Least Restrictive Environment: How Do We Prepare Both Our Special Educators and Our General Educators to Comply with the Provision?
By: Carolyn Cannon Keuhne
When I think of the concept of least restrictive environment (LRE), I think of Ricky. Five years ago, Ricky was one of my special education students in an inclusive elementary school setting. Ricky was nine years old and had been receiving special education services for two years. In the third grade, Ricky spent most of the day in the general education classroom where he received some support from various service providers. Ricky’s general education teacher was excellent at tailoring instruction to suit students with special learning needs. When the members of Ricky’s multidisciplinary team met for Ricky’s annual IEP, all of them agreed that Ricky had successfully received services in the least restrictive environment. We planned to continue to educate Ricky the same way in fourth grade; however, we soon discovered that the general education placement seemed inappropriate. Ricky was not succeeding and he was interfering with the education of his nondisabled peers.
What had changed? It could have been that the general education teacher was not as sensitive to Ricky’s needs. Perhaps Ricky’s needs changed from third to fourth grade. Whatever the reason, Ricky could not function successfully with the same type of limited support he received in the third grade. He now needed a more restrictive environment, including more hours in the resource room. By the end of the year, however, Ricky was able to move back into the general education classroom through the collaborative efforts of his multidisciplinary team and because his general education teacher sought professional development to better serve students with special needs. Once again, the general education classroom became the least restrictive environment for Ricky.
Presumably all teacher preparation programs discuss the issue of LRE whenever they address the educational placement of students with special needs. When considering how to prepare all teachers to comply with this provision, we should emphasize three aspects of LRE: (a) the legal ramification of the LRE provision as mandated by IDEA, (b) the relative and dynamic properties of LRE, and (c) the collaborative dimension of implementing LRE for students in special education.
Legal ramifications of LRE
Currently, opinions differ as to the legal meaning of LRE. Further differences surface when this provision is put into practice in an educational setting. LRE is sometimes used synonymously with such terms as “mainstreaming” or “inclusion.” However, neither the statute nor the implementing regulations of IDEA use these terms. On the other hand, case law increasingly uses the LRE standard to require school districts to exhaust attempts to serve students with disabilities in the general education classroom (Osborn & Dimattia, 1994). Furthermore, IDEA 97’s amendments provide evidence that the LRE rule is a strong rebuttable presumption in favor of the integration of students with disabilities in the general education classroom; however, the LRE rule supports the long standing policy of a continuum of alternative placements (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1998). In light of these legal issues, preservice teachers need to leave teacher preparation programs with skills that ensure effective attempts to serve students with special needs in the general education classroom. In addition, preservice teachers must be knowledgeable about all possible environments capable of maximizing the freedom of the student with disabilities to associate with nondisabled peers—if the general education classroom is not an appropriate placement.
Properties of LRE
Secondly, preservice teachers must recognize that the LRE is a relative description and that the appropriate placement of a student can change. For example, placing a student with learning disabilities in a general education classroom in School A may be the least restrictive environment; whereas, placing the same student with learning disabilities in a resource room in School B may be the least restrictive environment since practices, philosophies, and services vary among states and districts. As Ricky’s situation illustrates, teachers are different and students change. Consequently, the practical applications of LRE are relative and the process of determining appropriate placement is a dynamic one.
Preservice teachers need to be aware of various systems that evaluate the LRE for the students they will be teaching. For example, Ysseldyke and Christenson (1993) developed The Instructional Environment System-II to help educators evaluate learning environments.
Elements of collaboration
Perhaps those of us who prepare students to become both general educators and special educators should emphasize that the term LRE should be synonymous with collaborative practices—practices that are well established among team members and extend beyond the team. In order for the general education classroom to be the least restrictive environment in Ricky’s case, there had to be collaboration among the parent, special educator, the general educator, the administrator, the district professional development staff, and the other teachers in the school. This group of interested team members created an environment where Ricky could successfully learn. Effective skills in collaboration will assist all preservice teachers in creating the “most enabling environment,” (Mercer & Mercer, 1998, p. 15) an environment where students are free to learn to the best of their ability.
Selecting the appropriate school setting for students with special learning needs is a complex task that affects the quality of instruction provided, specifies who will provide services for the student, and influences who will become the student’s peer group. Teacher education programs need to focus on the skills that will support their preservice teachers in the process of determining the LRE for students with special-learning needs.
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Dr. Carolyn Cannon Kuehne, Assistant Professor, Westminster College Utah Special Educator, February 1999