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Inclusion, Mainstreaming, and LRE

One of the questions I am asked frequently is how teachers and parents can best meet the needs of their students and children.  Should a student with a disability be sent to a special school which specializes in working with similar students?  Should that student spend his or her time with one teacher all day long in the public school?  Should the student be allowed to attend music class or PE with an adult?  What classrooms are best suited for making academic growth? 

These types of debates began around the time that the practice of mainstreaming came into popularity, in the 1970s.  Before mainstreaming, students with disabilities were either not sent to school at all, or were sent to institutional programs.  (Some of the psychological damage of those institutional programs is hard to image by today's standard of care.)

Let me continue the discussion by explaining what mainstreaming means.  Simply stated, it refers to the practice of moving students who have traditionally received special education services out of the general education setting (public schools) into the public school classrooms.  "Mainstreaming," is the practice of putting disabled students back into one "mainstream" of education.

To differentiate, let's look at "inclusion."  Inclusion replaced the practice of "mainstreaming" back in the early 1990s.  And for good reason.  Inclusion's reach goes beyond physical placement of special needs students.  Inclusion refers to a total immersion in the general education curriculum and methods of instruction.  It's more than simply occupying a desk in a general education classroom; it's about receiving special education and related services inside the general education classroom.  Here's a short article that lists four powerful arguments in favor of inclusion.  Here's a great Ohio State University research post about the benefits from inclusion with preschool students with disabilities. It's also important to note that inclusive practices can be used at home and public settings outside of school hours. 

To summarize:
  • Mainstreaming: an outdated term referring to placing special needs students inside the general education classroom.
  • Inclusion: the newer term referring to allowing those student access to the general education curriculum and instruction without barriers.
LRE is a special education acronym that refers to the Least Restrictive Environment.  According to federal law, students are required to learn in the Least Restrictive Environment which allows them the opportunity to obtain "educational benefit."  Under the old system (prior to inclusion) students were generally taken out of the classroom in order to receive these specialized services.  An IEP team which understands the importance of implementing LRE for students would therefore only place a student into a "pull-out" program if it is the Least Restrictive Environment for that student.  In some cases, such as a child who is severely mentally or physically handicapped, a pull-out program may be the LRE, since most general education classroom teachers are neither qualified nor trained in providing specialized services to such children.  Yet, for the vast majority of students, the LRE is the general education classroom setting.

One final note: as I stated to begin this page, I have been questioned about inclusion in today's school system.  One parent very clearly and openly disagreed with my stance on the value in practicing inclusion.  She said that her child, "had one of those kids in his class" (a student with special needs) and had a horrible experience because of it.  My response to her would be the same as it would be to any concerned parent; that LRE runs both directions.  If her son was having difficulties performing academically due to the distraction caused directly by another student, then her son was probably not receiving instruction in the least restrictive environment.  That parent should have spoken to the school administration about the problem and found a solution to it.