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.

Troubles With RTI

For all its benefits, however, RTI has raised doubts in some quarters, and even its most ardent supporters concede: if it is to succeed, RTI requires extensive staff training, collaboration, and “buy-in.” This may be easy in some school systems, much harder in others; as Suzanne Fornaro, spokesperson and past president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, explains, “at present, RTI can look completely different from state to state and even from school to school.” This can make it hard to determine exactly how effective different interventions may be. Moreover, since RTI is still relatively new and has been used mostly in grades K-3, experts don’t yet know its long-term effects, nor just how it will work in higher grades.

Experts in learning disabilities have also voiced important cautions for parents and schools. U.S. Department of Education statistics show that students with learning disabilities account for approximately half of all students receiving special education nationwide, and over 5.5% of the school aged population. While some of these children may have been wrongly diagnosed under old systems, the Learning Disabilities Association of America strongly cautions against relying on the RTI process alone as a new standard for identification. Because specific learning disabilities are so varied and complex, say these experts in a recent white paper, “comprehensive evaluations should occur whenever necessary for SLD (specific learning disability) identification.” In fact, without these clinical tools, RTI may end up being “nothing more than a ‘diagnosis by treatment failure,’ which has long been proven to be a poor model in medicine.”

What does this mean in practice?

Leading experts remain optimistic that RTI may prove to be highly beneficial to all kids. But as the system takes hold, a partnership with parents can make all the difference. “As a parent,” advises Fornaro, “you should be involved from the beginning of the RTI process…You will bring your ‘expertise’ on your child’s strengths and difficulties, hobbies, behaviors at home…This will help to identify the student's skills, find gaps, and enhance collaboration on the plan for intervention.”

If your school does suggest “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” interventions for your child, don’t forget that your ongoing participation will be invaluable. “Advocacy is critical,” says Klotz. “Parents should be provided data as to the child’s progress, suggestions for reinforcing the intervention at home, and the opportunity to be involved in the decision making such as when different or more intense interventions or services are selected.”

And if your child is still struggling? Parents, don’t forget: special education is still alive and well, and protected by federal law. “IDEA regulations give parents the right,” says Fornaro firmly, “to request a comprehensive evaluation for identification/eligibility for special education services at any time.” Under law, schools must review this request and either provide an evaluation or a written statement of why it is not ncessary.

So what is the best time to pursue interventions beyond RTI, through special ed? There's no firm answer, but we can say this for sure: experts are listening, research is moving, and schools are working hard on the issue. RTI provides them with tools to pursue earlier intervention and process monitoring to help all children reach grade level standards. And don't forget, of course, that in the final analysis, you’re probably the most knowledgeable expert of all. If your child is struggling, make sure you keep communicating with your school. You live with your child, and you care. In the end, your love and your advocacy can make all the difference in the world.