Q: Our second-grade son's teacher sent home a note saying he was receiving "Response to Intervention" support for math. She asked for a meeting to discuss it. I've looked it up but am still confused about it. Does it mean he needs special education?
A: Not at all. Response to Intervention (RTI) is a process intended to help a child catch up in a skill area before he could end up in special education. RTI has been used in reading for more than a decade. While used less frequently in math, the fact that your son's school employs it is a good sign.
"We know a lot more today about tackling early reading and math struggles than we did 30 years ago, and many classroom teachers have the tools to help kids. The whole point of RTI is to identify and remedy problems in early elementary school, when they are easiest to correct," says Dr. Michael Milone, a New Mexico-based educator and researcher who consults with school districts. "RTI is a comprehensive, multi-step assessment process intended to help children before they might be placed in a formal special education program."
RTI emerged from well-intentioned policies that, over the years, have frustrated many parents and educators and left many children without services when they needed them most. "A diagnosis that would qualify a child for special education could take years, allowing that student to fail while awaiting a change in instruction. Or worse, students might 'fail enough' to get into special education, but not get the appropriate instructional interventions that could help them move forward," says Milone.
Federal legislation passed in 2004 to align IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) with No Child Left Behind allows for intervention immediately after a disability or skill weakness is suspected.
There are reasons a second-grader might struggle with math that have nothing to do with a learning disability. "Math learning builds. You have to nail one concept before moving on to another," says Milone. "If a child lacks key mathematical and numeracy concepts early on, it can adversely impact later learning."
Here's how RTI can help your son catch up, says Milone: "The RTI process identifies at-risk students using a range of screening assessments and provides their classroom teachers with plans for intense instruction and ways to monitor progress. If the students respond to the intervention, they are returned to regular instruction. If they don't, they get additional, more intense instruction. If they still don't respond favorably, they are referred for formal special education assessment. We hope that RTI will reduce the number of kids going into special ed as the result of inappropriate instruction."
Milone suggests asking these questions at your meeting: What screening procedures, interventions and instructional programs will be used? How long does an intervention continue before determining whether he is making progress? How will his progress be monitored and communicated to us? How can we help at home? Will you put his intervention plan in writing? At what point are students who are suspected of having a learning disability referred for formal evaluation?
For more information, see "Questions to Ask Your School about RTI" at understood.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)