A specialist helps a student while they sit with peers in the regular classroom: an example of LRE
Exceptional Lives Community Member
October 10, 2023

What is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in Special Education?

If your child has an IEP, or if you’re in the process of creating one, you’ve probably heard about the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The LRE is supposed to be guaranteed to special ed students by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But it may seem complicated or ambiguous when you read the definition…

If your child has an IEP, or if you’re in the process of creating one, you’ve probably heard about the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The LRE is supposed to be guaranteed to special ed students by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But it may seem complicated or ambiguous when you read the definition in the actual law:

(I) 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

(ii) 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. IDEA Sec. 300.114(a)(2).

The premise is simple: special education is a service not a place. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is a principle that guides where and how special education will be provided.

I received my daughter’s first evaluation in the mail. Her exceptionality was listed as autism. It was 1994 and I had never heard of autism. At her first IEP meeting, the conversation turned to where she would go to school. She was being placed in the only autistic class for elementary age students in our parish. I bristled at the thought of them placing my three-year-old in a class because of a label. I knew nothing about the LRE, but in my gut, I knew something was not right.  

My daughter never attended the autistic class. She had many placements during her school career: a ‘reverse mainstream’ preschool class, a regular kindergarten class with paraprofessional support, general education classes with some subjects in a ‘mild/moderate’ class in elementary school, and a combination of general education classes and resources through middle and high school. I walked into each IEP meeting assuming she would be in general education classes, and listened to other IEP team members who sometimes thought she would learn more in a different setting away from her peers without disabilities. We made the placement decisions together.

Why is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) important?

The LRE is important because it’s an inclusive setting. It allows your child to interact with peers who do not have disabilities, and to be exposed to the general curriculum. Research shows there are many benefits for all students in inclusive settings. 

Benefits of LRE for students with disabilities can include:

  • improved communication opportunities
  • increased opportunities for social interaction and learning
  • increased access to curriculum
  • improved learning of academic skills

Benefits of LRE for students without disabilities can include:

  • improved academic skill acquisition
  • increased empathy and understanding of fairness/equity
  • improved self-concept

How to figure out the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for a student

So, what’s your child’s LRE? To figure it out, start with the general education classroom. Simply put, your child should be removed from the regular education class only if they cannot be adequately educated in the regular classroom with accommodations, specialized instruction, modifications, and related services.

3 steps to decide the LRE:

  1. Identify IEP goals
  2. Identify accommodations, specialized instruction, and related services the student will need to achieve each goal
  3. Decide the placement where each goal will be addressed

LRE as a continuum

IDEA requires school districts to provide a continuum of placements that includes:

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Starting with your child spending all day in the regular classroom, ask “can my child be successful in this setting with supplementary aids and services?” Only consider having your child pulled out for special services, or another placement, if the answer is no. The IEP must give “an explanation of the extent to which the child will not participate . . . in the regular class . . .” (IDEA Sect. 1414 (d)(1)(A)(i)(v)).

Be sure the district proposes — or tries — to educate your child in the regular classroom before moving to a more restrictive placement.

Placement is fluid and different goals may be better addressed in different settings. A child’s support needs may also change over time. There are other factors to consider when deciding LRE, including: how your child will benefit, the effect on peers (favorable and less favorable), and how the supplementary supports and services can be used in a particular setting. These are NOT considerations in deciding LRE: Disability category, district resources, and convenience.

Deciding your child’s LRE:

The IEP team (including you) makes the decisions about where your child will get their special education services. It is important that this decision maximizes your child’s ability to get an education alongside peers without disabilities.

Questions for the IEP team to consider when deciding placement:

  • What accommodations and specialized services have we tried in the classroom?
  • Have these helped? What does the data tell us?
  • Are there supports we haven’t tried in the general setting?
  • If my child leaves the classroom to work with specialists, could we successfully provide those services in the classroom?
  • If my child is in a specialized classroom, could they be successful in the general ed classroom if they had more supports? Could they at least join their typical peers for recess, lunch, or afterschool activities?

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the many accommodations that can be successfully used in general ed settings. Remember, you know your child best! Help your IEP team understand what supports work best for your child, and figure out how to incorporate them across school settings.

The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is an important concept in special education. Use these tips to make sure your child does their learning in the most inclusive setting that works for them.

  • Maria T. Blanco, M.Ed

    Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans

    Maria has over 20 years of experience providing parent education, early intervention, teacher training, and professional development to early childhood providers. Her work focuses on increasing equity and access to high quality services to all children and families. Maria is the mother of two adult daughters, one of whom has autism.

    Profile photo of Maria Blanco
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