What is RTI? And How to Meet the Needs of Diverse Learners Before Special Ed Referral

March 13, 2017

How do you support a struggling student in a general education or inclusive classroom? When and how do you refer a child to receive special education services? If you are a special education provider, how do you help general education teachers support diverse learners without special education referral? Before referring a student to special education, general education teachers are mandated to follow the response to intervention (RTI) model. Teachers have a legal obligation to provide several sustained rounds of in-class interventions to struggling students and to measure student responses to the interventions, before requesting special education services. RTI interventions are targeted and systematic, informed by data, implemented faithfully, and revisited and assessed as necessary. The response to intervention (RTI) approach follows three tiers of intervention and support, which lead to less than 5% of students receiving special education referrals.

Tier 1 = 80% of Students Need General Education

General education teachers are responsible for tier 1 of the RTI model. While the school’s special education provider may be consulted, general education or inclusive classroom teachers must differentiate instruction to meet the needs of 80% of students. Classroom-based tier 1 RTI includes differentiating content, process, and product. Adapt the following examples of tier 1 differentiated support to meet the needs of 80% of all learners:

  • Special Education provider meets with general education teachers quarterly to align interventions and offer professional development
  • Visual aides (comic illustrations of complex concepts)
  • Printed student copy of lecture notes, PowerPoint slides or directions
  • Preferential seating
  • Classroom jobs
  • Bridge texts
  • Guided notes
  • Pre-annotated text
  • Step-by-step checklists
  • Anchor charts and mnemonic rubrics
  • Prior warning before participation
  • Extra time to complete tasks
  • Chunk/scaffold large assignments or questions into small, simple, gradual steps
  • Guided questions to focus reading comprehension and analysis
  • Preview key terms and background information
  • Adjust pacing of verbal directions
  • Repetition of instructions
  • Multiple options to show mastery (storyboard or mind map instead of written response)

80% of students should be able to master content and skills through tier 1 general education interventions.

Tier 2 = 15% of Students Need Supplemental Instruction

15% of students will need tier 2 interventions through small group supplemental support and instruction outside of the general education setting. This includes supplemental EdTech resources including e-reader use and audio books. General education and special education teachers may share responsibility for providing tier 2 out-of-class support 1-2 times a week.

General education teachers are responsible for supporting struggling students during study hall, office hours, and lunch or after school tutoring appointments. Peer tutors may also be utilized during prep periods and other “free” times. Educators may also decide to add a double block of ELA or Math 1-2 times a week for struggling students. Alternatively, several teachers may be willing to give up one prep period in order to gain a co-teacher for another teaching period. A second teacher could provide 1:1 support to struggling learners during mini-lessons, guided and independent practice.

Special education teachers may be responsible for acting as a co-teacher or push-in teacher for general education classrooms with a high percentage of struggling learners. Special education providers may also provide remedial reading, writing, and mathematics support to students during lunch, after school, “free” or study hall periods.

After teachers have provided tier 1 and tier 2 interventions through differentiated and scaffolded instruction and supplemental out-of-class instruction, 95% of students should respond to intervention and master grade-level content.

Tier 3 = 5% of Students Need Special Education Services

According to the RTI model, only 5% of students will not respond to tier 1 and tier 2 interventions. Tier 3 interventions are highly individualized support. While tier 2 supplemental instruction occurs 1-2 times a week, tier 3 interventions occur 4-10 times a week. This is why students who receive mandated special education services receive an IEP or “Individualized Education Plan” to mandate the individualized support and services they need to meet specific academic goals.

Tier 3 interventions may or may not entail a special education referral. For example, a student may not be referred to special education if they respond positively to daily mandatory lunch and after school tutoring or office hours – totalling tier 3 interventions 10 times a week. A special education teacher may also provide 1-to-1 phonics support to a student who “slipped through the cracks” and improve reading level to a degree that special education referral is not necessary.

Tier 3 special education supports include receiving small group or 1-to-1 instruction in lieu of an elective or other nonessential class. Receiving a 504 or mandated 50% – 100% extra time to complete assessments is another tier 3 intervention. If students are performing so far below grade-level that daily 1:1 or small group RTI tier 3 supports are required to ensure their academic success then, and only then, is it time for a special education referral.

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