Getting the Most Out of the Least Restrictive Environment

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  Brenda tossed her parent folder on to the kitchen table and then slid into the sofa, pleased but exhausted. She had just returned from “Back to School Night” at her sons’ middle school. This was the first year that Jeremy, her 11 year old, was attending his neighborhood school. Jeremy had autism and had not attended elementary school with his older brother, Sam, but this year both her boys would go to the same school.

“Back to School Night” was the night before the first day of school and gave parents and kids an opportunity to visit each class and to meet the new teachers. Brenda had already met most of Jeremy’s new middle school teachers because the teachers had attended his IEP (Individualized Educational Program) meeting last spring to help plan for his move to middle school.

  In fact, the middle school general education teachers had played a key role in including Jeremy in their classes at the middle school.  Brenda had always wanted Jeremy and Sam to attend the same school. She knew that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required that children with disabilities both go to school with children without disabilities and attend their neighborhood school, if possible. She liked the program provided at the elementary school where the school district had centralized services for elementary aged students with autism. Though it required some support services, Brenda had successfully pushed for Jeremy to be included in regular classes and activities with students without disabilities at the elementary school.

But, she didn’t like that the program wasn’t in their neighborhood school. Brenda had planned that at Jeremy’s IEP meeting last spring she would push for him to go to the neighborhood middle school with Sam. To Brenda’s pleasant surprise the middle school principle had encouraged the middle school teachers to attend Jeremy’s spring IEP meeting. So, at “Back to School Night” Brenda and Jeremy already knew most of his new teachers. Brenda, still on the sofa, crossed her fingers and thought “So far, so good.”       

  Many families struggle to make sure their children who have disabilities go to school along side of children without disabilities. The following are seven tips for using the IEP process to get the most out of the least restrictive environment. 

1.     Make sure the IEP team follows the appropriate process in determining the least restrictive environment for your child. The IEP team arrives at the least restrictive environment, step by step. Legally, the term “least restrictive environment” means that to the maximum extent appropriate children with disabilities are educated with children without disabilities. It also means that before deciding to remove a child with a disability from regular education and placing the child in a special class or schooling him separately, the IEP team must consider using supplementary aids and services. Thus, determining the least restrictive environment for a child with a disability is a process. The IEP team starts from the premise that the student will attend a regular classroom. If there is a question whether the student’s education can be achieved satisfactorily in the regular education classroom, then the first step the IEP team takes is to consider providing supplementary aids and services to support the student and teachers in the regular classroom. 

2.     Make sure the IEP team considers providing supplementary aids and services, before removing your child from the regular classroom. Supplementary aids and services include teacher training and support, itinerant instruction, modified curriculum, paraprofessional support, and assistive technology. These are supports that are provided in regular classrooms and other education-related settings, including extracurricular and nonacademic activities, to enable children with disabilities to learn successfully with children without disabilities. These supports can be provided to help the regular education teacher as well as the child. 

3.     Make sure a regular education teacher is a member of the IEP team. The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires that not less than one of the child’s regular education teachers be a member of the IEP team if the child is or may be participating in regular education. The regular education teacher is a key team member for two reasons. First, the regular education teacher should understand why the child needs certain services, accommodations, aids, and supports. For example, if the regular education teacher understands why a student needs a modified curriculum or needs a note taker, the teacher is more likely to make sure the service or accommodation is provided. Second, the regular education teacher needs to listen and contribute to discussions determining supplementary aids and services, program modifications and other support for school staff. Moreover the regular education teacher should be involved in discussing behavioral interventions and supports for the child. It would be difficult for the IEP team to determine what support a regular teacher needed without that teacher’s input. 

 4.     If necessary, include more than one regular education teacher on the IEP team. Middle school and high school students often have more than one teacher. The IDEA requires that not less than one of the child’s regular education teachers be included on the team but, in some circumstances, it may be important that more than one regular education teacher participate in the meeting. For example, if your child has a behavior intervention plan, it is important that all of your child’s teachers are aware of that plan and how to implement it. 

 5.     Make sure that the IEP team discusses including your child in nonacademic and extracurricular activities with children without disabilities. These activities include meals, recess, counseling services, athletics, transportation, health services, recreational activities, and special interest groups and clubs that are school-sponsored. As it does for academic services, the IDEA requires that supplementary aids or services be provided to support your child’s participation in nonacademic and extracurricular activities with children without disabilities.  

 6.     Don’t forget field trips, assemblies and other similar activities! Sometimes children with disabilities are left out of field trips and assemblies because some school staff, inexperienced in working with children with disabilities, are concerned with the student’s behavior. If this is a concern, the IEP team should discuss how supplementary aids and services can support the student and teacher so that the child can participate in the field trip or assembly with students without disabilities. Again, if the child’s regular education teachers are members of the IEP team, they can participate in discussing the supports they or the student may need to successfully participate in these activities. 

7.     Make sure that the IEP team adequately considers placing your child in the neighborhood school. The IDEA requires that children with disabilities attend the school they would attend if they did not have a disability. This is true unless the IEP requires some other arrangement. So, the IEP team should place a child in the neighborhood school unless the team determines that some another arrangement is educationally required. If another arrangement is needed, then the IDEA requires that the child attend school as close as possible to the child’s home.  

  Finally, remember that determining the least restrictive environment for a child is a team process reached step-by-step. Start with the assumption that the child will go to the neighborhood school and be in the regular classroom. If supports are needed to make that setting successful, then the team discusses those supports, proceeding one step at a time.