By Julie Wright and Mark Bazata
When the Individuals with Disabilities Act was reauthorized in 2004, Response to Intervention (RtI) hit the educational landscape like an avalanche. The goal was to move away from a discrepancy model for identifying students and to provide support for students who needed different options to meet their learning needs. Then, in 2015 the Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA), signed into law in December 2015, called for a “for a multi-tier system of supports for literacy services”, aka MTSS. While well-intentioned at the onset, but, unfortunately, have created a rigid system of canned programs and the potential for creating more policies and procedures by depersonalizing support, over-scaffolding, and placing students in a box by using labels that hurt more than they helped. In the process, it also robbed many teachers of the autonomy and agency they once had to differentiate and meet students’ needs. Many years have passed and the problems of practice continue to increase. So what do we do now?
RtI / MTSS 2.0
The good news is that we can harness many of the positive aspects of RtI / MTSS while still allowing teachers the ability to utilize their immense knowledge of their students in a positive, asset-based approach to responding to students’ educational needs. We’ve listed three strategies that we’ve used to address some of the challenges teachers and administrators face when working within an RtI / MTSS system. These new ways of thinking and operationalizing support empower teachers and create opportunities for students to reach their full potential.
Strategy 1 – Menu of Supports
Let’s face it. Whether we are advocates for pre-packed or boxed curricula and resources or not, we know that there isn’t one program or instructional material that meets all students’ needs. Schools and districts are smart. We know that there’s no one-stop solution and that the important work is in creating the match — matching what students know, understand, can do and need with the just-in-time support to nudge them forward. If we aren’t careful, we end up with more login usernames, passwords, teacher manuals, student journals and at-home extra practice booklets than we know what to do with. On the surface, this will look like we are resource rich, when actually we will be responsive-to-all-students’-unique-needs poor. This is because many of these resources are focused more on skills and less on students’ individual needs and wants. Creating a Menu of Supports, with carefully crafted instructional designs and thoughtfully curated materials that are culturally responsive to meet students’ individual and collective needs is a strategy that goes the long distance.
Creating a Menu of Support that teachers will feel comfortable with and empowered to use isn’t as easy as putting together a list of interventions. First, teachers need to understand the vision for how the supports fit into their daily routines. Some teachers may be able to already see it because they use intervention in their classes already. Others may need to see an example schedule or even a video of how it would look in their routine. Next, they need to participate in professional dialogue around ways to get to know students and use that intel into the supports they create. This requires teachers to be able to envision different ways to provide student support, have access to easy-to-use resources, and time for low-risk practice in using them. Finally, there needs to be a follow-up plan. This could include offering scaffolded support in the classroom from a coach or feedback from a principal during the school day.
We were able to roll out a Menu of Support effectively in one building by taking a faculty meeting and turning it into a “mini conference” around reading supports. We set up three classrooms that teachers could visit. We had three 20-minute sessions where teachers and reading specialists modeled a reading support, explained how teachers could use them, and then gave them time to practice the support with a colleague. Teachers were able to select three supports that they felt would be the most beneficial to them that year, and by the end of the one hour, each teacher had three new reading supports that they felt comfortable trying in their classroom. Through the next four weeks, the principal asked the teachers to try each of the three out with a student or small group during their literacy workshop time, and at their next faculty meeting, the teachers shared how the support worked in their classrooms.
Strategy 2 – Asset-based Child Study Teams
When we focus on assets — building upon human, social, and cultural capital — we can identify and utilize individual and collective strengths, rather than focusing on deficits, or weaknesses. Some may argue that if we name what is not working, we (teachers) can use a fix it approach to making things better. One way we can shift into an asset-based stance is shining a light on what students can do versus focusing on what they cannot do. An asset-based response to instruction begins by knowing kids beyond the numbers. Dr. Towanda Harris (2019) reminds us that, “Knowing our students helps us to choose the most powerful resources for them and to make every moment in our precious instructional time count.” When we go on a data dig to find out about students’ whole selves — inside and outside of school hours, we disrupt current practices and position ourselves for finding the good in what kids’ know, understand and can do and design learning opportunities that meet students’ collective and individual needs. Some questions to ask include:
- What language(s) does the student speak? Read? Write?
- Who are the student’s best buds? What do they like to do together?
- Is the student left or right-handed? Wear glasses?
- What’s in the “next up to read” book stack for this student?
- Is this student an only child? Oldest? Youngest?
- How would you describe this student from a whole-child perspective? How would this student describe him/herself?
- What do we need to figure out about students’ strengths and areas needing a lift that will help us better serve their individual needs and wants?
- How will our instruction help students learn more about themselves and others?
- How will we ensure that our instructional practices include criticality, or critical consciousness?
Creating meeting structures that use asset-based language is one way to keep team members accountable to positive responses. Look at the form or documents you use for your student study teams. What are the first things you look at and discuss? Too often we don’t address the strengths of students, and the few times that we do, we give them lip service and don’t actually think about using their strengths in meaningful ways. We skip over that and move to the data (that is mostly measuring their deficiencies) and spend our time talking about what the student CAN’T do.
What would happen if we swapped our structure around? Yes, we know we want to help students with an academic or behavioral skill or goal. We wouldn’t be having a study team if that wasn’t the case, but what if we framed the structure of the meeting to ask, “How can we harness the student’s interest, strengths, and dreams to help them improve …?” Let’s take for example a student who was struggling to focus in the beginning of the class period. Then, we held our student study team to brainstorm ways we might provide support, and in a conversation with his mom, we found out that every day after school, he would go over to a neighbor’s house to help them with their pets. He was very focused during that time, and it was something he really enjoyed doing. When asked why he liked that work, he said, “Because I had a job to do, and I felt like I was helping them.” We harnessed his desire for purpose and belonging by giving him a job to do when he first came into the class – making sure everyone had the materials they needed. Once he did his job, he was able to focus on his classwork more effectively.
Strategy 3 – Broaden Who and Where
The least restrictive environment for students is most often right in their classroom, working, and learning right next to their teachers and peers. When instructional designs and plans are created to meet all students’ wants and needs in Tier 1, natural interventions are intentionally built in. Good instruction often results in some of the best interventions. When support is provided in Tier 1, such as specialists pushing into the classroom, it opens up opportunities for adults to work together to provide on-the-spot instruction that also serves as interventions. In addition, when teachers work together it can be empowering as they can lift each other up and learn from one another.
One surefire way to create natural interventions is to get students involved. When we make decisions with and for students, we open up opportunities for creative and collaborative problem solving. When asked, “What’s your role?” during a data team meeting or a 1:1 conference, students might respond by telling us what they need and want that will help them succeed. For example, a student might explain that they need support in creating a book stack reflecting up next to read books or that they want to work in a small, flexible group with peers. In addition, students might self-identify they need a seat change, an extension for an upcoming due date, or an independent study project to take the learning in a new or different direction. There’s no doubt that optimizing the Tier 1 classroom through a push-in model and getting students involved to personalize instructional designs yields greater success. If you are interested in broadening the who and where of instructional designs and plans, consider using the Least Restrictive Environment Protocol.
To try the Least Restrictive Environment Protocol, create a four column chart with the following headings:
- Supports (Who can support the student?)
- Inputs (What type of support can be provided?)
- Student (What is the student’s role?)
- Output (What are the intended consequences with and for the student?)
With a team of stakeholders who know or support the student, brainstorm ideas for each column. After the brainstorm, highlight what the team sees as the highest leverage supports, share those supports with anyone who works with the student, and set a time to come back and revisit how the supports are working.
Book stacks are a high-leverage practice to support students in the classroom that can be done by anyone working with that student. We typically think of book stacks for younger students, where they have a bin of high-interest books at various levels that students can choose from and read, but this concept can be used at older grades as well. For example, in eighth grade social studies class, students were asked to present on a figure who contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On one of the research days, the Library Media Specialist came to work with one of the groups with some sample articles, videos, and infographics that addressed each of the people students could pick from. The group looked at the texts, and they each picked one the read that matched what they were most interested in. After reading, they shared a summary of the text and what they learned from it. Not only did this give students some autonomy of what they picked to read, they had access to different types of texts, and they were all able to learn the key information they needed to create a successful product and sales pitch.
The time is now. It’s a perfect time to reset and think forward. Let’s reimagine the instructional designs and supports that will be put into place to meet students’ individual and collective needs. This is a double win, creating opportunities to increase teacher autonomy and agency while also putting students at the center of our decision-making. So, let’s do it. Let’s reimagine RtI / MTSS. The time really is now!
Harris, Towanda. The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Heinemann, 2019.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. § 6319 (2008).
Wright, Julie. What’s Our Response? Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners. FIRST Educational Resources, 2021.
Julie Wright is a traveling teacher, instructional coach, educational consultant, author, and a short texts-of-all-types enthusiast. Whether working alongside students, teachers, or administrators, Julie believes in bringing out the best in the work by using asset-based approaches. As an educator for over 25 years, Julie has worked in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Julie is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For?, Grades 3-8: How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers — Not the Book and author of What’s Our Response? Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners and Side-by-Side Instructional Coaching: 10 Asset-Based Habits that Spark Collaboration, Risk-Taking, and Growth. To learn more visit Julie’s website www.juliewrightconsulting.com or connect with her on Twitter @juliewright4444.
Mark Bazata, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Superintendent for the Kewaskum School District with over 20 years of professional experience in both the US and England. After teaching high school and middle school English for 14 years, he served as an instructional coach, infusing authentic disciplinary literacy practices in science and career classrooms. He also served as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for seven years before moving into the Superintendent role. He is passionate about building the leadership capacity of educators, developing effective professional learning communities, and improving literacy across all grade levels and content areas.