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Response to Intervention (RTI): When Your Child Needs Extra Help

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Updated on Aug 27, 2013

No parent wants to see a child struggle in school, but even straight-A students sometimes run into trouble. Maybe it's a tough unit in math, or a rough patch with friends. For some kids, problems may run deeper, and perhaps even include learning disabilities which will require careful attention over a long haul.

How can parents figure out the difference between temporary and long-term learning issues, and seek the best kind of help?

Formal Evaluations

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), any concerned parent has the right to request a formal evaluation for special ed services. But as many experienced teachers and parents will tell you, a full evaluation can be a “big gun,” requiring many hours of intensive testing and analysis, often stretching over months.

In the past, kids waiting for these evaluations and their results may just have languished. Then, if a child was found eligible, she might have received an IEP (Individualized Education Program), or perhaps a “504” plan that provided classroom accomodations and modifications. If not, however, there often was not much parents or schools could do.

That’s why so many folks are excited about “Response to Intervention,” (RTI), a new initiative that is sweeping American education.  “Within an RTI framework,” explains Mary Beth Klotz, PhD., Director of IDEA Projects for the National Association of School Psychologists, “students receive interventions and their progress is monitored closely…students do not have to ‘wait to fail.’”

How RTI Works

RTI begins with strong, research-based teaching for every child. In this first “tier,” all students are screened periodically, and some may be identified for extra support. If they’re still struggling after a few weeks, “Tier 2” provides small-group, supportive help, most often within the classroom setting. If that still doesn’t help, a student can be moved to “Tier 3”—what the RTI Action Network describes as “individualized, intensive interventions that target the students’ skill deficits.”

Fans of RTI—and there are many in the professional educators’ community—praise its capacity to improve learning for all students, not just those in trouble. “We think,” says Nancy Reder, Deputy Executive Director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, that “it’s not just a special ed strategy. We think it’s a good instructional approach for all students.”

Indeed, adds Klotz, RTI “has the potential for major educational reform," and schools may finally be able to “bridge the gap between general education and special education; improve educational outcomes, and decrease special education referrals and the labeling of students as having a disability when they do not.”

If RTI is successful, it may also address a problem which has plagued special education: what Klotz terms the “disproportionate representation of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in special education.”

Research shows, for example, that students who speak English as a second language may take five to seven years to become fluent in the “cognitive academic language” our schools require. Does that mean they need special ed? Not at all—and yet, too often across the nation, they seem to end up there. Properly applied, RTI’s “continuum of supports” may make a profound difference for such learners.

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