Finding The Least Restrictive Environment

The term “Least Restrictive Environment” is used in special education and has specific requirements attached to it and its meaning.

§1412 subsection 5 of IDEA provides that students be taught in the least restrictive environment. This means they should be taught alongside their non-disabled peers and not in a separate setting whenever possible. The student should only be placed in a more restrictive environment when the “severity or nature of the disability” prevents it.

This term has been misused by many school personnel and misunderstood by students’ families.

I am not a lawyer and I do not intend this article to provide legal advice. Please contact an education or disability lawyer if you need further interpretation. I have included references to read the law for yourself as well as the interpretations that I found helpful in writing this article.


Least Restrictive Learning

Least Restrictive Environment Law

The term “least restrictive environment” appears 6 times in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) but is defined best in section 1412, where the term is defined. This section defines what states must do to receive funding under IDEA.

§1412. State eligibility

(5) Least restrictive environment
(A) In general
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.

Education of Individual with DisabilitiesOpens in a new tab. (emphasis on words and phrases is mine)

Gruenhagen and RossOpens in a new tab. suggest that some ways to determine whether the placement of the student is the least restrictive environment might be the “use of supplementary aids and services, educational and noneducational benefits, the effect of the child upon others, cost, and whether the student has been mainstreamed to the maximum extent possible when segregated placement is used.”

According to the Forte Law GroupOpens in a new tab., “LRE means that a child with a disability must be educated within the same classroom as typical mainstreamed non-disabled peers to the fullest extent possible in order to ensure that a disabled child is receiving a free appropriate public education (FAPE). “

What is the Least Restrictive Environment?

There isn’t one set of requirements that signals the least restrictive environment for each child. This is determined by the IEP team together.

What the law does say very clearly, is that if a child can be educated in a regular classroom with their peers, they should be placed in that classroom and have accommodations and modifications within that environment.

The least restrictive environment means that children should be in regular general education classes for as much of their day as possible. This doesn’t mean they need to be at the same academic level as their peers or don’t need assistance. It means they can be in the same classroom as their peers while learning.

It may be helpful to review demand avoidance and consider what struggles they are facing to come up with some ideas on how to keep them in the mainstream classroom.

How to Find the Least Restrictive Environment for Your Child

When the IEP team meets, they need to decide what the least restrictive environment is. This means that the parents, teachers, and district must discuss what the child needs and find the best placement.

Some questions to help the team find the least restrictive environment:

  • Academics
    • What modifications to the curriculum are needed (changing the level of materials either up or down)?
    • What accommodations are needed to access the curriculum (changes to how the material is presented)?
    • What can be done to deliver these in the general education classroom?
  • Related Services
    • What cannot be delivered in the classroom (push-out)?
    • What can be delivered in the general education classroom (push-in)?
  • Behavioral Needs
    • What are the behavioral support needs?
      • What can be delivered in the classroom?
      • What cannot be delivered in the classroom?
    • Is a staff member needed to support the child?
  • Review
    • What services (listed above or additional) cannot be met in a general education classroom?
    • What parts of the day can be spent in the general education classroom?
  • Additional Services
    • If an additional staff member was available for the child, would they be able to spend more time in the general education classroom (modifications, accommodations, behavioral, etc.)?
    • Is there any Assistive Technology not currently utilized that would allow access to the general education classroom?
      • If you are unsure about Assistive Technology, consult the district AT expert. They will observe the child in class and come up with ideas that you and the teachers may not have considered!

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