Help for All Kids With Response to Intervention

Get help sooner with response to intervention programs

A Teacher Works with Two Boys
Special Education Intervention. Getty Images

Response to Intervention is the practice of identifying the needs of struggling students and providing them focused instruction they need through varying levels of assistance ranging from assistance in the regular classroom to assist in a special education program.

Year after year, thousands of children with learning problems are referred for assessment in schools across the country to diagnose learning disabilities and determine special education eligibility.

Every parent awaits the test results with hope and apprehension. A large number of those students tested will not meet their state's criteria for eligibility for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) despite having continued problems in school.

Often, the news leaves parents worried. They may be relieved to learn their children may not have learning disabilities. However, their children still have serious problems in school and show signs of learning disabilities that may not have been severe enough to qualify but continue to negatively affect their ability to learn and achieve.

Further, they will not receive special education services. Parents are very concerned about their children's futures and often feel abandoned by the system. Their children are sometimes referred to as slow learners, gray area kids, or kids who fell through the special education eligibility cracks. Until recent changes were made in federal laws governing special education programs, there were few mandated options for help beyond continued struggle in the regular classroom for these students. Some schools provided temporary assistance to some students through existing intervention programs such as Title I, which serves students from low-income homes who are not learning as they should. However, there were no formally mandated programs requiring long-term support for all struggling learners, regardless of socioeconomic status.

The fact is, many students with learning disabilities go undiagnosed and unserved simply because they aren't "behind enough" to qualify for services. For example, under most formulas, to meet special education eligibility requirements in reading, a nine-year-old student with average intelligence would have to be practically unable to read at all to qualify. He may not recognize letters or be aware of the sounds they represent. By this time, he would probably have been retained for one or two years without having any additional help or change in his educational program.

What Is RTI?

RTI stands for Responsiveness to Intervention. Simply put, it is an alternate means of determining whether a child has a learning disability and needs special education services. RTI was included in the 2004 revision of the IDEA as an alternative to the formula methods in use over the last 20 years.

How RTI Helps Children

In previous years, the most commonly used method of determining eligibility required that a student has an average or higher intelligence and a severe discrepancy, or weakness, in one or more areas of achievement as measured on standardized, norm-referenced tests. In practice, a student would have to lag behind his peers by two years or more before he could qualify for services in special education.

Students with learning disabilities rarely met criteria for placement in special education until they were in third grade or later. They needed to fail long enough before they were behind enough to qualify. Picture this. A beginning third-grade student of average intelligence would need to be unable to read even simple words to qualify. Meanwhile, his peers would be reading chapter books.

The aptitude/achievement discrepancy method caused many problems for learning disabled students who did not meet the cutoff test scores:

  • They missed two or more important years of specially designed instruction at a time research indicates is the most important for early intervention;
  • They were often humiliated and frustrated by their inability to perform as well as their peers;
  • They were so behind others, the likelihood of catching up was very small, if not impossible;
  • In many cases, students developed a dislike of school. Some developed behavior and social problems;
  • Some children with disabilities were never identified and never received services they needed. Instead, they were thought of as "just slow learners," incapable of learning as well as peers, but not severe enough to require special education;
  • Many failed at school and dropped out; and
  • Many had no post-secondary education and took low-paying jobs.

Response to Intervention benefits children who have undiagnosed learning disabilities but have not met special education eligibility in the previous testing under discrepancy method formulas. These kids are sometimes referred to as gray area kids or kids who fell through the cracks. These children were literally "falling through the cracks" of the school system because they couldn't get the help they needed in special education or from regular education.

Response to Intervention can help these low-achieving children who have been lost in the maze of special education eligibility laws under previous versions of the IDEA. It allows schools the flexibility to provide more individualized instruction to children who need it, based on demonstrated needs and not simply on test scores.

Responsiveness to Intervention (RTI) is a three-step process that may help your child get the help he needs. The first step, or tier, of intervention, is the regular classroom setting. All students would begin in this setting. As teachers introduce instruction, students' progress is monitored. Most students in this group will need additional help from time to time, and the teacher provides that guidance.

Tier two of RTI targets students who do not show progress with regular instructional intervention. In tier two, students receive more individualized instruction and intervention. They may work in smaller groups to allow one-on-one and small group instruction. During this process, teachers carefully evaluate the students' response to these interventions. Students who do well may be phased back into the regular classroom. Students who demonstrate the need for ongoing, intensive intervention will move into tier three.

Tier three is an ongoing, long-term program of diagnostic and prescriptive teaching and could be thought of as special education. In this level, students receive individualized instruction for as long as is necessary for them to acquire the skills they need to progress in school.

Response to Intervention (RTI) offers clear advantages over the former process of relying solely on evaluation to determine eligibility. First, the RTI process is instructional from beginning to end. At no point is the child left to experience the frustration of failure while waiting until his test scores show a severe aptitude/achievement discrepancy before he gets help. He receives instruction that gradually increases in intensity and individualization as he shows the need for it.

RTI eliminates the gap in instruction for the kids who cannot succeed in the regular classroom without help and those who qualify for special education. The lack of services for gray area kids, kids who fall through the cracks, and slow-learners should be minimized as all children get the instruction they need.

Why Is Assessment Important

While standardized assessment may not be needed to determine eligibility for special education programs diagnosis of learning disabilities, it can still provide educators with important information for students' programs, even with the RTI model of eligibility.

First, intelligence testing provides important details on how students process information and how they learn. This information can be used by regular and special education teachers to develop specially designed instruction that truly taps their strengths and encourages skill development in their areas of weakness.

Second, standardized achievement testing can offer a larger view of how the student is learning as compared to others his age across the nation. This serves as critical guidance to ensure students make ongoing progress and move toward their long-term educational and career goals. Achievement testing can also provide diagnostic information that enables teachers to identify specific areas of strength and weakness. This helps teachers refine instructional processes.

Learn About RTI In Your State

If your child has been tested and determined ineligible for special education services because he or she missed the cutoff scores, RTI may help. Contact your state's department of education office for special education to get more information on how RTI will be implemented in your state.

Was this page helpful?