As an advocate for children with special needs, I spend a lot of time discussing the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). As a parent of a child with special needs, I spend a lot of time thinking about inclusion. My hope is Schools are thinking about both inclusion and the Least Restrictive Environment. Why am I hoping this? Terms like inclusion, mainstreaming and full inclusion are philosophies while Least Restrictive Environment is a legal term created by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). All schools need to provide children with IEP’s special education and related services that meet their unique needs in the Least Restrictive Environment. Being placed in the LRE, in my opinion, is in no way the same as inclusion although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. I can understand why these terms are sometimes used interchangeably by looking below at what have become the common definitions:
The following definitions are provided by Research Bulletin Number 11, 1993, from Phi Delta Kappa’s Center for Evaluation, Development, and Research.
Mainstreaming: This term has generally been used to refer to the selective placement of special education students in one or more “regular” education classes. Mainstreaming proponents generally assume that a student must “earn” his or her opportunity to be mainstreamed through the ability to “keep up” with the work assigned by the teacher to the other students in the class. This concept is closely linked to traditional forms of special education service delivery.
Inclusion: This term is used to refer to the commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students).
Full Inclusion: This term is primarily used to refer to the belief that instructional practices and technological supports are presently available to accommodate all students in the schools and classrooms they would otherwise attend if not disabled. Proponents of full inclusion tend to encourage that special education services generally be delivered in the form of training and technical assistance to “regular” classroom teachers.
The following definition is provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004.
Least Restrictive Environment: In General. 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” 20 U.S.C § 1412(a)(5)(A).
LRE doesn’t always mean being placed in the general education classroom; rather it means which placement will provide that child a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) while also giving that child access to their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible. This is where, in my opinion, inclusion and LRE differ greatly. As I stated earlier, inclusion is a philosophy while LRE is a legal term. To me, a philosophy is a system of values by which one lives. When I discuss the philosophy of inclusion it means to be included. Inclusion starts at the top, the Administrators and Teachers need to be dedicated to the value that all children are a valuable asset to the School. You see access does not equal inclusion. The only way to provide inclusion to a child is to make them part of the school and classroom community.
I have seen many great examples of inclusion but the best school wide inclusion program I ever saw was at a special day class program for elementary age children with severe autism. The Special Education Teacher, with the support of the School’s Principal, created an inclusion program that incorporates the general education students from the 4th and 6th grades. The school’s entire 4th and 6th grade population applied to be a part of this program and the teacher interviewed all of them to narrow down the field. The Teacher ended up choosing approximately, (30) 4th graders and (40) 6th graders that rotate to help the children with autism in different ways. The children that volunteered with the class give up their recess and lunch one week a month. The 6th graders actually go into the classroom to help the teacher explain material. The Teacher told me, he has found that children with autism respond to other children in a way they don’t always respond to adults. The 4th graders actually accompany the children with autism during recess and lunch and they all play together on the school’s playground. The school wide program has embraced this class in a way I have never seen before. This example would not meet the definition of inclusion as I presented above BUT it most definitely embraces the philosophy of inclusion that I hope for every day.
To learn more about LRE please read the Least Restrictive Environment (Legal, Judicial and Practical meaning). To learn more about inclusive strategies please read Inclusive Class Strategies: How Parents and Teachers Can Work Together