Baruch walked into my office with his head down and his yarmulka dangling off the side of his head. His mother insisted, “Say hello to Mrs. Schonfeld, Baruch,” to which he responded by nodding shyly in my direction. “So, Mrs. Cohen, we spoke on the phone about why Baruch is coming in today, but Baruch, why don’t you tell me why you think you are here?” “I’m bad at school,” Baruch said, barely glancing in my direction.“ Do you mean that you don’t get the grades you would like?” “No, I’m just not good at school. My teachers don’t like me, my tests are horrible, and my friends think I’m dumb.” Baruch’s frustration was palpable. He had clearly given up and refused to believe there was a possibility that he could like, let alone succeed in, school. His frustration saddened me, especially when I thought about Response to Intervention (RTI), a new program being implemented in schools today.
The “What” of RTI
The National Center for Response to Intervention explains that RTI is a framework for providing comprehensive support to students and is not an instructional practice. “RTI is a prevention oriented approach to linking assessment and instruction that can inform educators’ decisions about how best to teach their students. A goal of RTI is to minimize the risk for long-term negative learning outcomes by responding quickly and efficiently to documented learning or behavioral problems and ensuring appropriate identification of students with disabilities.
In other words, the goal of RTI is to enable educators to assess children who are at risk for learning disabilities before they experience failure in school. After all, research shows that children with undiagnosed learning disabilities often experience depression and anxiety. They become so used to failure that they expect to encounter it both academically and socially. This leads to a vicious cycle of failure, as the child chooses not to try because he only expects failure.
This is exactly what I saw with Baruch. He did not believe that he could succeed in school. After all, he did not say, “I do poorly in school.” Rather, he said, “I am bad at school.” He was labeling himself as “bad at school,” leaving no room for change or improvement.
The “How” of RTI
How does RTI work? The International Dyslexia Association breaks RTI down into six essential steps:
- Screen: The first step in RTI is the screening process. A series of short, comprehensive tests that have no bearing on the standard curriculum are administered. These tests are used to determine whether a child might have difficulty responding to the core curriculum as traditionally delivered in a regular classroom. They establish which children are academically “at risk” and might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Perhaps the most important element of RTI is universal screening, which means every child gets tested regardless of his or her scores or perceived aptitude. This allows educators to catch potential struggles without forcing the child to fail first. The one downside to these tests is that they may produce many false positives for “at risk” children.
- Teach. The next step is to ensure that the regular classroom teaching is research-based and field-tested. Trained and qualified teachers should administer this curriculum.
- Intervene. Children who are determined to be “at risk” during the screening process are provided with enhanced opportunities to learn, such as being given additional time with the core curriculum, small group lessons, and other supplementary instruction.
- Probe. Given that children identified as “at-risk” are provided with extra instruction, their progress in essential skills must be monitored to ensure that this instruction is sufficient and effective. Short, frequent assessments that test specific skills help teachers understand the usefulness (or lack thereof) of the instruction provided.
- Chart. Based on the probes above, a specialist should create a chart that provides a visual record of the rate of gain in specific skill areas that lead to a specified goal. Because the goal of intervention is to help the child improve his skills, this chart helps indicate whether the intervention is working.
- Adjust. After several sessions and charts, the educator should evaluate in what ways the intervention is successful and in what ways the intervention is failing. Adjustments should be made in both directions, pumping up the successful methods and skills and reworking the unsuccessful ones.