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If you work in the education sector, chances are you may find yourself wondering “what is Response to Intervention (RTI)?” at some point in your career.

Put simply, Response to Intervention is a process adopted by educators to give struggling students an extra bit of help with a particular skill or lesson.

All teachers are likely to use interventions with students to propel them to succeed in the classroom. Contrary to popular belief, RTI is not just for children with learning disabilities or special educational needs. If a student finds themselves struggling, a good teacher should be able to use the RTI model to check test scores and other progress measures to identify the sort of RTI interventions that will help the child to learn best. If a child’s response to intervention tiers is unsatisfactory, more focused RTI models can be implemented to help the child master certain skills. The RTI process addresses both learning methods and behavior.

The RTI process was first introduced as part of a reauthorization of IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Act) of 2004. While this act is not enshrined in law, it has been presented with regulatory guidance to help identify when students have specific disabilities or learning issues. Essentially, the legislators of OSEP (the Office of Special Programs) created a statement that asks school districts to avoid reliance on the discrepancy model when identifying specific learning disabilities. Instead, schools should use RTI tiers to stage interventions.

Most schools rely on RTI models to intervene with students prior to any referrals for special education. However, few educators use RTI to identify students who may need additional assistance. Typically, schools will use RTI to intervene, and if it doesn’t work, they will refer for testing via the discrepancy model.

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A summary of the RTI process

Once a child has received an intervention, their progress will be tested multiple times. If the child shows no signs of improvement, their teacher and other educators who form the RTI education team will meet with the child’s parents. Together, parents and educators will work to select more intense RTI tiers of intervention.

The RTI team will try more intense interventions, as per the RTI pyramid, and might even work to try and identify an SLD (specific learning disability) if the child fails to progress. For example, if a student performs poorly on a reading test, the RTI process can be used where the teacher reads the questions to the student to see if they know the answer. If they can answer the questions correctly, this could mean that the student is struggling with reading skills. When used in this manner, the RTI process helps to identify specific learning disabilities, as well as identify whether the student should be referred for more tests.

RTI can still be utilized in the classroom even when children have no learning difficulties. Teachers are encouraged to use RTI processes with all students. Children may be learning well or even tackling advanced classes, but RTI can still be beneficial when it comes to highlighting weaknesses.

Understanding RTI tiers

To gain a better understanding of RTI models, it may help to think of a pyramid. The RTI pyramid is typically divided into three sections: top, middle, and base. Movement between these sections is based on the response of a student to various interventions.

Tier 1

Most students (approximately 80%) facing interventions are found in the first tier or base of the pyramid. This is known as tier 1 of the prevention of failure. Most of the strategies used here involve structured and research-based teaching and are specific to the subject currently being taught. These can involve the following (in an English lesson, as an example):

  • Stating the objective (explaining what today’s goal is, such as “today we’re going to learn what a common noun is).
  • Providing direct instructions (“a common noun is the name of a person, thing, place or idea”).
  • Using hands-on teaching (getting students to draw a common noun).
  • Using group teaching (getting students to guess what their classmates have drawn).
  • Using feedback and recognition (praising students for drawing a common noun).
  • Using differences in teaching (asking students to draw something that isn’t a common noun to identify the key differences between common nouns and other words).
  • Encouraging note-taking (asking students to write down their own definition of what a common noun is).

Tier 2

Tier 2, or the secondary level, involves more intensive interventions. Students in this bracket are thought to be at a greater risk of falling behind, and it’s not uncommon for approximately 15% of students to make up this section at any moment in the academic year.

Teaching strategies in Tier 2 are generally more specific and will include direct instructions which help to break information into smaller, more manageable segments. In Tier 2, more time should also be spent providing students with opportunities to put into practice what they have just learned. Re-teaching may also be useful at this point, to reiterate and help “lock-in” information. To avoid confusion, individual topics should be kept separate from one another. In other words, new skills should not be taught until old ones are mastered.

Tier 3

Roughly 5% of students make up Tier 3 of the RTI pyramid, known as the tertiary level of prevention. At the top of the pyramid, the student receives more intense and consistent interventions. It’s worth knowing that while special education and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) are routinely associated with Tier 3, not all children in this tier are in special education programs and may be facing external issues outside of school which are affecting their learning outcomes.

In this tier, teachers should use RTI models and strategies which are designed to affect the ways in which each individual student processes information. Teachers should focus on more explicit instructions and encourage students to work on memory retention skills.

Students who are successful after Tier 3 intervention can be returned to Tier 2. Those who are unsuccessful may need to be screened for special education if this has not already taken place.