The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) stipulates that school children be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment. This means that, to the extent possible, they will be educated with their non-disabled peers, and school systems will provide additional supports and modifications to make this happen. This is the case for students with severe and multiple disabilities as well as those with mild ones. However, this is not a mandate for mainstreaming or inclusion. “To the extent possible” is key. Placement decisions are made on an individual basis by the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team. The court has found that a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is the overarching goal of IDEA. There are times when FAPE isn’t compatible with full inclusion.
It is possible to educate children who have very different levels of academic functioning in the same classroom; sometimes special needs students study a parallel curriculum. It is also possible to modify the environment in various ways (for example, to increase predictability or to increase or decrease sensory load). There are still many reasons full inclusion may not be the most appropriate option. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Autism Research has noted that sometimes so much support would be required in the general classroom to focus a child away from distractions and back on his or her curriculum that the child could actually function more independently in a special education room (https://www.carautismroadmap.org/category/education/). This might be determined preferable to having an aide providing constant one-on-one support in the general classroom. (One difference between a special education classroom and a general classroom is class size). There are cases, too, where inclusion is determined to be too disruptive.
IEPs are fluid. At points along the way, a child may need a somewhat restrictive environment. This doesn’t mean that he or she will remain there for the duration of schooling.
The Placement Continuum
Placements are made along a continuum. On the one end, there is full inclusion in the general classroom with educational decisions made “behind the scenes” that make this possible. The curriculum may be modified. The student may have various tools and technologies. A special education teacher may work in partnership supporting the general education teacher.
At the other extreme, the child may receive his or her education in an entirely separate setting from non-disabled peers; this may be a school or another type of institution.
Common Placements: Inclusion and Self-Contained Classrooms
Many children spend part of their day in the general education classroom and part of the day receiving specialized services in another part of the school. Educators and the general public may use the terms “inclusion” and “self-contained” to describe the primary placement, but these suggest a dichotomy that doesn’t necessarily exist.
The child’s homeroom may be a special education classroom or a general education classroom. Some children receive all or most academic instruction in a self-contained special education classroom but interact with non-disabled peers on the playground, in the cafeteria, and during special activities. It is very common for students in self-contained special education classrooms to take “specials” (for example, art and music) with their general education peers. They may come into the general education classroom at other times, for example, when the class is doing silent reading or participating in individualized reading instruction. The amount and type of inclusion is determined by the child’s IEP. The team will take into account the child’s academic strengths and weaknesses as well as his or her social and emotional functioning.
Sometimes disabled students are accompanied by instructional assistants during all or some of the time that they spend in the general education classroom. The instructional assistant may have responsibility for one or more special education children in the room. Sometimes aides sit with individual children and provide intensive support. Sometimes they move around the classroom and provide support to other children, as appropriate.
Many children have a general education classroom as their primary placement but spend a portion of the day in a resource room receiving individualized academic instruction. In some cases, they will leave the room only for instruction in one area (for example, mathematics).
Students whose primary placement is the general education classroom may also leave the room for related services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and or occupational therapy. This may be termed “pull-out”. Sometimes an alternative “push in” model is utilized, whereby specialists come into the classroom to deliver services. Obviously, this is not always feasible. An occupational or physical therapist may utilize a lot of equipment!
School systems are expected to place students in their neighborhood schools when appropriate. Some, though, will need to attend a school that is slightly further in order to get the type of education that they need. Transportation is covered under IDEA as a related service.
While the degree of disability will have some bearing on what is appropriate, educational placements are not made categorically. The school system may have classrooms designed specifically for students with autism. However, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be students with autism who are functioning in less restrictive environments.
Inclusion can be considered a mindset and philosophy. Many resources are available. Professionals may wish to begin their search on the website of the Inclusive Schools Network (http://inclusiveschools.org) or Friendship Circle (http://www.friendshipcircle.org).
Additional resources are available for shaping – or understanding – policy. The U.S. Department of Education has provided links to opinion statements regarding LRE (https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/letters/revpolicy/tplre.html). Wrightslaw has provided a summation of court cases related to LRE http://www.wrightslaw.com/advoc/articles/idea.lre.fape.htm. Professionals may find additional resources at the state level.