Early childhood inclusion: inclusion in a natural environment

The least restrictive environment mandate applies to children ages 3-21 under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  For children age 0-3, inclusion is guided by Part C of  IDEA, which requires inclusion for infants and toddlers with disabilities to be fostered through early intervention services provided in "natural environments."  This article provides an overview of the natural environment mandate.

What is a Natural Environment?

A natural environment is one in which a child would receive services if he or she did not have a disability.  In other words, a natural environment is one that is typical for children without disabilities.   Thus the word "natural" simply refers to a setting that is not exclusively provided for children with disabilities.  Inclusion for early intervention is therefore a bit different from inclusion in schools --it is about "normalization" rather than just interaction and participation alongside children without disabilities. Natural environments include both the home of the child and inclusive care settings.  Since children without disabilities are often raised entirely in the home environment, the home is considered a natural environment even if it does not provide opportunities for the child to interact with children who do not have disabilities.  Since many children without disabilities are also in child care settings, those child care settings that include children with and without disabilities are also natural environments.

What is the Natural Environment mandate?

Put simply, the requirement to deliver early intervention services in a natural environment is really a legal preference or presumption.  A child must receive early intervention services in a natural environment unless the purposes of early intervention cannot be successfully achieved in a natural environment.  Thus, services can be in a non-natural environment if the needs of the child require it--such as when a child requires extensive medical interventions.  But early intervention services in a care setting that does not include children without disabilities (a setting that is not a natural environment) must be justified in the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) based on the child's needs.

Choosing the Natural Environment:  Home vs. Inclusive Care Settings

Since the home is considered a natural environment and an inclusive care setting is also considered a natural environment--how do you decide which natural environment to use?  IDEA provides some guidance here in that it says the "most appropriate" natural environment should be used--but how do you decide which natural environment is most appropriate?  Appropriateness in IDEA refers to the benefit the child will receive.  So, whether a home environment or inclusive care setting is most appropriate depends on which is more likely to provide the most benefit to the child.  For example, if the IFSP team determines that the child would particularly benefit from opportunities to interact with children without disabilities, than an inclusive care setting would be the most appropriate natural environment.  Note that choosing the natural environment is not an either or question--some early intervention services may be best provided in the home while others may be best provided in an inclusive care environment.


Anonymous said...

What I find interesting about this topic is that "natural" is totally subjective, depending upon the disability.

My son is deaf. He requires a sign language environment in order to grow and develop academically and socially, yet that would not be considered natural to most people. What most would consider "natural" is to him the *most* restrictive environment. That may change as he ages and is able to use an interpreter (he is only 3), but even then I'd argue that in order to have access to everything in the classroom he needs to be in a signing environment.

So who makes the final call on what's natural?

Matt --attorney, researcher, and (now) blogger said...

You make an interesting point. In the case of children who have special communication needs, involvement in the activities and lessons is often increased when everyone in the classroom--students, assistants, and instructors--all communicate in a mode that the child can easily understand. Other environments are, in some ways, less inclusive because they are not as accessible.

So the term "natural" is subjective from this perspective. Some would even say that disability itself is a subjective term--that a child who is in an all signing environment does not have a disability because the child's ability to do things is not impaired (where a child who can hear but does not sign would be).

But, IDEA does use an objective definition of natural--natural environment means an environment that is typical for children without any disabilities. So with respect to the law and legal requirements, what is "natural" is not a subjective question but a question of comparison to what is typical for the general population.

The issue I think you really want to raise (from the legal perspective) is whether the child sufficiently benefits from the inclusive classroom or whether one that provides greater access to (or inclusion) in the curriculum through signing--even if less inclusive with regard to participation with children without disabilities--would be a better choice.