Teaching Children with Special Needs: Another Look at RTI, Can It Prevent SPED Referrals?

It seems like there's always a new approach to teaching children with disabilities. One of the more recent efforts has looked at the regular classroom, wondering if there's a way to solve an emerging learning problem before the student is marched off for a SPED evaluation. RTI (Response to Intervention) has emerged as a viable program for preventing referrals. 

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tier approach to the early identification of students with learning and behavioral needs. It moves past identification to providing tools for their support in the regular classroom. The RTI process begins with high-quality instruction and universal screening of all children in the general education classroom. Struggling learners are provided with interventions at increasing levels to assist with their learning.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has described the RTI goal as: 

"The goal of RTI is to ensure that all children have access to high-quality instruction and learning opportunities and that struggling learners are identified, supported, and served early and effectively. RTI can be used for making decisions about general, compensatory, and special education, resulting in a well-integrated and seamless system of instruction and intervention directed by student outcome data and matched to student needs." 

RTI is a welcome departure from the "separate but equal" philosophies of past years. When I started out, I often felt like I was on an island in the school building. My Special Education classroom was off in a closet (converted supply room), and people were perfectly happy to leave me alone to work with "those kids." When a student was transferred from a regular classroom to my room, there was a tangible look of relief on the classroom teacher's face. 

Now, the word "team" really means something. The SPED teacher is welcomed into the fold of planning for referral, testing and strategy building for finding the best way to support the child in the regular classroom. A referral did not automatically mean the student would be plucked out of the class, tested and then sent off to another room.  

Best of all, specific strategies are used in an organized way to provide the support. In Tier 1, teachers are trained to:

  • State the objective
  • Give direct instruction
  • Use hands-on, non-linguistic representations
  • Use grouping (as a math example)
  • Use feedback, reinforcement and recognition

There is a step-by-step protocol for intervening in a student's path to misbehavior or maladaptation to a lesson or learning a skill.

The RTI network provides thorough instructions and support on its website to give teachers additional support. Tier II involves more intentional teaching strategies to pinpoint exactly what students need to learn and to provide specific instruction.


Tier III acknowledges that earlier efforts may not have corrected the problems. Additional supports are assigned, and it is at this stage that students may experience a pull-out model. Your student may go to a reading specialist or another special education professional for help. However, it ensures that many strategies and tactics have been used first, to prevent a full-blown referral process.

 At all levels of intervention, the team convenes to review progress and new developments. Each student is seen as part of the larger school community and supports are developed accordingly. Some RTI Supports:

When implemented properly, RTI saves students from being discarded and forgotten in special education classrooms that may not be appropriate. They may not need a separate program, just special support in their homeroom.

RTI Network, A Program of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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