Public School Classrooms – The Least Restrictive Environment?

The issue


Over 80% of students with a hearing loss currently are educated in public schools for all or part of the school day. Services provided to these children vary greatly and do not necessarily relate directly to their needs. In many instances, school districts have determined that public school is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Yet, some students will have no access to a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD), others may receive only itinerant (part-time) services, and support services from staff who have experience working with deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children often are unavailable. A DHH student in a smaller school district may be the only one in the school, and those who require the services of sign language interpreters thus may have to rely on them for all communication with adults and classmates. Taken together, these factors suggest that a public school placement will not be the LRE for many DHH students.

What we know

There is conflicting information about school placement and learning in the literature. Some studies indicate that DHH students in public schools do better academically than students in schools for the deaf. Others find that DHH students do best when taught by ToDs (regardless of the communication method used).  One thus might argue that combining mainstream placement and direct instruction by a ToD would provide the most effective response to the diverse needs of DHH students. Implementation of such a program in a public school with appropriate staff could provide all the services necessary to ensure that DHH students are successful. For example, a ToD could serve as the lead person in the development of an IEP reflecting a student’s language, reading, and math abilities which, in turn, would lead to recommendations for appropriate placement in mainstream classes.

An additional programmatic component would be access to an on-site educational audiologist who could ensure that DHH students are maximizing their listening devices (e.g., hearing aids, cochlear implants, FM systems).  Appropriately certified interpreters would accompany students to classes, assemblies, and other school activities. Counselors and speech pathologists experienced in working with DHH students would complete the staffing. In any case, students must be able to communicate directly with staff members as well as their DHH peers. The LRE for DHH thus must include direct communication opportunities.

What we don’t know

Even if DHH students learn best when taught by a ToD, students who are capable of meeting the challenge of a regular classroom should be given that opportunity. The question becomes “What is the optimal combination of mainstream classes and specialized classes with DHH peers taught by a ToD”? We also need to know at what age/grade a signing DHH student can effectively use a sign language interpreter to access content in general education.

Some general education teachers enthusiastically accept DHH students into their classrooms, faithfully use FM equipment, and are careful to provide accommodations on a student’s IEP. Others are hesitant to change long-established routines. Teachers may not monitor the FM system, forget to charge it overnight, or not do daily checks to ensure the equipment is working properly. Children often do not advocate for themselves, and it can be difficult to know whether students are optimally using their residual hearing – something we do need to know.

DHH students may require or benefit from 1:1 tutoring to review new concepts and related vocabulary. How do we determine when tutoring is beneficial or problematic in mainstream placements?


The public school classroom is often considered to be the LRE, regardless of the needs of individual DHH students. A placement that is truly the least restrictive “allows” students to communicate freely with peers, teachers, and other staff. The placement should provide personnel who have experience working with DHH children and can communicate easily in various modes. In order to provide this type of placement, school districts should consider developing cooperative programs that accept students from multiple districts in order to create critical masses of DHH students. The costs of providing ToDs, audiologists, speech pathologists, and counselors could be shared. More importantly, DHH students would be able to receive direct instruction from ToDs when appropriate, but also be able to be enrolled in general education classrooms. ToDs could monitor progress of DHH students in the regular classroom and assist with necessary accommodations.

The LRE should be a place where DHH children feel safe and comfortable and can express their needs directly to staff. A setting that provides the necessary educational services and options for a DHH child to thrive is truly the Least Restrictive Environment.

Posted on October 1, 2014 by
Gregory A. DeLisle
Willie Ross School for the Deaf
gdelisle {at}

Further reading

Marschark, M., Sapere, P., Convertino, C.M. & Pelz, J. (2008). Learning via direct and mediated instruction by deaf students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 13, 446-461.  view details

Reed, S., Antia, S., & Kreimeyer, K. (2008). Academic status of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in public schools: Student, home, and service facilitators and detractors. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 13, 485-502.  view details

Schick, B., Skalicky, A.M., Edwards, T.C., Kushalnagar, P., Topolski, T.D., & Patrick, D.L. (2013). School placement and perceived quality of life in youth who are deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 47-61.  view details