Least Restrictive Environment and Mainstreaming (page 2)
Least Restrictive Environment
As you read this article and complete the activities designed for your course, you will learn many important facts and skills related to working with students with disabilities. However, one of the most important concepts for you to understand as a general educator is least restrictive environment (LRE), a provision in the federal laws that have governed special education for more than three decades. The LRE provision guarantees a student's right to be educated in the setting most like that for peers without disabilities in which the student can be successful with appropriate supports provided (Burstein, Sears, Wilcoxen, Cabello, & Spagna, 2004; Karger, 2004; Palley, 2006). For many students, the least restrictive environment is full-time or nearly full-time participation in a general education classroom. In fact, in 2002-2003, approximately 48.2 percent of all school-age students with disabilities received 79 percent or more of their education in general education classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 2004b). This is true for Thomas, Angela, and Aaron, who were introduced at the beginning of this chapter. Thomas and Angela ,also receive instruction in a special education classroom each day. Aaron, who can succeed in social studies class when he gives test answers aloud, may leave his classroom for that purpose only. His LRE is a general education classroom; the test procedure is a supplementary service.
For some students—for example, some who have emotional or behavioral disabilities or autism—being in a general education classroom nearly all day may be academically and emotionally inappropriate. For these students, the LRE may be a general education classroom for part of the day and a special education classroom, sometimes called a resource room, for the remainder of the day. Yet other students' LRE may be a special education setting for most of the day, sometimes referred to as a self-contained class. Students with significant behavior problems and students who require intensive supports may be educated in this way. Finally, just a few students with disabilities attend separate or residential schools or learn in a home or hospital setting. These very restrictive options usually are necessary only for students with the most significant or complex disabilities.
Identifying an LRE other than a general education setting is a serious decision that usually is made by a team of professionals and a student's parents only after intensive supports have been provided in the general education classroom without success. These supports can include alternative materials or curriculum, assistance from a paraprofessional (that is, a teaching assistant) or a special education teacher, adaptive equipment such as a computer, or consultative assistance from a psychologist or counselor. Alternatively, a few students' needs are so great that a setting outside general education is the only one considered. The points to remember are that the LRE for most students with disabilities is general education and that you, as a professional educator, have a crucial role to play in these students' education.
When the LRE concept became part of special education laws during the 1970s, the LRE for most students with disabilities was a part-time or full-time special education class. When such students were permitted to participate in general education, it was called mainstreaming. Mainstreaming involves placing students with disabilities in general education settings only when they can meet traditional academic expectations with minimal assistance or when those expectations are not relevant (for example, participation only in recess or school assemblies for access to social interactions with peers). In most locales, mainstreaming now is considered a dated term and has been replaced with the phrase inclusive practices. However, as you participate in field experiences and speak to experienced educators, you may find that in some schools, the vocabulary of inclusion is used, but the practices implemented seem more like mainstreaming. That is, teachers may say that their school is inclusive but then explain that students like Aaron, featured in the beginning of the chapter, need to be in separate classes because of their below-grade reading levels. This practice is actually mainstreaming.
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