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Least Restrictive Environment and Placement Options in an IEP

Least Restrictive Environment and Placement Options in an IEP


Published: Nov. 11, 2020Updated: May. 22, 2024

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One of the most important components of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the legal requirement that a child with a disability be educated in the least restrictive environment — unless a different arrangement is necessary to provide a free, appropriate education. Here's what you should know about this law and how it's implemented in schools.

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), meaning 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.

The myth of individualized LRE

Many in the special education system believe that the least restrictive environment is a concept that applies individually to each child. This misunderstanding of LRE often leads IEP teams to say things like, “the least restrictive environment for this child is….” Selene Almazan, Legal Director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) explains: “The fact is, under the law, there is only one LRE – the general education classroom with access to peers without disabilities. If a more restrictive placement is needed for a child because of their unique situation, it’s then a free appropriate public education (FAPE) discussion.“

This doesn't mean that every child must be educated in a general education classroom, only that when they’re not, it’s not called LRE but another placement on the continuum of placements that must be offered. Further, IEP teams are also obligated to find ways for students in placements on the continuum to have some access to nondisabled peers. Whether a child’s placement will be the LRE (general education classroom with peers without disabilities) is centered on whether the team agrees that the child can be provided FAPE in the LRE.

Eligibility for an IEP under a particular eligibility category, such as Autism or ID, does not make any difference to LRE since there is only one LRE which is general education with or without support. There is only one guiding principle behind it: that kids with disabilities should be included in the general education classroom as often as possible. This is really a semantic point that might be important for families to know, especially if they are seeking inclusive placements. Some parents may feel that a general education classroom is more restrictive when compared to a more specialized environment (like classrooms for the Deaf or blind) where everyone shares their communication mode. However, to Alzaman’s point, the case law does not reflect this individualized interpretation of LRE under IDEA.

The main takeaway for parents is that while LRE isn’t technically individualized, your child’s placement is! You can use the general legal definition of LRE as a guiding principle to inform decisions about your child’s placement (this is the starting point) but at the end of the day, it’s important to look at your child as an individual — based on their unique strengths, needs, and preferences. The goal of the IEP team should always be deciding on a placement that is the most appropriate for your child, based on their unique situation, where they will thrive — whether that is the gen ed classroom, or something else. Parents should be aware that when it comes to looking at a continuum of placements, the law requires IEP teams to have a preference for less restrictive placements and to find some way for the student to access non-disabled peers.

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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. Input is not the same as having a vote — we need to hear the reasons why team members prefer one placement over another so that the IEP team can reach a collaborative solution.

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. As Almazon explains, when determining placement, “priority must be given to placement in the regular classroom with any necessary supplemental aids and services to make that placement successful. Only after the LRE is considered [and it is determined that the student cannot make progress] there should districts move to more restrictive placement options.”

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 your IEP team feels that general education is not working, it is important to ensure that they discuss what additional support and services could be tried to make it work. If your IEP team does not know about inclusive practices, they might call in an Inclusion Specialist to observe the student and make suggestions.

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.

Schools that fail to consider the benefits of inclusion in a general education classroom might not be following the principle of LRE, as happened in the recent court case DR vs Redondo Beach USD. An example of one district’s LRE/placement 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. However, unless you are an attorney, you cannot provide legal advice, so the best approach is to ask questions, such as “Should we not first consider what supports we can add to general education?”

In this clip, Dr. Solone breaks down the number one misconception about LRE and how this message can sometimes be pushed by schools due to lack of resources to provide an inclusive classroom.

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 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.

Least restrictive environment and the continuum of placement options in an IEP

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. These classes also have a mixture of students with and without IEPs.

Resource pull-out/push-in services: 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 in a very concentrated fashion — either 1:1 with the student or in a small group with their peers. In the push-in model, the resource teacher comes into the student’s general education class to provide IEP goal support.

Mild or 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 or 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 diploma. 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, 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 (NPS): 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. Read more about NPS here.

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.

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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:

School tours to assess placement options

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:

Contents


Overview

What is the least restrictive environment (LRE)?

What should be considered when choosing a placement?

How is a student’s placement decided?

Educational placement options

School tours to assess placement options

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Author

Karen Ford CullUndivided Content Specialist and Writer

With a passion for fostering inclusive education and empowering families in the disability community, Karen Ford Cull brings a wealth of experience as a Content Specialist and Advocate. With a diverse background spanning education, advocacy, and volunteer work, Karen is committed to creating a more inclusive and supportive world for children with disabilities. Karen, her husband, and three sons are committed to ensuring that their son with Down syndrome has every opportunity to lead an enviable life. As the Content Specialist at Undivided, Karen guides writers to produce informative and impactful content that ensures families have access to comprehensive and reliable resources.

Reviewed by

Contributors

  • Grace Clark, Special education attorney
  • Dr. Sarah Pelangka, Special Education Advocate, BCBA-D, and owner of KnowIEPs
  • Dr. Caitlin Solone, Education advocate, teacher-educator, and Academic Administrator for the Disability Studies program at UCLA

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