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MS in Education Insight: How We Define "Inclusion"

MSEd students gain insight into the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and its requirements for the classroom placements of children with exceptionalities.

Inclusion is a word educators, administrators, and parents have long associated with the teaching of special education. But as Walden University students in the master’s in education and Master of Arts in Teaching degree programs learn, the official term used by the federal government is “least restrictive environment” (LRE).

"Parents and educators have questions about inclusion,” write Peter W.D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright on Wrightslaw, their website dedicated to the issues of special education, law, and advocacy. “Many believe that the IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] requires schools to practice inclusion. In fact, the term ‘inclusion’ is relatively new and is not included in the IDEA statute or regulations.”1


According to the Wrights, IDEA’s LRE policy mandates that school districts “educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate.”

Walden’s master’s-level students receive valuable information about the foundational principles of LRE and mainstreaming in the course Special Education: Honoring Due Process. In Week 6, assigned reading is “Inclusion, Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), Mainstreaming,” shared by the Wrights on their website.

In the excerpt below, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) responds to questions from the National Education Association (NEA) in a helpful question-and-answer format. Read along with master’s in education and Master of Arts in Teaching degree-seekers to learn more about LRE and related issues:2

Inclusion: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions From the NEA

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) have been asked to provide guidance in a question-and-answer format on some frequently asked questions about the requirements of federal law, particularly the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that are relevant to educating students with disabilities. These questions were submitted by the National Education Association.

Questions and Answers

1.A. Q: What does the federal law require and not require with respect to inclusion?

A: IDEA does not use the term “inclusion.” However, IDEA does require school districts to place students in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, school districts must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, referred to as “supplementary aids and services,” along with their nondisabled peers in the school they would attend if not disabled, unless a student’s individualized education program (IEP) requires some other arrangement. This requires an individualized inquiry into the unique educational needs of each disabled student in determining the possible range of aids and supports that are needed. Some supplementary aids and services that educators have used successfully include modifications to the regular class curriculum, assistance of an itinerant teacher with special education training, special education training for the regular teacher, use of computer-assisted devices, provision of notetakers, and use of a resource room, to mention a few.

In implementing IDEA's LRE provisions, the regular classroom in the school the student would attend if not disabled is the first placement option considered for each disabled student before a more restrictive placement is considered. If a student with a disability can be educated satisfactorily with appropriate aids and supports in the regular classroom in the school the student would attend if not disabled, that placement is the LRE placement for that student. However, if the placement team determines that a student cannot be educated satisfactorily in that environment, even with the provision of appropriate aids and supports, the regular classroom in the school the student would attend if not disabled is not the LRE placement for that student. Any alternative placement selected for the student outside of the regular educational environment must maximize opportunities for the student to interact with nondisabled peers, to the extent appropriate to the needs of the student.

IDEA does not require that every student with a disability be placed in the regular classroom regardless of individual abilities and needs. This recognition that regular class placement may not be appropriate for every disabled student is reflected in the requirement that school districts make available a range of placement options, known as a continuum of alternative placements, to meet the unique educational needs of students with disabilities. This requirement for the continuum reinforces the importance of the individualized inquiry, not a “one size fits all” approach, in determining what placement is the LRE for each student with a disability. The options on this continuum must include the alternative placements listed in the definition of special education under 300.17 (instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions).

1. B. Q: Is there a federal definition of “inclusion”?

A: Because federal statutes do not use the term "inclusion," the Department of Education has not defined that term.

2. Q: Federal law requires the provision of necessary supports, but when inadequate fiscal or personnel resources means that one or more necessary supports is not available, what does the department recommend that educators and school districts do? What can be done to ensure that the needed supports are provided? Which agency has ultimate responsibility for providing required special education and related services and needed supports if the responsible school district cannot fund those services?

A: States receiving funds under IDEA must make a free appropriate public education available to eligible children with disabilities. The provision of a free appropriate public education requires that all special education and related services identified in a student’s IEP must be provided at no cost to the parents. The term “special education” is defined at 34 CFR 300.17(a) as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including:

(i) Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and

(ii) Instruction in physical education.

(2) The term includes speech pathology, or any other related service, if the service consists of specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, and is considered special education rather than a related service under state standards.”

The term “related services” is defined at 34 CFR 300.16(a) as “transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech pathology and audiology, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. The term also includes school health services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.”

Under IDEA, school districts are responsible for developing and implementing an IEP for each of their children with disabilities. The state educational agency is responsible for ensuring that each school district develops and implements an IEP for each child with a disability and for otherwise ensuring that the requirements of IDEA are carried out. Ultimate responsibility for ensuring the provision of required special education and related services at no cost to parents is therefore with the state. IDEA does not specify particular sources of funding for required instruction and services. Each state may use whatever state, local, federal, and private sources of support are available to provide special education and related services, consistent with state law, so long as the allocation, excess cost, and nonsupplanting requirements of IDEA are met.

Under IDEA, lack of adequate personnel or resources does not relieve school districts of their obligations to make a free appropriate public education available to students with disabilities in the least restrictive educational setting in which their IEPs can be implemented. The department encourages states and school districts to develop innovative approaches to address issues surrounding resource availability. Factors that could be examined include cooperative learning, teaching styles, physical arrangements of the classroom, curriculum modifications, peer-mediated supports, and equipment, to mention a few.

Where Can I Learn More About Teaching Special Education?

Walden University offers working professionals two online teaching degree paths to a career in special education. For teachers, there’s the Master of Science in Education (MSEd) degree program with a specialization in Special Education (Non-Licensure) (Grades K–12). This MSEd degree specialization emphasizes practical strategies, including those that will help you design and implement curricula to facilitate standards-based learning for individuals with exceptionalities.

The Master of Arts in Teaching program allows individuals with a bachelor’s degree and an interest in teaching to get the education and experience necessary to become an effective educator. The program’s Special Education (K–Age 21) specialization can help you become effective in teaching students with multiple disabilities and diverse needs to learn and achieve at their fullest potential.

If teaching students with exceptionalities is your goal, an online education degree can help take you there. Teachers change lives, and when you pursue an online master’s in education, the first life you change will be yours. Pick the program that’s right for you, and get ready to pursue your passion.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering MS in Education (MSEd) and Master of Arts in Teaching degree programs online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.

2Walden MSEd Curriculum Source:

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,