For a child receiving services through an Extended IFSP, the natural environment is a setting that is natural or typical for a same-aged child without a disability; this may include the home or a community setting. To the maximum extent appropriate, early intervention or preschool special education and related services are provided in natural environments. When early intervention or preschool special education and related services/outcomes cannot be achieved satisfactorily in the natural environment, a justification for providing services in an environment other than the natural environment must bemade by the parent and the IFSP team. The justification is required to be based on the needs of the child and evidence-based practice and is reflected in the child’s outcomes identified by the IFSP Team. Include in the justification, a plan for how to move the child from an environment that is not a natural environment back into other settings at home or in the community once the specific outcome that could not be met in the natural environment is achieved.
For a child receiving services through an IEP, the least restrictive environment is the setting where a child is educated with peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate. The LRE placement where a child receives these service(s) must be as close as possible to his or her home.
The determination of whether an early childhood setting for a preschool through kindergarten age child is the “least restrictive” is based on:
- What are the early childhood settings of children without disabilities of the same chronological age
- If the IFSP/IEP services can be implemented in that setting
- Access and can be involved in, the local school system’s early learning curriculum and
- Meaningful interaction with his or her peers without disabilities. MSDE TA Bulletin 9B 2010, p. 3
There is no single “best” or “most” appropriate NE/LRE setting for all children.
A continuum of potential options for natural environments (NE) and least restrictive environments (LRE) for preschool through kindergarten age children are represented on the NE/LRE Decision Making Map located in the Preschool through Kindergarten NE/LRE Team Decision Making Module.
- Public preschool through kindergarten: local school districts may offer full or half day preschool, pre-K and kindergarten programs (eligibility and availability restrictions may apply for preschool and pre-K programs).
- Head Start: a family development program offers a language enriched preschool program rimarily for at-risk children whose families meet income eligibility requirements. Created in 1965, Head Start provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, social and parent services across the county. Many Head Start programs in Maryland partner with public preschool programs.
- Judy Center Partnerships: named after Judith P. Hoyer, an early childhood educator and advocate, Judy Centers offer comprehensive early child care and education for children, birth through kindergarten age, who reside in specific Title I school districts across Maryland. They are located in or affiliated with elementary schools and provide full-day, full-year services to promote school readiness. Judy Centers collaborate with public schools, and community-based agencies, organizations, and businesses.
- Private preschool through kindergarten: typically offer half and full day programs up to five days per week in settings such as private businesses, faith-based programs, college campuses, high school child development laboratories or for-profit organizations.
- Home: either the child’s own home or a relative’s provides opportunities for interaction with siblings, friends and extended family members through family activities, celebrations and informal play groups.
- Child care center: an agency or establishment provides full or partial care that may include an instructional program for children not younger than 2 and not older than 5 years of age, and is licensed by the Maryland State Office of Child Care.
- Family child care: a licensed provider cares for a small group of unrelated children in her own home.
- Community recreation programs: include Park and Recreation departments, YMCA programs, and private gymnastics, museums, nature centers, creative movement and dance, gymnastics, puppet shows, music, swimming lessons, arts & crafts, and educational programs.
- Library/book stores: offer preliteracy activities for preschoolers through story hours, puppet shows, educational programs and special events such as story telling or book readings by children’s authors.
- Special classes: school districts may include peers without disabilities in special classes for hildren with disabilities. For this classroom to be considered a regular early childhood program, at least 50% of the children participating in the setting must be nondisabled, and the majority (50% or greater) of early intervention, special education and related services provided to a child with a disability must be in this setting.
- Local options: In addition to the many options above, local jurisdictions may have established unique partnerships as part of their local NE/LRE continuum.