least restrictive environment


Talking about LRE is kinda like playing that game with Chinese fortune cookies. Instead of adding ‘in bed’ to the end of every fortune, you add ‘that works for my kid’ to the end of every sentence. ~ Me to another autism mom yesterday while discussing the Least Restrictive Environment clause of IDEA


I usually stay away from this sort of thing, but this topic has come up in conversation with friends enough lately that it seems like the time has come to discuss it here.


What do those words mean to our kids?

We live in a district that, at least theoretically, prizes inclusion. And as a rule, I’m all for it. In my opinion, inclusion – educational, societal and damn near any kind you can think of – benefits everybody involved. BUT – big, huge, enormous BUT here – ONLY IF IT’S DONE RIGHT. Otherwise, it can be pretty damn damaging to everybody involved.

Inclusion doesn’t – can’t – mean throwing everyone in a room together and hoping for the best. In order to work, inclusion has to be thoughtfully designed. It must be painstakingly planned and executed. It must be FLEXIBLE and agile – constantly able to evolve and change as the needs and skills of those involved evolve and change – and it must be constantly monitored so as to see where those changes are occurring in real time.

So when we talk about the law’s requirement that our kids be placed in the least restrictive environment possible, to my mind that doesn’t simply mean the most inclusive setting in the building. It might, but that’s not the point. What it means to me is the ENVIRONMENT THAT WILL BE LEAST RESTRICTIVE TO YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING.

A friend brought this up yesterday. Her kiddo is struggling in an integrated classroom setting and she’s wrangling with his team to take him out of the room more to – well, actually teach him. I know this road well. I’ve travelled it before.

Many of our kids get easily overwhelmed. Many of them have language processing challenges. Many of them have sensory issues that can make a typical classroom nearly unbearable. For some (and for many years, mine), trying to be taught in a class of twenty some-odd kids is like trying to learn French while your house is on fire. It simply isn’t possible.

The best part about inclusion DONE RIGHT is that it’s never an all or none proposition. It’s flexible, malleable, creative. It is, above all, INDIVIDUALIZED so that the needs of each individual are seamlessly incorporated into the every day routine of the group. And the best part? When generalized, the accommodations of individuals so often benefit the whole. Predictability? Visual prompts and learning tools? Movement breaks? Tools for emotional regulation? Social skills teaching? A little more time to process information? GOOD FOR EVERYONE.

But back to this least restrictive environment thing. Well, based on my experiences in the past and recent conversations with friends, it seems that the assumptions that we’ve begun to make based on that language have become a little, well, restrictive. We assume that LRE means the room with the most typical kids (or even just the most kids) in it. Well, no. It doesn’t. It might. But it might not.

Because the room with the most kids in it may be the one that is the most difficult for your kiddo to manage. It might be the one in which his house is on fire.

For my money – and this is, of course, based only on my own experience with my own kid and may or may not have the slightest bearing on you or yours, but what has worked best for Brooke has been a thoughtful combination of all of the above. Either a typical or integrated classroom as a home base, but with lots (I mean LOTS) of time outside that room. Pre-teaching and review, one-on-one instruction of an individualized curriculum, speech therapy, occupational therapy, social pragmatics instruction – all of those things need to happen OUTSIDE the room in order to make life INSIDE the room possible for her. That’s not always easy. On a lot of levels. But for now, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Again, this is just what works for my kid. And it’s what works for now. In six months it may look totally different because SHE may look different. As the demands on her change, as the kids around her change, as her skills and coping strategies change, so must we, as a team, change our plan for supporting her. So I can’t say that this is always going to be our best practice. Only that it is for now.

We have our first team meeting tomorrow. We’ll ask questions. Lots of them. How is it going? Is she having a tough time leaving the room? Is she able to handle transitioning back in?

And I’m adding one this year. How can we include her in some capacity in the next meeting?

It’s time. Yesterday, we began brainstorming ways to allow Brooke to participate in her team meetings. To begin – slowly, gingerly, to plant the seeds of self-advocacy. To encourage her to speak on her own behalf. To tell us what’s working and what’s not. To tell us where she needs more help or where we may be able to back off. To guide us on how to best support her. And in the end, to tell us what Least Restrictive Environment really means for her.



29 thoughts on “least restrictive environment

    • This is true! Last year my son was thrown into an “inclusion” classroom. He regressed, he hated going to school, he stopped talking starting hitting and biting. This year a new teacher and new school a teacher who actually gets it! Who bends over backwards to include him on levels he can manage. He LOVES going!! He has a friend, he’s talking again. It’s just amazing!!

  1. Absolutely. My boy is one who – at the time-being – cannot learn in a typical or inclusion class. For him, LRE is a self-contained PSE classroom, but as you said, that may/will/can change as his years increase. That’s the purpose of an IEP – not to ensure stasis, but to foster growth. Growth is dynamic and ever-changing and sometimes requires thinking outside if the box to make it happen. LRE doesn’t look the same for every child; it looks like exactly what that individual child needs.

  2. Oh, Jess! How amazing that Brooke is ready to take steps towards self advocacy! It sounds like there is an amazing group of people behind her, allowing her to do well in an inclusive setting. Also seems like a chess game orchestrating the ways to make it possible. Kudos to you!
    Annnnnd…you’ve touched on another issue we’re dealing with. On top of all the anxiety stuff…she goes to Kindergarden next year. Cymbie is currently in a contained class room. She needs to be there. Her school does not have on for Kindergarden. They are already talking about main streaming her with pull out. LRE for my girl? Not so much…
    I’m already preparing to have a fight on my hands. I’ve spoken to an advocate, and she also recommended a lawyer, if it comes to that.
    I just keep adding to the pile, and I’m staring to suffocate under all this pressure. Sigh….

  3. Once again, you’ve pulled together the words I have been struggling to find and delivered them on a silver platter when I most need them. I’m as grateful to the friend who sparked the discussion as I am to you for this lifeline. I’ve been drowning as I try to figure out the ways to bring this to my son’s team –a really good team on the whole– to find different, better ways to help him access the learning. Thanks.

  4. Thank you Jess… it’s hard to be the voice of reason amongst so much emotion. Too many parents, simply wanting ‘the best’ for their child, push to be included when clearly this is not in the best interest of their child. CHILDREN FIRST; right? Maybe someone reading will open their heart and mind to your well-spoken insights and allow their child to be where they need to be instead of where they want them to be. Well done!

  5. Thank you for this. And this “…trying to be taught in a class of twenty some-odd kids is like trying to learn French while your house is on fire. It simply isn’t possible.”. Exactly.

    Brooke at her team meeting. A huge little step! Love those huge-littles. And I just know she’s going to have some great zingers and insights on how you lot are managing.

  6. This is expertly worded. I agree that LRE looks and feels different for every kid…and I am grateful that you wrote this. Filing it away for future use!!!

  7. I love the analogy of “learning French while your house is on fire.” It’s so appropriate to what we sometimes try to do to our kids for the sake of inclusion.

    We’re just now getting more supports for our daughter in an inclusive classroom (supports that should have been in place from the moment we handed over the ASD diagnosis) and part of that support includes pull-out. Unfortunately, it’s only a drop in the bucket for us… we’re still fighting for more time to be spent educating our daughter. *Sigh* I guess it’s just an uphill battle for everyone, isn’t it? Good luck with yours!

  8. Jim started with LRE in pre-k and then in kindergarten. We had a fight over when to pull him out. I thought that he should be allowed to have recess and Gym (come on our kids need that outlet more than most) and they thought that it was important for him to sit through Hawaiian and Japanese studies (SERIOUSLY), then when I pointed out that he was neither Hawaiian or Japanese so why not let the kid have recess and gym, they told me I was racist…Told then no, I hate everyone equally it saves time, now back to recess…Eventually we had to move him to a private school PSE setting. It was what works best for him, and that is what matters.

  9. ” In my opinion, inclusion – educational, societal and damn near any kind you can think of – benefits everybody involved. BUT – big, huge, enormous BUT here – ONLY IF IT’S DONE RIGHT. Otherwise, it can be pretty damn damaging to everybody involved.”

    That last statement is why we pulled my son from public school and are homeschooling…because the local school district can’t/won’t even consider doing it right. Their idea of a kindy “inclusion” was a room with 17 kids, no aide in there at all, and a teacher with no SE background. They basically put all the kids who need to be pulled for help in one room and hope for the best. How is that conducive to learning??

    • Putting 17 special needs kids into a room and hoping for the best is called warehousing. They put them all there to get them out of the way. It’s hurtful to the children and illegal. It’s what the LRE laws are supposed to stop, but it keeps happening because it’s easiest for the school. If you have the resources, I’d suggest a lawsuit. If not look into your state’s enforcement department for the “No Child Left Behind” laws.

      John Mark McDonald

  10. I am printing this and bringing it to the meeting I just requested with my girl’s ALS teacher. Sometimes I think they forget that they are not teaching typical children and are trying to force their will on behaviors that occur for reasons our kids sometimes can’t control. Thanks for being awesome!

  11. When the district they were living in wanted to put a barely verbal four year old Isabella into an N.T. classroom, my daughter moved. She was placed in an appropriate class and has thrived. Mind you, I live in a state people move to for the ASD program! Bells is now mainstreamed in a few areas but still needs the contained classroom for the most part. Baby steps.

  12. I think you drank the Kool-aide.

    Jess, the message to those un effected by disability is that yes, in some cases the support can be too hard.

    The bulk of families are experiencing schools rallying for life skills, segregation, exclusion and special places.

    These special places are of little support for the student to glean “skills” other than specifically what is written into IEP goals. It’s a grotesque way to develop or instruct.

    I am struggling with today’s blog because it does more harm than good.


    • louise,

      while i understand your concerns re the oversimplification of the message, i don’t believe that i am in any way, shape or form saying that ‘in some cases support can be too hard’.

      what i am saying, and i think you’ll find clearly stated within the post, is that true and effective inclusion takes thought and careful execution and that when it is indeed thoughtfully, carefully executed, it is beneficial to ALL involved, special needs or no.


    • Louise, I’m not sure I understand what you are saying to Jess about the Kool-aide. My son is in a completely segregated school and doing a thousand times better than he could possibly begin to in a less restrictive setting. In this highly restrictive environment, he has learned to spell and read (we’re working on comprehension now), he’s learning math skills. He struggles mightily with visual and auditory processing challenges and cannot physically keep pace with his non-disabled peers. He is learning and developing social skills he could not otherwise learn in a too-fast-paced, too-loud, too-overwhelming environment. He is learning more than just life skills and he is included in any number of activities with peers.

      I fail to understand how that is doing more harm than good. I think that was the point of Jess’s whole post…that LRE has to be based on the child’s needs. HOW it is implemented can– and should– be as varied as the children involved.

    • The LRE laws were designed to keep schools from warehousing children. Warehousing means sticking all the difficult children in an out of the way classroom and basically forgetting about them. This used to be standard operating procedure in most places, and still is in some places (see Kathy Volpendesta’s comment above.) Unfortunately, mainstreaming is not a panacea. Some disabled communities (most noticeably the deaf community) began pushing back for specialized segregated classrooms almost immediately. The fight has been going on ever since. Sometimes mainstreaming is the answer. Sometimes specialized classrooms are the answer. Sometimes a little of both is the answer. Warehousing is NEVER the answer. This is the whole point of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because no two children are ever exactly the same.

      John Mark McDonald

    • Louise, sorry, but I have seen both. “inclusion” of children into a classroom where they cannot possibly do the work everyone else is doing restricts their education. You may feel better about the classroom they are in, when in general ed, but it is highly unlikely that they were learn nearly as much, and in the long run make it that more likely that they will never reach their potential.

  13. I love your insights. I’m training as an education specialist and what you say is so true. Inclusion, just like bilingual education or any other aspect of education has to be done right and with consideration and input and the best interests of the child as the goal. Then it works. Thank you for sharing your beautiful girls with us.

  14. Thank you Jess. The topics covered in our monthly team meetings have been about goals, programs, and progress. This month I will be sure to ask, “but how’s he feeling during the day?” I always worried that he was being pulled out of his mainstream class too often. You’ve made me think that maybe the pull-outs are dual purpose for him-to get the OT/PT/SLP yes, but also just to get out of the classroom where he is constantly worried about, and working hard at, being a good listener and rules-follower. I think we have a good mix this year.

  15. Yes, it absolutely must be done right in order to work! How I envy your school district! We have lived in a small community with “A -rated” schools for the last few years. We are in a warm sunny locale, we receive scholarships annually for dolphin swim therapy, we have such a strong sense of community with great friends and neighbors,truly a village , but for ESE services we are so far behind. Vincent was completely mainstreamed in first grade with pull outs for speech and OT. It was our first year here, he seemed to thrive,we could not have been happier. As it turned out, he had had the good fortune of being placed with an amazing teacher that really”got ” him. Halfway through the next year we found him struggling with a first year teacher in a too large class, so we decided to try half days in the ESE room for academics with afternoons and specials with NT peers. Great plan, until we discovered that he just didn’t click with the one and only ESE teacher we had. So after two years of them butting heads and getting nowhere, we are driving 60 miles to a autism school. I feel like this should not be happening for a kid that is so capable of handling an. Inclusion setting, we are just Ina place with some great, well- intentioned teachers and staff that just don ‘t seem to know how to execute this successfully. So I wonder everyday if this is the right fit. Am I segregating him from the community, or helping him find his “village”? I guess time will tell. The new school is amazing,by the way, and the teachers even more so.

  16. I just finished drafting the social story my 6 year old son with autism will use to facilitate his first Kindergarten IEP Team meeting on Tuesday. We let the district know last May by way of him contributing a personal statement to his annual review meeting for his transition to Kindergarten plan that he would be attending all Team meetings beginning in Kindergarten. We just simply decided to do it and told them when it was happening. I guess because my husband is a philosopher and ethics professor and has worked a bit on disability rights we just sort of assumed a “nothing about us without us position” right from the beginning. There is lots of stuff out there supporting the idea, like: http://nichcy.org/schoolage/iep/team/student. I guess we’ll see how it goes. If nothing else a kick-ass social story came out of it and my kid will get to wear a tie and go to a “real meeting with grown ups” which he is crazy excited about.

  17. You are exactly right. Your definition is what the gentleman who coined the phrase used as his definition. The setting which least restricts your child’s education or allows them to learn the most. I am a parent of three children, who are no longer children, but long grown, (Translated, around for a long time)
    At the same time this term started to be used, the number of crack babies being born was staggering (roughly 30%). There was abject fear about the cost of educating these kids when they hit school age and had multiple issues that were difficult to deal with. My children have learning disabilities, at the time contained classes were available for children with disabilities and average or above ability. They started in these contained classes, and then when ready gradually increased their time in a regular class for areas in which they were able. It was the right, effective way to do it.
    This is no longer available, because of the use of LRE. It was actually a blessing in disguise for people paying for classrooms other than regular class settings. It is much cheaper not to have to have contained classes.
    There is no way a child can learn in a classroom where they are not capable of the level of work, or the speed of learning of which they are not capable.
    So trust your instincts, you are exactly right.

  18. I hope you don’t mind that I quoted this post on my blog (with of course a link to your excellent post) – http://marythemom-mayhem.blogspot.com/2013/01/books-and-methods-review-school.html I work with a lot of parents like myself who have children with trauma issues.

    When she was a high school sophomore, in less than 4 months my daughter was hospitalized (psychiatric) 6 times and all the medical professionals stated (in writing!) that she needed to be in a smaller, specialized classroom with trained behavior specialists to provide structure and support. The school even had an excellent program for “Emotionally Disturbed” children, but it was being used primarily for aggressive students the schools didn’t want. Our son had excelled there, and we knew it was exactly the sort of environment our daughter would need when she returned from a residential psychiatric treatment center.

    The school kept citing “least restrictive environment” as their reason for not putting her in the program. When we tried to find a Disability Rights Advocate – we were told that their priority was to get children in the “least restrictive environment” so they wouldn’t take our case. We finally had to hire a special education attorney and file “due process” (like a lawsuit against the school), but we did get her in the program.

    She did not have the same quality education some of her “neuro-typical” siblings had, but the reality was she was never going to be able to learn or use most of that stuff anyway. What good is attempting to learn French in the middle of a fire if your brain doesn’t actually have the capability to learn and memorize English! and you need to be focusing on learning practical life skills (like firefighting?!).

    Thank you for this post! I wish I’d discovered it before my children graduated high school so I could have better advocated for their needs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s