Least Restrictive Environment

My formal teacher training was so long ago—and so irrelevant to my subsequent career, for the most part—that I almost never think of it. Recently, however, a term from those Curriculum & Instruction days found its way to my conscious mind, where it’s accumulated new layers of meaning, perhaps a bit like a grain of sand irritating its way into a pearl.

The term is “Least Restrictive Environment,” and as my memory recalls, stretching back to the early ’90s, it pertains to the world of special education. The idea is that those students unable to function in a regular classroom should be given one as close to it as they can manage. In other words, Special Ed kids may require greater restrictions—restrictions intended as supports: fewer options or more oversight, that sort of thing—but those restrictions should be minimized, so that their classroom experience is as close to “normal” as possible.

For what it’s worth, here’s what Google put at the top of my search page just now: “In the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), least restrictive environment (LRE) means that a student who has a disability should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate.”

So my memory seems relatively accurate: but now, after nearly twenty years’ experience with Sudbury schools, I have questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me as a beginning teacher. First and foremost, why should only people with a “disability” be provided an environment that’s the “least restrictive”? I understand that the context of these restrictions is the mainstream classroom, but really: Why should anyone’s education be any more restrictive than absolutely necessary?

Whether or not you believe this is necessary (which is a whole other line of discussion), the fact remains that in the vast majority of schools, public and private alike, a young person’s day is about as restricted as it could be. In the high school where I taught, a bell rang (or tweeted, anyway) approximately eighteen times a day to shuffle us off to our appointed rooms with, literally, mechanical precision.

Think about that, those of you for whom this is not your current reality. How well would you tolerate being interrupted eighteen times every day so that you could move from one room (boss, project, etc.) to another, ready or not? Be honest, now. What if you had to request permission to exercise your bodily functions, and carry verification of said permission to and from the bathroom (proof you could be required to produce upon demand by any authority figure you ran into)? How trusted would you feel? Would you be able to get much done?

What if you had a half-dozen or more supervisors, each of whom had their own arbitrary, unwritten rules (rules which, conveniently enough, didn’t apply to them)? What if you were grouped only with people your own age? What if you only had 25 minutes for lunch, which might occur at 10:30 every morning? What if you were expected to do two or three hours of work at home every night?

The worst part is, students aren’t even included in any meaningful way in determining what restrictions might actually be necessary, or in enforcing them. Contrast this with Sudbury, where students and staff, independently of age, have an equal voice in establishing and enforcing the rules (written rules, equally applicable to staff), budgeting and spending the school’s funds, and hiring and firing staff. And that’s just on a macro level: nearly all of every person’s day is theirs to shape, within the parameters of respect and responsibility they’re equally able to set.

All this of course begs the question of what purpose any of these restrictions serve. In conventional schools, I believe that at least the scale and the paradigm are responsible for the elaborate, inflexible structure. With as many as a few thousand young people in a given school, maintaining order seems to require professional, adult choreographers/drill instructors (though this is much less so on college campuses, which raises an interesting question of its own).

More fundamentally, however, it’s common assumptions about children and young people that are to blame: for example, the deeply entrenched belief that they will not learn (or won’t learn the right things in the right way at the right time) unless they are closely supervised, directed, and evaluated. In this paradigm, kids are lazy, rebellious, and/or just plain ignorant and incapable. What a sad and unnecessarily limiting view this is. The arguments and evidence for the natural human drive to learn and explore are ridiculously abundant, yet for whatever reasons, too many people simply write them off.

So what about the restrictions of a Sudbury schooling environment? Let’s not pretend there aren’t any. I can tell you from personal experience that attendance requirements, service on (and testifying before) the Judicial Committee, cleaning chores, and the whole set of policies and procedures that go into running any institution, are perceived restrictive at times to plenty of people. I mentioned above that all this structure is shaped and adjusted by students and staff together. But what is the purpose of having the structure in the first place?

On one level, the need to maintain an orderly environment exists in any group setting, and when that setting is larger and more mixed than a family, some more formal elements naturally come into play. Beyond keeping the peace, though, the mixed-age democracy of Sudbury schools gives young people direct, extended immersion in the interpersonal and political processes inherent to life in human society. They get to practice these things while they’re still very young, growing into (or rather, never losing) a sense of their own power and responsibility.

I like to believe that across the educational universe, restrictions are well-intended. However, the more we impose them on young people, the more we risk undermining their learning and growth into confident, capable, resilient, and responsible young adults. The self-fulfilling prophecies of believing kids are capable or not have the most enormous consequences. As such, we must always, at the very least, assess and question the environments in which our children learn, and make them truly the least restrictive.

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