Teaching in the Least Restrictive Environment... What does that mean for services??

There is a very careful balance to be struck in education, as in all aspects of life...
When we talk about providing special education services, we know the law, and we know that means these services should be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment. But what is that really?

Well, it means that if a student is able to function (make meaningful educational progress) in a general education classroom with some supports and modifications from the teacher, then that is where they belong. If the student requires an aide, then for them that is the learning environment with the least amount of restrictions where they will succeed. For some students the least restrictive environment may be a self contained classroom or even a specialized school. These decisions, like many others, are to be made based on the needs of the individual student. As educators we are saying that it is very important that students who receive special services have access to the general education curriculum and general education students whenever possible and appropriate. But with each step toward the general education end of the educational curriculum, how many supports and services are lost?

Does the least restrictive environment necessitate that a child has access to fewer services? Maybe... Don't provide more than is necessary or you're holding the person back, but provide enough for him to make a reasonable amount of progress. Again these decisions need to be made for each student, in a manner which is appropriate and for him/her but also feasible for the classroom and the types of accommodations they are able to provide. Surely we cannot expect that 1:1 instruction can be feasible at all times for a student in a general education classroom with 1 teacher and 20-30 other students, but if that is what that student requires, perhaps it is not their LRE. It all goes back to the individual, finding out what services are essential for a student, aligning those with the possible supports available in each setting, and determining from there what their placement should look like.

This all sounds very straight forward. Services needed = appropriate placement. Your child is struggling with reading and it is impacting his learning in all of his classes, perhaps a smaller class for language arts with specialized instruction or access to a resource room teacher would suffice. But for just a moment, let's think about a student whose needs are less cut and dry.

Let's look at a child with autism. Perhaps academically your child can hold his own, whether it be in a general education classroom or an inclusive setting where some degree of specialized services are provided. Is that classroom also able to provide for the the social, communication/language, and behavioral needs of your child? Should it be? What is the least restrictive setting for someone who can do the work but cannot express himself? Well we need a whole new scale to balance this one... because academic progress is simply not enough for this child.

There really is no perfect answer here. Of course it seems easy enough, that educators at every level should be able to provide social skills instruction or at least guidance, should be able to evoke language and should be able to provide reinforcement based behavioral supports for any student. And yet it isn't that easy. Without the proper supports, knowledge base and training, providing adequate supports to a child with autism in any setting is a challenge. Does this mean that because your child has autism he should only be instructed in a specialized setting regardless of his academic, social, language, and behavioral needs and abilities? Of course not. This simply means that schools will need to start bringing in the supports for their educators, setting up social skills training groups, providing access to highly trained specialists who can work individually with students as well as teachers. There is a wealth of knowledge, and a large research base which tells us exactly how to teach a child with autism, and there are many people with the training required to help these students succeed. The least restrictive environment for a student with autism may just be a general education classroom where the teacher has access to a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who can provide support, training, answer questions, etc. Maybe it's not. Perhaps the behavioral challenges or communication deficits are so great that they require more intensive services. It is all about the individual. And it is all about needs versus feasibility. There is no reason to say that a child with autism cannot find an educational balance just like any other student.

We just need a different scale.

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