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Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in Special Education: Definition & Law

Lesson Transcript
Amy Marin Carlson
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

The term Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) comes from a section of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Explore this concept, which states Special Education students are entitled to spend time in the classroom with other students who are in a regular educational setting. Updated: 09/09/2021

Least Restrictive Environment

The concept of least restrictive environment (LRE) comes from the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and is one of six principles which set guidelines for the education of students within special education programs.

IDEA was first passed in 1975 and has since been reauthorized several times, most recently in 2004. It governs how special education services are provided by schools and public agencies for children from birth to 21 years old. The goal of the legislation is to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a 'free and appropriate public education' that gets them ready for higher education, for independent living, and for work.

The LRE section of IDEA states that special education students are to remain in educational environments with their non-identified peers (students not in the special education program) unless there is a compelling reason for them to be separated from those peers. The more time a student spends away from non-identified peers, the more restrictive the environment is considered to be.

The LRE text from Section 5A of IDEA 2004 states that:

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.

An example of a compelling reason is that even with extra services, such as the help of a paraprofessional, or supplementary aids, such as the use of a keyboard when other students are writing by hand, the student is still not able to achieve a satisfactory education. Under those circumstances, special education students' learning could take place in another setting, such as a resource room or even a full-time self-contained classroom, depending on the individual needs of the students involved.

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  • 0:03 Least Restrictive Environment
  • 2:31 What the Law Says
  • 4:01 IDEA: A Range of Services
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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What the Law Says

In addition to the provision previously mentioned, which mandates having special education students in classes with their non-identified peers to the extent that it is educationally appropriate, there are two more sections in the 2004 version of IDEA which impact the funding and the delivery of special education services.

First, there are additional requirements which have to do with how states allocate funding for special education services. This section prohibits states from using a funding structure which gives money based on the educational setting of special education students. The reason behind this requirement is to force states to be mindful of the way in which they distribute money for special education.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Least Restrictive Environment in Special Education:

Paraphrase Prompt:

In your own words, paraphrase the LRE text in Section 5A of IDEA 2004.

Example: You could begin by stating that children with disabilities must remain in the same classroom as students who do not have disabilities.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least two to three paragraphs that explains the link between Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Also explain what causes an educational environment to be restrictive for students with disabilities.

Example: The less time students with disabilities spend with their peers in school, the more restrictive the educational environment is thought to be.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that describes the connection between funding and special education services. Be sure to identify the ways schools can violate the Least Restrictive Environment law.

Example: School districts sometimes implement educational plans that allow them to garner more funding, even if it creates restrictive environments for special education students.

Letter Prompt:

Pretend that you are a superintendent of a school district. Write a letter to the parents of the students in your school district that explains how your district will implement LRE and why it is important. Be sure to address the concept of continuum of services.

Example: In compliance with LRE, your school district is committed to keeping students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms by offering a continuum of services to assist them.

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