The terms least restrictive environment, inclusion, and mainstreaming are often used interchangeably. They are not, however, synonymous concepts. Least restrictive environment refers to the IDEA’s mandate that students with disabilities should be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with peers without disabilities. The LRE mandate ensures that schools educate students with disabilities in integrated settings, alongside students with and without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate. Least restrictive environment is not a particular setting.

Champagne (1993) defines restrictiveness as “a gauge of the degree of opportunity a person has for proximity to, and communication with, the ordinary flow of persons in our society” (p. 5). In special education, this means that a student with disabilities has the right to be educated with students in the general education environment. The general education environment is considered the least restrictive setting because it is the placement in which there is the greatest measure of opportunity for proximity and communication with the “ordinary flow” of students in schools.

From this perspective, the less a placement resembles the general education environment, the more restrictive it is considered (Gorn, 1996). Specifically a student with disabilities has the right to be educated in a setting that is not overly restrictive considering what is appropriate for that student. Appropriateness entails an education that will provide meaningful benefit for a student. When the educational program is appropriate, a student with disabilities should be placed in the general education environment, or as close to it as is feasible, so long as the appropriate program can be provided in that setting.

Inclusion refers to placement of students with disabilities in the general education classroom with peers without disabilities. Inclusion generally connotes more comprehensive programming than the somewhat dated term mainstreaming. The courts, however, tend to use the terms synonymously. Mainstreaming and inclusion are narrower terms than least restrictive environment (McColl, 1992). Although placement in the general education classroom may be the LRE for some students with disabilities, it is not required in all cases. The IDEA requires mainstreaming or inclusion when the general education classroom setting can provide an appropriate education. This view was also expressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Carter v. Florence County School District Four (1991):

Under the IDEA, mainstreaming is a policy to be pursued so long as it is consistent with the Act’s primary goal of providing disabled students with an appropriate education. Where necessary for educational reasons, mainstreaming assumes a subordinate role in formulating an educational program. (p. 156)

The LRE Mandate

The IDEA requires that, when appropriate, students with disabilities be educated in settings with children without disabilities. Specifically the law provides 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 that 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 is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1412)

There are two parts to the LRE requirement of the IDEA. The first addresses the presumptive right of all students with disabilities to be educated with students without disabilities. Schools must make good faith efforts to place and maintain students in less restrictive settings. This presumptive right, however, is rebuttable; that is, the principle sets forth a general rule of conduct (i.e., integration) but allows it to be rebutted when integration is not appropriate for a student (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2002). The IDEA favors integration, but recognizes that for some students more restrictive or segregated settings may be appropriate. Clearly, the law anticipates that placements in more restrictive settings may sometimes be necessary to provide an appropriate education.

To ensure that schools make good faith efforts to educate students in less restrictive settings, the LRE mandate also requires that before students with disabilities are placed in more restrictive settings, efforts must first be made to maintain a student in less restrictive settings with the use of supplementary aids and services. It is only when an appropriate education cannot be provided, even with supplementary aids and services, that students with disabilities may be placed in more restrictive settings.

The IDEA further requires that state educational agencies ensure that the LRE requirement extends to students in public schools, private schools, and other care facilities. States are required to ensure that teachers and administrators in all public schools are fully informed about the requirements of the LRE provision and are provided with the technical assistance and training necessary to assist them in this effort.

Continuum of Alternative Placements

Senator Stafford (1978), an original sponsor of the IDEA, stated that Congress included the LRE principle in the law in recognition that for some students an education in the general education classroom would not be appropriate. For these students, placements in more restrictive settings would be required to provide an appropriate education. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley (1982), interpreted congressional intent similarly:

Despite this preference for “mainstreaming” handicapped children—educating them with nonhandicapped children—Congress recognized that regular education simply would not be a suitable setting for the education of many handicapped children. . . the act thus provides for the education of some handicapped children in separate classes or institutional settings. (p. 192)

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) of the U.S. Department of Education also recognized “that some children with disabilities may require placement in settings other than the general education classroom in order to be provided with an education designed to address their unique needs” (Letter to Goodling, 1991, p. 214).

To ensure that students with disabilities are educated in the LRE that is most appropriate for their individual needs, the IDEA requires that school districts have a range or continuum of alternative placement options to meet their needs. The continuum represents an entire spectrum of placements where a student’s special education program can be implemented (Bartlett, 1993; Gorn, 1996). Regulations require that

  1. Each [school district] shall ensure that a continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of children with disabilities for special education and related services
  2. The continuum required. . . must:
    • Include the alternative placements. . . (instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions); and
    • Make provision for supplementary services (such as resource room or itinerant instruction) to be provided in conjunction with regular class placement. (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.551)

The purpose of the continuum is to allow school personnel to choose from a number of options in determining the LRE most appropriate for the student. OSERS has emphasized the importance of school districts’ maintaining a continuum of placements “in order to be properly prepared to address the individual needs of all children with disabilities” (Letter to Frost, 1991, p. 594). If the local school district is unable to provide the appropriate placement, the state may bear the responsibility of ensuring the establishment and availability of a continuum of alternative placements (Cordero v. Pennsylvania, 1993).

A school district may not refuse to place a child in an LRE because it lacks the appropriate placement option (Tucker & Goldstein, 1992). Moreover, if gaps in the continuum exist within a school district, the district must fill them through whatever means are required (e.g., consortium-type arrangements). This does not mean that each school district must provide for a complete continuum within its own boundaries. When the educational needs of a student cannot be met in district programs, however, the district is obligated to provide a placement where the student’s needs can be met. The regulations implementing the IDEA require that the various alternative placements in the continuum of placements “are to be available to the extent necessary to implement the individualized education program” (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.552(b)). This may necessitate the district’s sending the student to another school (public or private) that provides the needed placement. In such cases, the neighborhood school district retains financial responsibility for the student’s education.

The IEP team determines the placement along this continuum that is the least restrictive setting in which a student will receive an appropriate education. Restrictiveness is defined, for purposes of the continuum, by proximity to the general education classroom. Education in the least restrictive setting (i.e., the general education classroom) is the preferred option so long as it is consistent with an appropriate education. If a student cannot receive a meaningful education in the general education classroom, another placement, in which the student will receive a meaningful education, is required.