Preschool Children with Disabilities Have Right to Least Restrictive Environment

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There is frequently confusion regarding how least restrictive environment (LRE) applies to preschool children with disabilities. Preschool-aged children with disabilities are children with disabilities aged three to five and, at a state's discretion, two-year old children who will turn three during the school year. In a Dear Colleague Letter 58 IDELR 290 (OSEP Feb. 29, 2012), Melody Musgrove, Director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), reiterates  that the least restrictive environment (LRE) requirements of the IDEA apply to all children with disabilities under Part B of the IDEA, including preschool aged children. Ms. Musgrove notes that the LRE requirements of the IDEA  state that "to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, must be educated with children who are not disabled. Further, special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occur 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." These long-standing IDEA requirements do not distinguish between school-aged and preschool-aged children. The U.S. Department of Education, however, continues to receive questions regarding LRE and preschool children. Thus, Ms. Musgrove issued this letter reminding school districts that LRE applies to preschool children with disabilities.

The letter reviews the  process for placing students with disabilities, including preschool-aged students, in the least restrictive environment. The placement is based on the child's IEP and the IEP must include an explanation of the extent to which the child, if any, will not participate with children without disabilities in a regular class. Moreover, before a preschool child with a disability can be placed outside the regular education environment, the group making the placement decision must consider whether supplementary aids and services could be provided that would enable the child to be educated satisfactorily in the regular education environment .

Ms. Musgrove clarifies that school districts must ensure that preschool children with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment, regardless whether the district operates public preschool programs for children without disabilities. To that end, a school district may provide services to a preschool child with a disability in a variety of settings, including a regular kindergarten class, public or private preschool program, community-based child care facility, or in the child's home. Districts that offer a public preschool program may serve a preschool child with a disability in that program. But, districts that do not have a public preschool program must explore alternative methods to ensure preschool children with disabilities are placed in the least restrictive environment. Those methods include (1) providing services in preschool programs offered by other public agencies (such as Head Start or community-based child care); (2) enrolling children in private preschool programs for children without disabilities; (3) locating classes for preschool children with disabilities in regular elementary schools; or (4) providing home-based services.

Hopefully, this letter will help clear up the confusion regarding LRE and preschool children with disabilities. The LRE requirements of the IDEA's PART B apply to preschool aged children that same as they apply to children aged three and older. But it may take some planning and creativity to implement these requirements.