In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for all Handicapped Children Act. The U. S. Department of Education states that the purpose of this law was to support states and localities in “protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving results for infants, toddlers, children, and youths with disabilities and their families.”
By the 2007-2008 school year, the programs mandated by this law, as amended to the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), provided services to more than six million children with disabilities.
The fundamental goal of IDEA is to provide appropriate services and support systems to students with disabilities in a setting with as much access to the general curriculum as possible. This setting is referred to as the least restrictive environment.
What Is Least Restrictive Environment?
Federal regulations describe least restrictive environment as “the requirement in federal law that students with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with nondisabled peers and that special education students are not removed from regular classes unless, even with supplemental aids and services, education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
There are many terms used to describe the settings in which students learn with non-disabled students. For example, mainstreaming and integration are terms often used when students with disabilities are included in general education settings to the extent they can participate successfully. In these settings, students with special needs may participate in general school activities, such as lunch and assemblies, as well as “specials” such as art and music. They may also join general education classrooms for content area instruction in subjects in which they excel, and for which adequate modifications and accommodations can be made to meet their individual needs.
For students in a full inclusion setting, the support required to meet their needs and their Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals is delivered in the general education classroom. Additional support, such as speech or physical therapy, may be provided in other settings, but students in an inclusive setting receive academic instruction in their grade level general education classroom. This is considered the least restrictive environment for all students.
What Are the Benefits of Least Restrictive Environment?
According to the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, the answer to this question is simple: placing students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, the general education classroom, works for everyone’s benefit.
Progress for students with disabilities – According to a body of research conducted by educators and educational advocates Xuan Bui, Carol Quirk, Selene Almazan and Michele Valenti, students with disabilities who were enrolled in general education classrooms made greater progress in math, spelling, social studies and other academic indicators than peers with similar abilities in self-contained classrooms.
In addition to the positive academic outcomes, special education students in these classrooms were less frequently absent and had fewer disciplinary referrals. After graduation from high school, these students also had more positive experiences in employment and independent living.
Effect of inclusion on non-disabled peers – Despite concerns that the amount of teacher time required to meet the needs of academically, physically or social-emotionally disabled students would be a detriment to general education students, the opposite proved to be true. According to this study:
- The outcomes for general education students were not compromised.
- Non-disabled peers actually benefit from their involvement and relationships with students with disabilities.
- General education students experience new learning opportunities when disabled students participate in the classroom.
In addition, teachers of inclusive classrooms have found that the strategies they teach specifically for the benefit of students with disabilities are often picked up by other students. Many students in the general education setting function below grade level in both reading and math, but do not qualify for services set forth in IDEA. When they participate in learning activities with students who are learning disabled, however, they can adopt the strategies by simply paying attention in class.
How Many Students With Disabilities Are Placed in General Education Classrooms?
Student placement is an important decision that special education teams make on a yearly basis. As students qualify for special services, a group of invested stakeholders, including administrators, general and special education teachers, special service providers, and guardians discuss at length how and where to best deliver effective services to each student with a disability. Placements range from separate residential facilities, which is considered the most restrictive environment, to the least restrictive: a fully-inclusive general education classroom.
Over the last several years, educational experts and researchers have determined that placing children in settings most closely resembling a general education classroom is the best choice for almost all students, regardless of disability. Because of these findings, the National Center for Education Statistics reports a gradual upward shift in the amount of time students with disabilities spend in the general education classroom.
In 1989, 32 percent of students with an IEP spent 80 percent or more of their school day with their grade-level peers. In 2013, that number had almost doubled to 62 percent. During that same time period, IEP students who spent less than 40 percent of their school in the general education classroom had fallen from 25 percent to about 14 percent.
The trend is clear: Students who have been identified with a recognized disability are spending more and more of their time with peers who function at or above grade level in the least restrictive environment possible, and they are finding academic success.
If you are an experienced general education teacher who would like to increase your skills working with disabled students or would like to be a full-time special education teacher, consider earning a Master of Education in Special Education from Mississippi College. This all-online program will prepare you to not only work directly with students with an IEP, but also to collaborate efficiently with general education teachers.
Learn more about the Mississippi College Master of Education in Special Education online.