What is least restrictive environment (LRE)?

A student in a classroom writing on a piece of paper.

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.

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.

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.

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