Sunday, May 15, 2016

Three Sides of a Three-Sided Coin: Early Intervention (Part 2)

This is the second guest post in a series on Response to Intervention (RTI) by Dr. Chris Weber, a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on the topic with the International Center for Leadership in Education. Check out the first post in the series HERE on differentiation.

A Comprehensive Approach to Early Intervention within an RTI-Inspired System of Supports for Rigorous Learning, prior to a Referral for Special Education Assessment

Differentiation, special education, and response to intervention (RTI) are interrelated and interdependent; or, they should be. In our experiences in schools, we can more successfully implement these critical, research-based initiatives. They represent principles and practices essential to meeting all students’ needs and to ensuring that students graduate future ready. Comprehensive approaches to differentiation, special education, and RTI are more necessary than ever if schools will reach the goal of high levels of learning for all students. 

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We recommend that schools strategically and purposefully blend differentiation, special education, and RTI within Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning that optimize the complex and critical processes under a singularly-designed set of structures. This second in a series of three posts describes early intervention (pre-referral services) within a System of Supports.

Supports for students with special needs begin immediately. We cannot allow for failure and frustration to occur. Well before a request to conduct a formal evaluation or a determination of eligibility, we must: 


The purpose of a screening process is to efficiently, and in a timely manner, identify students who at a grave risk of experiencing failure and frustration so that:

  1. Scaffolded supports can be immediately provided within Tier 1
  2. Intensive and targeted supports can be provided within Tier 3. This applies to all students, including students with special needs. 
We must not assume we know that needs within a domain or the antecedents to difficulties are known, and we must not assume that supports are already in place. We screen to ensure that we can proactively serve students who likely have a significant deficit in a foundational skill.


Students should not fail a class because of a deficit in a foundational skill. Students in an Algebra class who lack fluency with computation must receive intensive, highly specialized support to ameliorate this significant deficit; they should not, however, fail Algebra. Teachers can and must scaffold instruction so that these students can still access and master algebraic concepts. We maintain that all students can think critically and problem solve. They’re “smart.” 

Similarly, students who cannot decode text at a grade nine level must receive intensive, highly specialized support to ameliorate this significant deficit; however, they should not fail the grade nine English class. Teachers can and must scaffold instruction so that these students can still access and master the comprehension-based concepts that are the likely the priories of the course. A significant deficit in a specific skill area must not limit a student’s ability to access core learning. We must differentiate to ensure success in the core and provide intensive, highly-specialized supports that address the significant need. 


We find that students who have experienced frustration and failure in schools, who have not been supported in a timely and focused manner within a system of supports, often lack a growth mindset and have internalized a sense of learned helplessness. Therefore, nurturing the development of behavioral skills – such as self-regulation and executive functioning – while important for all students, is absolutely critical for vulnerable students. This process requires that we:

  • Identify the priorities that all students will master.
  • Clearly define what mastery “looks” and “sounds” like.
  • Explicitly teach, model the habits and skills that we want to see and hear displayed and employed, with differentiated supports prepared.
  • Assess student mastery of prioritized behavioral habits and skills so that we can determine the efficacy of our instruction and identify the areas of need for intervention.
  • Provide feedback regarding students’ success and setbacks as they relate to achieving mastery.
  • Intervene in a targeted manner if necessary.

We commit to supporting vulnerable students’ most immediate area of need proactively, immediately, and with intensity. We strive to target the antecedent or causal factors that are most contributing to difficulties and vulnerabilities and that lead to significant deficits in foundational skills. All students will learn at high levels, but when a significant deficit in a foundational skill is present, frustrations and challenges highly compromise learning. While the significant deficit exists, or until we have identified and empowered the student to employ sustainable coping mechanisms, the student’s chances of success in school, career, and life are significantly at risk. The most critical, customized, highly specific support for a vulnerable student will undoubtedly involve addressing foundational skills. Without these foundational skills, meaningful experiences with, and mastery of, the 4 Cs and other 21st century skills will be compromised. We define foundational skills as:
  • Literacy – If students cannot access content and participate in learning opportunities (the majority of which are presented in textual form), they will perpetually experience significant difficulties in any course. If students struggle to demonstrate their understanding of content and mastery of skills (the majority of these demonstrations will require written expression), they will perpetually experience significant difficulties in any course.
  • Numeracy – Skills associated with pre-computational numeracy impact a student’s ability to succeed in all subject areas, not only mathematics. A “sense of number” impacts a student’s ability to identity and interpret part-whole relationships, to sequence, to understand and interpret timelines and graphs, in addition to more obvious connections to mathematics and the sciences.
  • Behaviors – Respect, responsibility, and safety are completely appropriate behavioral goals to establish for students; and, there are many other critical pro-social and pro-functional skills that are foundational to success. When a student has a significant deficit in behavior due to social, emotional, or cognitive factors that result in a severely angry, withdrawn, inattentive child or young adult with few coping mechanisms, self-regulatory strategies, or executive functioning skills, little learning will take place. More immediately, students with significant deficits in behavioral skills are truly at-risk in their right to be a healthy human.

We must monitor student response to instruction and intervention and learn from the evidence that is gathered: As we scaffold to ensure student access to learning at Tier 1 and provide specific interventions that target immediate areas of need within Tier 3, we learn about what works and what does not work. Moreover, we view progress monitoring as a logical task with which to meaningfully involve students. Progress-monitoring assessments measure the extent to which students are responding to supplemental interventions. Progress monitoring is feedback:
  • Feedback for educators: How well have we matched the support to the diagnosed need?
  • Feedback for students: How much growth am I making? Where are my strengths and where do I still have needs? What are my next goals? What can I do? What support do I need?

If we find that students are not responding to the interventions that we are providing, we suggest that we do not simply seek a new intervention; we may need to better identify the causes of student difficulties and better match a support to the diagnosed antecedent skill. This process may be iterative and we may not be right the first time. But we never give up. In fact, we expect that we will learn quite a bit about the underlying causes of student difficulties through the very act of prescribing and providing an intervention. 

In the third post in the series, I will describe the effective and necessary elements of Special Education within a System of Supports.

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