Skip to Main Content

SMARTER Steps™ Perspective 2015: 40 Years of The Least Restrictive Environment

July 22, 2015Lara Wakefield

40 Years of The Least Restrictive Environment: Where Are We Now?

The 2015-2016 school year will mark the 40th anniversary of the "Least Restrictive Environment" (LRE).

One of the original guiding principles in the education of students with disabilities was Wolfensberger’s (1972) concept of normalization (Fisher, Frey, & Thousand, 2003). The normalization movement was sparked initially by the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (public law 89-10) in 1965. This law placed the responsibility of educating students with disabilities upon the public schools. Stop and think about that for a minute: the power of the normalization movement. The power that a group of people had to affect legislation and rights for children with disabilities. They have a right to a public education because of these individuals who advocated for them.  It did not miraculously appear one day, it required advocacy at a legislative level.

As the normalization movement progressed, deinstitutionalization occurred and many students with disabilities began accessing public education in their neighborhood schools. The concept of normalization heavily influenced later legislation related to children with disabilities. Eventually, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed (public law 94-142) in 1975. This legislation put forth the notion that children with disabilities should have a right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

Additionally, this law contained a provision called the least restrictive environment (LRE). Get ready, this is a long provision. Take a deep breath and read what this provision required:
Children with disabilities will be educated with children who are not disabled to the maximum extent appropriate and that the removal of children from the regular education environment occur only when the nature or severity of the disability was such that the use of supplementary aids and services in the classroom could not be achieved satisfactorily (as summarized by Lerner, 2000).

*IT is more convenient for the therapist's schedule
*The teacher wants a break from the student
*The para is not back from lunch yet
*The principal does not know what to do with the student
*We have always just removed kids with disabilities for this activity or therapy.

*We don’t want to deal with their behaviors”

School teams need to ask themselves:
Did we provide the supplementary aids and services IN THE CLASSROOM?

Was the nature and severity of the disability such that I could not successfully teach the child with the supplementary aids IN THE CLASSROOM? If so, schools need to have the data explaining why it was not possible OR document that they attempted to deliver the services in the classroom FIRST and that the services were not possible in that format. Otherwise, schools may be in due process cases over this.

Over the years, the LRE has remained a core concept in all of the changes in the laws of special education. In 1990, the EHA was updated as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, public law 101-476). Again, the LRE provision remained and continued to be an important focus of determining a child’s services.

The IDEA was reauthorized in 1997 (public law 105-17), and the LRE definition remained, but contained a slight variation. The updated LRE placed responsibility of proof upon the school to demonstrate that a student could not learn in the regular education environment.

Additionally, the LRE provision required that the school consider the proximity of the student’s home when determining an alternative placement.

The full legal definition of the LRE is cited as follows:
(IDEA, 1997, 34 CFR, 20 U.S.C., § 1401.34, p. 345)
For a helpful explanation please check this link:

How do schools determine what is an LRE for each child? I often wonder if it is just based upon what is convenient for people's schedules instead of what is best for the child. How do schools determine if supplementary aids and services have been adequately implemented IN THE CLASSROOM? Again, I wonder if resources are allocated based only upon budget constraints and the old paradigm of doing things instead of what is in the best interest of the child.

So, 40 years later, where are we with the Least Restrictive Environment ? The LRE decision process needs to evolve to achieve a brighter future for our children with disabilities.

About the Author:  Dr. Lara Wakefield has over 20 years of experience as a Speech-Language Pathologist and Parent Advocate with a focus on children with special needs being socially competent with their peers. Lara has conducted research in the areas of educator collaboration for classroom-based services. Lara assists families and professionals with exploring the research behind evidence-based practices and determining the various educational options available for each child.