LRE and Belonging Practices Across the Lifespan

kids smiling

This article originally appeared in START Connecting in October 2023. 

To create inclusive environments that foster belonging, we can no longer consider it standard practice for students, from early childhood to adulthood, to be removed from their natural settings because of a label, test scores, behavior, or ways of communicating (Taub, 2021). IDEA indicates a strong preference for educating children with disabilities in regular classes alongside their peers without disabilities in the definition of Least Restrictive Environment: 

“To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities….are educated in the general education classroom with children who are not disabled…”…and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from regular education environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”( 34 C.F.R. §300.114) 

This lifelong need for belonging and inclusion is reflected in a 2015 Policy Statement on the Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs, “…it is our shared vision that all people be meaningfully included in all facets of society throughout the life course. This begins in early childhood programs and continues into schools, places of employment, and the broader community.” Meaningful inclusion promotes belonging.

"[Belonging is an] irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to” (Brene Brown, TED Talk 2010).

Inclusion and Belonging in Early Childhood

In Michigan, children from birth to age 3 who have developmental delay(s) and/or disabilities may be served through Early On®. Because research has proven that children learn best from their parents and caregivers in everyday activities, support is provided within home, daycare, and other natural environments in the community.

The term “regular classes” in the LRE language includes a preschool setting with typically developing peers. All young children with disabilities should have access to inclusive, high-quality early childhood programs where they are provided with individualized and appropriate supports that allow them to meet high expectations (Dear Colleague letter). These programs may include a public or private preschool, public or private kindergarten, community-based child-care/development center, and Head Start or GSRP programs. Why? Not only do children with all types of disabilities benefit and thrive in inclusive settings, studies have shown that children with disabilities in inclusive settings make greater gains than similar children in separate special education classrooms (Inclusion Works!).

Inclusion and Belonging in K-12 

The research is clear; students who are educated in inclusive settings have stronger social, behavioral, and academic outcomes than students in more restrictive environments. “To date, we have found no experimental studies which have demonstrated that students with extensive support needs benefit more from being taught in separate classrooms than inclusive general education classrooms” (Gee, Gonzalez, & Cooper, 2020, p. 224). The use of inclusive practices support ALL students to engage in robust, meaningful learning together. The TIES Center provides robust resources to support inclusive practices.

“Inclusive learning environments provide students with and without disabilities many opportunities to establish relationships with their peers. When considering what contributes most to one’s quality of life, ‘friends’ often appears toward the top of the list. Therefore, the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of peers is an important outcome of inclusion for all students” (TIES Center Brief, 2018). Review START’s Peer to Peer resources to learn more about strategies that promote friendships and belonging.

Regardless of the current placement of a student, IDEA requires a determination of placement at least annually (34 C.F.R. §300.116). Using a process, such as explained in the IEP Connections recording on the START FAPE in the LRE webpage, provides guidance in determining the right set of programs and services that will allow a student to make progress on their IEP goals, while being educated with their non-disabled peers. 

Inclusion and Belonging for Adult Students 18+

Transition services are designed to be a result-oriented process, focused on facilitating a student’s movement from school to post-school activities. Inclusion in general education for students with disabilities is a predictor of post-school education, employment, and independent living (Mazzotti et al., 2021). 

According to the MDE guidance document, FAPE for Adult Learners, adult students need relevant educational opportunities and to be self-directed and autonomous decision-makers. The adult learner and special education providers are equal partners who co-construct a plan for postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation that promote belonging and connection.

As we consider the importance of inclusive practices and belonging across the lifespan, let the words of disability rights advocate, Norman Kunc, guide our focus: 

When inclusive education is fully embraced, we abandon the idea that children have to become “normal” in order to contribute to the world. Instead, we search for and nourish the gifts that are inherent in all people. We begin to look beyond typical ways of becoming valued members of the community and, in doing so, begin to realize the achievable goal of providing all children with an authentic sense of belonging. 

Written by: Stephanie Dyer, Ed.S., BCBA, START Autism Education and Intervention Specialist 

References and Resources

Page last modified October 24, 2023