RtI: Addressing challenges and misconceptions


Over the past many years, I’ve spent time supporting schools in implementing Response to Intervention (RtI). The focus of RtI should always be on establishing a solid Tier 1 environment. During RtI workshops, when I am asked for a clear definition of Tier 1, my best answer is good teaching and learning in the classroom for all students, including evidence-based assessment and instruction. Before we identify students needing additional support outside of the classroom, we need to ensure that classroom teaching methods and materials are evidence-based and enable students to learn what is being taught. In my book Teaching with Purpose, I’ve identified seven evidence-based practices essential for student success in the Tier 1 classroom. These practices are: 1) Conceptualizing the classroom as an ecosystem, 2) Establishing and communicating learning goals, 3) Incorporating strategic teaching and learning, 4) Improving classroom management, 5) Conducting regular formative assessment, 6) Employing differentiated instruction for all students, and 7) Developing grit and perseverance in yourself and your students (Gazith, 2021). With the implementation of these strategies, most students will thrive in the classroom and will not need additional support. The multi-tiered nature of this model is developed such that students who are not meeting grade-level expectations, can receive extra help.

However, over the years, I’ve noted some common misconceptions and specific challenges with the implementation of Response to Intervention that impairs the school’s ability to implement this model and negatively impacts students’ ability to reach grade-level expectations.

The first challenge I’ve noted is schools’ mistaken belief that RtI is a program, a time slot or an event during the week. This couldn’t be further from the actual conceptualization of RtI. RtI is not a program nor an event. Response to Intervention is a model for how schools should operate to ensure the success of all students. Schools that imbue the philosophy and practice of RtI understand that it impacts every decision made around educating students. In essence, it is a belief, first and foremost, that a safe and welcoming environment and evidence-based teaching practices and materials are of paramount importance. School leaders need to ensure that professional development supports teachers’ practices and it should involve knowledge transfer and mobilization around effective teaching practice. Essential for educators to understand is that their teaching practices, not the inherent challenges of individual students, are most important to student success. Effective teaching needs to be based on research applied within the classroom.

Another problematic area regarding the implementation of RtI is the bottleneck between Universal Screening data collection and classroom teachers’ access to and implementation of support strategies based on those data. Universal Screening is another essential component of RtI to identify if all students are meeting grade-level benchmarks. Students who show signs of struggle receive additional support within the classroom. If this additional in-class support is not serving to close the gap, additional support is provided initially in Tier 2 and, if needed, Tier 3. Progress monitoring is the assessment tool used to ascertain if students assessed as being at risk on Universal Screening are beginning to reach grade-level expectations. Finally, differentiation as a value that is operationalized with effective strategies is implemented. Universal Screening is beneficial only if used to address the needs of students assessed as being at-risk. It is always most effective when teachers conduct the Universal Screening to see firsthand which students are below grade level. However, if teachers cannot perform the Universal Screening, the data collected needs to be imported into a portal that teachers can easily access. Then comes the most challenging part: using the data to support students. Essential to the effective implementation of strategies to address the data collected are collaborative data meetings. Teachers need to meet regularly, examine the data and decide how to support their students.

A third and common challenge that teachers, especially at the upper elementary levels, middle school and high school, seem to struggle with is their need to ‘teach the curriculum,” which often interferes with the ability to address students’ learning gaps with targeted classroom instruction. This is a real and formidable challenge to overcome. Teachers are under pressure to cover the curriculum while also needing to close students’ learning gaps that have grown significantly larger over the past two years because of COVID 19. Teachers also need to address their students’ growing social and emotional challenges that have intensified because of the pandemic. My advice to teachers is to carve out at least a third of each day’s class time, especially in math and literacy classes and use the data to group students and provide them with in-class remediation. In a literacy class, students who continue to struggle with the essential elements of literacy, such as decoding, could receive support during this portion of class time. If possible, teacher assistants or resource teachers should work with these students. Students at level could be challenged with creative writing work during this time.

Additionally, students assessed as below grade level with reading fluency should work on their fluency skills. Those considered below level in comprehension should work on targeted comprehension strategies such as Reciprocal Teaching, PALS shrink the paragraph or Adler’s close reading approach. A similar model should be used for students at risk with their numeracy skills, whereby a certain amount of class time should be devoted to closing the gaps that have only grown larger over the past two years. Explicit teaching practices should be used to teach essential skills using a modelled teaching approach. Until students master these fundamental skills, they will not likely master grade-level competencies.

A fourth challenge with RtI that is also a misconception is that every student receiving any level of support must have an Individualized Learning Plan (IEP). This is incorrect and problematic because those tasked with supporting students, such as remedial teachers who work in the school’s resource department, don’t have time to do so because they spend a significant portion of their day writing IEPs. Furthermore, teachers often mistakenly believe that an IEP is synonymous with remediation. An IEP is a legal document, but only that, a document. It is what is written in the IEP and then followed that will serve to close students’ learning gaps. The parameters around who requires an IEP differ depending on the country and jurisdiction; however, regardless of where the child lives, they can receive support without it being documented in an IEP. There are certain conditions under which students must have the support they receive written in an IEP, such as high school students who receive exam accommodations or students who have a designated code and need to follow a modified program. Still, these cases do not make up the totality of students on an IEP. Schools and school districts must learn the rules for which students need the support documented in an IEP. For the other students, a document recording the help they receive that is updated regularly is sufficient.

A fifth challenge with the effective implementation of RtI is finding the time to address students who require tier 3 interventions. Despite evidence-based teaching, ongoing assessments, and in-class differentiation, students who continue to be significantly at risk need significant remedial support. Schools struggle to find time to provide this level of remediation during the school day. However, here priority decision-making is essential. Especially when it comes to students’ literacy and numeracy skills, time must be prioritized during the school day to provide remediation to these students who are significantly at risk. Students will most likely need to be exempt from one of their daily classes. Without this support, the gap will continue to grow and could seriously impact students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional well-being.