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.