
County Classroom or Regional Program: If the district does not have the capability to meet the student’s needs, they may offer the option of a county class, which is considered more restrictive than a district SDC class. In California these programs may be offered by SELPA as a Regional Program or by the County Office of Education. County programs offer daily on-site specialists (such as SLPs, PTs, OTs, behaviorists), allowing more immediate access to services. These classes are smaller and may or may not be on a modified curriculum (ED programs may have a general ed curriculum).
Non-Public School: These are separate schools for students with various disabilities. There are no general education students on campus. All specialists are in-house and readily available to support students. Some NPS accept students on a private-pay basis and some accept district funding through the IEP process, or a mixture of both.
Home/Hospital Instruction: Students with disabilities that impact their ability to attend any type of school can receive home instruction. Home-based service providers collaborate with multiple service providers to develop a plan for instruction and offer flexible scheduling options for when services take place. For example, students who have frequent doctor appointments can receive their services one, two, or more days per week during specific hours that don’t interfere with their appointments.
Residential Placement: This would be the most restrictive option in which the student lives at a residential facility where they access their schooling.
Can I choose a different school that offers the same placement?
The LRE is the school your child would attend if not disabled — i.e. your neighborhood school — unless you have other school choice options in your district. It's important to note placement is distinct from location in an IEP. For example, if your IEP team chooses an NPS placement, there’s no guarantee that the district will be able to place your child at a particular NPS. Your IEP team might suggest a different campus because certain resources are concentrated there.
Learn more about the difference between placement and location from Dr. Pelangka in this clip:
When considering your child's placement, request to see any and all programs that may be of benefit to your child and remember that what you’re requesting to see shouldn’t be more restrictive than what your child requires to access their education. For example, if your child has a learning disability, you can ask if your district offers co-taught classes, resource classes, and/or mild-to-moderate classes. You have the right to tour all options that are reasonable considerations for your child. If the district says you can’t tour due to “confidentiality,” know that this doesn’t apply to public schools. You may have to wait until your IEP team has identified the placement, then visit the one they propose, but you shouldn’t agree until you have visited the program or school.
Special education attorney Grace Clark reminds us that while it can be tempting for a parent to want to see all of the services and placement options used by a school district to identify the one that seems most appropriate for their child, districts are under no obligation to be transparent about all the services and placements they have to offer. She advises that parents first think carefully about how a school can meet their child’s needs by using the child’s assessments to identify areas of need where special education is necessary. The school district is under a legal obligation to remediate and address those areas with high-quality, evidence-based instruction. Parents also have options for when they disagree with the district's recommended placement.
The bottom line: rather than choosing from what the school district has available, you can make a case for what your child requires to receive FAPE. The law guarantees your child access to a free, appropriate public education, and you have a say in what placement is appropriate for your child. Learn more from Dr. Pelangka in this clip: