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Pro Tips for Understanding Response to Interventions (RTI)

James Paterson

And how it can help teachers.

At the start of the first chapter of her book about helping struggling students, Margaret Searl describes a scenario she believes many educators will recognize: A teacher talking with colleagues about their frustration with a handful of students who need help.

"I am at my wits' end. Jerry is having a tough time with geography, even though he is more than capable of doing the work. In fact, I have four students who are in the same boat. I call their parents, but these kids still won't do the work. It's obvious they don't get much help at home. Personally, I think it's a bad case of laziness. Why weren't they tested earlier? If I refer them now, they probably won't qualify for anything. I guess there's nothing to be done."

Searl, an educational consultant who has written several books on support for students with academic and behavior needs, points out that a process often linked to special education services is useful in strategically identifying student needs in a way that can benefit teachers and administrators too and help in circumstances like this. And, she says, it isn’t as complicated as many think it is.

The process is called Response to Interventions (RTI), a structure for identifying struggling students, defining their needs, developing strategies for them, and assessing how those accommodations are working – and adjusting them as necessary. Schools are encouraged to use it as part of compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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RTI provides more options, support and flexibility for solving difficult student problems,” Searl said in an interview. “Building capacity in the faculty to work together and solve the problems that drain teacher’s energy and stifle student growth is the core of RTI.”

She says the process can differ among districts and schools because, “They all have their own challenges when it comes to meeting the needs of the students at the top and bottom of the academic and behavior scales.” But, she says, teachers should understand that it isn’t as complex as it may seem, and it can help them identify and manage behavioral and academic issues.

If you are confused by RTI, you are not alone.

“The effort to understand Response to Intervention has occupied many thousands of hours and hundreds of position and policy statements, white papers, consensus documents, and research articles,” says G. Emerson Dickman, an attorney who represents children with disabilities and the former president of the board of directors of the International Dyslexia Association. He made the comment in an article he wrote that describes how RTI works.

The RTI Network puts it this way: “The idea of Response to Intervention is simple. RTI involves regularly assessing proficiency in a skill, determining which students are behind, providing help in small groups for those students below benchmark, assessing regularly to monitor progress, and intensifying instruction for students whose progress is insufficient. Yet, many schools all across this country are discovering that implementing RTI is far from simple.”

Dickman says it involves five steps: Screening students for their needs, research-based teaching techniques, interventions for students at more serious risk, evaluation of the process, and adjustments schoolwide or for an individual student.

And Searl says schools need to take time initially to establish the process formally, explain it and prepare the staff – all steps that are too often missing.

“I know some make the process more complicated than it needs to be. Some put things in place without explaining why they are changing, which causes a different type of problem. When people blindly march through a series of steps and meetings that don’t seem necessary from their point of view, the whole process may appear complex and unnecessary.”

One expert notes that while RTI is effective because it assures that all students are screened for deficiencies and given the support they need, it can be complicated for new teachers, time consuming, and perhaps difficult to explain.

But RTI, Searl says, is simply looking at what is currently in place with regard to instruction, deciding where you want to improve and what you want to keep, and “Creating a plan for reorganizing your current resources and staff to create more options that get a better result. It is a system for examining how students are educated in your school, and addressing their needs,” she says.

Kristy Kelly, a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched the use of RTI in schools, says that the structure has three levels: An assessment process, a three-tiered system of interventions, and a problem-solving process where a plan is developed.

“We often use screening practices with large populations of individuals to help identify those that might require more indicated treatment,” she says. “It’s done in the same way your doctor might use a measure of your blood pressure at a wellness visit as a screening measure for overall cardiovascular health for everyone and then might consider prescribing a medication for some as a first-line of treatment to address this issue.” Others might require more serious treatment, she says. Some might need surgery

“The same logic applies in an educational setting using the RTI framework,” says Kelly.

She reiterates the importance of the initial step of an RTI system where schools put “Effective structures for student achievement” in place and then evaluate both their effectiveness and spot students who need additional support.

“The first leg of the stool is the heart of RTI. Just as feedback helps runners shave seconds off their time, educators and students need specific data to stay on target and make appropriate adjustments if the going gets rough,” Searl says in her book.

She notes that universal screening of students helps “Pinpoint high-priority areas of concern” and evaluate where instruction needs to improve and which students most need support.

The second portion of the structure then provides for interventions for three levels of students:

  • Tier 1 involves strategies in teaching that help around 80 percent of the students to succeed. It now often includes structures for academic and behavioral issues because the current thinking is that they are closely linked. It includes things like differentiation, clear goals and expected outcomes, appropriate instruction and monitoring and feedback, encouragement and error correction, according to the RTI Network, a good source for information about the initiative.
  • Tier 2 supplements Tier 1 strategies and support another five to 10 percent of students who need additional support, often in smaller groups, and generally using additional practice and more one-on-one instruction. This tier is often directed through a team of staff members who work on approaches for specific students. Functional behavioral assessments and behavior intervention plans might be used at this stage
  • Tier 3 involve more intense interventions for individual students with specialists. It might involve use of independent education plans (though often those students have more quickly received special education services), “Altering the environment or instruction,” and wrap-around services.    

Here are some resources to help educators better understand RTI and learn how to implement it: