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What is least restrictive environment (LRE)?

By Amanda Morin

At a Glance

  • Least restrictive environment (LRE) means kids who get special education should be in the same classrooms as other kids as much as possible.

  • LRE isn’t a place — it’s a principle that guides a child’s education program.

  • The LRE for each child may look different because kids are unique.

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When people think about special education, they sometimes think about separate classes or schools. But public schools are supposed to have kids who get special education services learn in the same classrooms as other kids as much as possible.

Unless there’s a strong reason, kids should be in those general education classrooms. This principle is called LRE, or least restrictive environment. LRE is an important part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the U.S. special education law.

The word environment makes it sound like a place. But where a child learns is only part of the equation. LRE applies to a student’s entire education program, including services.

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A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) describes their special education and related services. The IEP must also address LRE. And the IEP must explain if and why a student is being placed outside of a general education classroom.

Dive deeper

What the law says about LRE

Federal special education law, or IDEA, has two important requirements for a child’s placement:

  1. A child with an IEP should be with kids in general education to the “maximum extent that is appropriate.”

  2. Special classes, separate schools, or removal from the general education class should only happen when a child’s learning or thinking difference — a “disability” under IDEA — is so severe that “supplementary aids and services can’t provide the child with an appropriate education.”

A key word here is appropriate. It means what’s suitable or right for kids. Sometimes, a specific service or program can’t be provided in a general education classroom. 

Find out what you can do if you disagree about a child’s placement or LRE .

How LRE works in practice

IDEA doesn’t spell out the LRE for each type of disability . There isn’t just one “right” environment for all kids. Sometimes, it may be better or more suitable for a child to learn separately.

The goal is to make sure that kids who receive special education are included in the general education classroom as often as possible. But agreeing on how that happens isn’t always easy. 

Here are some common LRE scenarios:

  • General education classroom with support. A child spends the entire day in a general education class and gets supports and services like a tutor or aide, assistive technology, related services, or accommodations.

  • Partial mainstream/inclusion classroom. A child spends part of the day in a general education class. The child gets some individual or small-group instruction in a special education class, or is pulled out of class for some services.

  • Special education class. This is a program with specialized instruction for kids with similar learning needs.

  • Specialized program outside of the school district. This includes private schools, residential programs, and hospital programs.

Check out common accommodations that support kids in class .

Other terms you may hear

When LRE comes up, so do the words mainstreaming and inclusion. Many people think these terms mean the same thing, but they’re slightly different.

A mainstream classroom is a general education classroom. Mainstreaming means putting kids with an IEP in the general education classroom for some or most of the day. They may also have some instruction in a separate, special education classroom.

Many schools have stopped using the term mainstreaming. They now often focus on an educational approach called inclusion. This approach focuses on making sure students with IEPs are part of the school community.

An inclusion classroom is a general education classroom that has some students who receive special education. However, inclusion goes beyond classroom placement. It’s about making sure every child has the chance to participate in school activities.

Learn about the benefits of inclusion classrooms .

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