Learning Difficulties & Response to Intervention: Q&A With Dr. Mary

Mary Rosen
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Flickr photo by Raymond Brown

Today, Dr. Mary is addressing the topic of Response to Intervention, or RTI, which is a method of progressive academic intervention designed to provide early, effective help for kids having difficulty learning.

Q: My 7-year-old son has had trouble learning to read all year. He's seen a special reading teacher a few times a week, and I'm told that he's made progress. However, he's still behind and I'm wondering whether he needs more. Frankly, I'm worried he may have a learning disability. Kids with learning problems get special education help, don't they?

A: I understand your concern and know how frustrating it may feel to have your son get extra help and still not be where he should be with his reading. And of course you want to be sure he's getting the kind of help he needs.

Nowadays, because of changes in various education laws, kids who struggle with reading or other subjects are given assistance earlier than they may have in the past, before they're very behind and/or failing, and usually before they're considered for special education services.

This relatively new approach is universally referred to as Response to Intervention or RTI. In a nutshell, RTI is a process that looks at how kids in the regular classroom respond to different types of teaching approaches or interventions, at differing levels of intensity. Under this model, all children are screened, usually at the start of school, to figure out who may have problems meeting the standards at their grade level.

Under the RTI model, all kids in a given classroom are ideally provided with "scientifically based instruction," or teaching methods that research has shown to be effective. This is referred to as the first level, or Tier 1. For reading, a Tier 1 instructional intervention might include daily guided reading groups, where students, in small groups according to their reading level, read along with their teacher who strategically stops at points in their book to discuss specific concepts or vocabulary. If a student, like your son, continues to struggle after receiving general classroom reading instruction, or if a student has been identified early on in the school year through the screening process as being "at risk," he/she would then likely receive more intensive help, otherwise know as Tier 2 interventions.

Tier 2 addresses the student's challenges more aggressively. For instance, a Tier 2 intervention may also be in a guided reading format, but this time, instruction may be with a specialized reading teacher, with a smaller group of children, and with a more structured program that's given outside of the classroom. The student continues to receive classroom reading instruction in addition to this extra help. You may be wondering: How do we know for certain (besides what we as parents might observe at home while reading with our kids) which kids are struggling? A huge part of RTI involves progress monitoring. This is consistent monitoring or evaluation of the student's skills for which he/she is getting help, in order to know if the particular intervention is working. If a kid continues to make minimal progress at Tier 2, they're then bumped up to the final tier.

Tier 3 is where even more intensive, more "targeted" interventions are given. If little progress continues to be made after receiving Tier 3 interventions, the child is then usually considered for an evaluation to determine if he's eligible for special education assistance. Back in the day, students weren't routinely provided with systematic help until they were already far behind in their academics, and kids were being referred for special education for reasons other than true learning issues or other disabilities that would qualify them for those services. In addition, in the past, the way a child qualified as having a learning disability was to show a significant "discrepancy" between their cognitive abilities (aka intelligence) and their achievement skills. This has changed, and now RTI progress-monitoring information can be used as part of this evaluation process to show that a child isn't learning at an expected rate.

I suggest asking your son's teachers if they're using an RTI approach (RTI is also called "problem solving," or your son's school may have their own term) and if they are, what length of time do they follow before deciding if a student's interventions be modified. You may also want to ask about  interventions and how they're monitoring his progress. Parent involvement is considered an essential component of RTI, so your school should readily share this information with you. It's another example where partnering with the school is the best way to go.

Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Got a question about school learning and behaviors for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.

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