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date: 22 February 2017

Response to Intervention in Schools

Abstract and Keywords

This entry will focus on a model of intervention (the three-tier model often known as “Response to Intervention,” or RTI) that has become infused into school districts around the United States and is likely going to continue to impact the practice of school social workers and community-based social workers who provide services in schools. Since the 1990s, the literature around improving the academic achievement and behavioral functioning of school-age children has gradually focused more on RTI as a way to implement effective early intervention strategies for youth to prevent school failure. The principles of RTI have also come to be associated with a related but distinct model of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS, sometimes also called Positive Behavior Supports/PBIS or School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports/SWPBIS) and this approach has also been promoted as an effective framework to improve an entire student body’s academic and social, emotional, or behavioral functioning. This entry will discuss the history of RTI (and PBIS), the policy context for the approaches’ growing adoption in American K–12 schools, and the (still small but growing) evidence base for RTI and PBIS as approaches for schools to enhance student academic and behavioral outcomes. Additionally, the specific role of school social workers (and community-based social workers working in schools) will be highlighted, specifically how the growing influence of RTI and PBIS offers new opportunities for social workers to serve schools, students, and families.

Keywords: Response to Intervention, school, RTI, children, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, PBIS, students


This entry will describe what is known about Response to Intervention (RTI), how RTI has rapidly become a favored strategy to address student academic and behavioral challenges, and how RTI and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) are both intervention frameworks that are still developing the evidence base to demonstrate their effectiveness, particularly in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral student outcomes. The final section of this entry will discuss the impact of the RTI/PBIS framework on social-work practice in schools.

What Is RTI, and Why RTI Now?

In American K–12 schools, RTI is typically understood as a framework for early intervention to assist students who are having significant academic or behavioral difficulties (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006). First starting in the fields of reading intervention and math instruction, RTI has gradually expanded to also focus on helping students who are having significant behavioral problems in the classroom. Although RTI can mean different things in different schools, in general RTI focuses on providing intensive support for students, usually before a referral for special education evaluation is considered (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Kelly, 2008).

The RTI process involves intensive and early intervention and the provision of research-based strategies through a process of systematic data collection on the student’s performance, as well as close consultation with the student’s classroom teachers and parents (Brown-Chidsey & Steege, 2010). As RTI pioneers Fuchs and Fuchs (2006) described, American schools implementing RTI usually feature the following components, usually in this order:

  1. 1. Any student who is being considered for an RTI process is usually assessed first using the district’s local classroom and district assessments to get a baseline of where the student’s academic performance is relative to that of his or her age peers.

  2. 2. These baseline data (often referred to as a Tier 1 “universal screen”) are then brought to the school’s RTI team, where, in close consultation with that RTI team and the student’s family, a plan of how to intervene on the student’s specific reading or math challenges is developed. (It is common, although not required, for school social workers to be part of this RTI team meeting because many school social workers sit on various problem-solving and special education consultation teams in their schools.) The plan that is developed by the RTI team is usually given a set timeframe (usually in the 6- to 12-week range) and a plan is also made about how progress will be monitored and what other supports might be needed for the student to increase his or her academic performance. (This is regularly referred to as a Tier 2 intervention in the RTI literature and often involves having the student receive more intensive instruction in a small group, either in the classroom or in a pull-out situation with another specialist.)

  3. 3. The specific reading, math, or behavioral interventions provided are expected to be “research based.”

  4. 4. As the student progresses through the Tier 2 intervention, his or her progress is monitored continuously by the RTI team and this data-driven decision making informs any additional choices the team makes about any additional steps that must be taken to support the student (it is also possible that these data may show that the student is responding well and needs no further support).

  5. 5. Given the student progress being evaluated in Step 4, interventions for the student may be concluded, added, or modified, including the possibility of utilizing more intensive one-on-one instruction (this is usually characterized as a Tier 3 level intervention in an RTI framework). It is also possible if the Tier 3 level intervention is unsuccessful in addressing the student’s needs that a referral for a special education case study evaluation may be made. As with the previous four steps, the RTI team (with the parents as full partners) is involved in making that decision; social workers are often members of that RTI team, offering their expertise and support to the family and the process overall (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006).

As these key components indicate, RTI draws much of its impact and structure from its reliance on a three-tier model of intervention. This model, drawn from public-health frameworks, is essential in enabling RTI to address student needs in a way that is distinct (and some believe more logical in its approach) compared to that of special education evaluation and treatment (Gersten & Dimino, 2006). Critics of special education argue that RTI helps students earlier in their schooling and, because it is data driven and usually time limited, can reduce the overidentification of students for special education services (VanDerHeyden, Witt, & Gilbertson, 2007). This has arisen as a concern because numerous research reviews have shown that minority youth are disproportionately represented in special education (Harris-Murri, King, & Rostenberg, 2006) and that disproportionality, combined with concerns about the cost of special education services overall, has led policy makers to support increased funding for RTI.

How RTI and PBIS Have Become Part of the School Policy Framework

Federal legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 staked a strong federal position promoting the civil rights of all American students to be educated in their local public schools in the least restrictive environment (Turnbull, 2005; Yell, Rogers, & Rogers, 1998). The subsequent reauthorizations of both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and IDEA have only validated and increased American federal, state, and local commitments to providing special education and other services to students who are at risk of not receiving the “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) first outlined in IDEA. The most recent federal special education statistics reveal that as of 2009–2010, 13.1% of American K–12 students are receiving services under IDEA’s disability categories, a decrease from 13.8% in the 2004–2005 school year, but reflecting a consistent and relatively stable delivery of special education services to American students who would not have received FAPE before federal legislation began in the 1960s (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).

Despite the success of IDEA in providing FAPE to a large majority of American students, special education critics point out that some students have been poorly served by receiving special education services. They cite the “wait to fail” process, which often delays giving students the early intervention they might need, and they also question whether the discrepancy model is really a reliable indicator that students have a learning disability. Finally, they are concerned that without an early intervention process that allows for intensive and possibly even brief intervention to address student academic problems, students (specifically Black and Hispanic youth) will be referred to special education when an RTI process might have prevented that referral (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Hoover, 2010).

The reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 was the most direct reflection of the changing federal and state education policy landscape and RTI’s place in it. The 2004 IDEA reauthorization allowed states and, by extension, local districts, to target 15% of their federal special education dollars toward the development of RTI teams and district-and state-level procedures (Kelly, 2008). Ten years later, at least some RTI-based prereferral intervention programs have been implemented in every state in the country, although the depth and quality of RTI implementation vary considerably across and within states (Hoover, Baca, Wexler-Love, & Saenz, 2008).

Because RTI and the concept of the three-tier model of intervention for academically and behaviorally at-risk students has been part of federal policy for a decade, it has come in for some of its own criticism. Some critics acknowledge that RTI can be an effective way of intervening early for students who are having academic problems and may prove to be low academic achievers, but they also argue that often the RTI model simply delays the identification of students who have a specific learning disability (SLD) that will require more intensive special education support via an individualized education plan (IEP) (Lindstrom & Sayeski, 2013). Others argue that RTI’s emphasis on regular education teachers engaging in ongoing data collection creates a burden on regular education teachers to perform interventions that are more in special educators’ realm of expertise (Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009). To be sure, IDEA’s 2004 reauthorization has fostered a complicated relationship between the traditional special education/SLD identification process and the RTI prereferral process, to the point that the Learning Disabilities Association of America convened a panel of 58 experts to argue for a “third method” for identifying SLD, which emphasizes the evaluation of a student’s processing strengths and weaknesses as the best way to ultimately evaluate and treat SLD in school settings (Hale et al., 2010).

In addition to wanting to support students who are having specific math and reading learning problems, social workers are often involved with assisting students who have behavioral and emotional challenges (Kelly, 2008). RTI is being increasingly discussed as an intervention model to address these student concerns as well, although most proponents acknowledge that the literature for using RTI to treat behavioral or emotional issues is less well developed than the RTI–SLD literature (Gresham, 2005; Pearce, 2009). Although acknowledging the relative paucity of empirical evaluations of RTI as a behavioral intervention model for students compared to the traditional emotional disturbance/behavior disorder special education criteria, behavior-based RTI proponents are correct in that many of the interventions used across the three tiers to address behavioral problems in schools via an RTI model have strong empirical support from the behaviorist literature (Kelly, Berzin, et al., 2010).

Despite the aforementioned critiques and concerns noted by both educators and researchers, there is a clear interest in using RTI as an intervention framework in many American K–12 schools to address both academic and behavioral challenges. Although RTI is designed to be functional as an intervention framework across all K–12 grades, the bulk of implementation appears to be in elementary schools, with a particular focus on early elementary grades, as students first encounter math, reading, and behavioral changes (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006). As we will see in the next section, the core ideas of the three tiers and tiered service delivery have also informed the growing development of Positive Behavior Supports (PBIS) programs in K–12 schools, with the PBIS programs more directly targeting whole-school behavioral change as well as treating individual students who are showing the need for behavioral intervention (Sugai, 2008).

How PBIS Also Uses Core RTI Ideas

The RTI three-tier model discussed earlier is often viewed as synonymous or even interchangeable with PBIS by educators (and even school social workers). It is easy to see why: both approaches use the idea of prevention and tiered levels of support or intervention and focus first on using data to assess students at a universal level before proceeding to more intensive levels of intervention (Tiers 2 and 3) (Kelly, Raines, Stone, & Frey, 2010). Still, RTI is typically identified with using a three-tier approach to help a specific student, whereas PBIS starts with a larger student population (sometimes the whole school or a whole grade level) before moving to more specific groups of students in Tiers 2 and 3. Sugai and Horner (2008) identify three important RTI/PBIS similarities: (a) the conceptual framework of viewing student behavior or performance on a multitiered level, (b) the use of evidence-based practices at each tier to intervene with students, and (c) the consistent and regular evaluation of these interventions via systematic data collection to ensure that the interventions are working or whether a more intensive level of support is indicated for the student.

The Growing Evidence Base for RTI and PBIS

In a PBIS framework, the deployment of effective Tier 1 strategies is hypothesized to result in 80% of students showing the desired behavior (Tier 1 often involves the teaching of an easily understood behavioral framework, such as “at our school we are Respectful, Responsible, and Safe”). The theoretical framework behind the three tiers in PBIS hypothesizes that the remaining 20% of students will need greater levels of support to meet the specific behavioral expectations; typically 15% of students receive Tier 2 support and respond well, with the remaining 5% of students needing the most intensive supports in Tier 3. Although these 80–15–5 percentages first appeared in the literature as theory (Walker et al., 1996), they are starting to have some empirical support in school student samples (Horner et al., 2009; Horner, Sugai, Todd, & Lewis-Palmer, 2005).

But do PBIS and its sister approach, RTI, “work?” The evidence is growing but still far from definitive on whether PBIS or RTI is better than other approaches to treat student academic and behavior problems. For approaches that prize the use of evidence, both in collecting data on student performance and in evaluating the impact of evidence-based interventions across each of the three tiers, it is ironic that there remain many doubts in the literature about the strength of RTI’s research base (Hale et al., 2010; Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009) and about how adaptable PBIS is to all K–12 contexts, specifically in the upper grades (Flannery, Sugai, and Anderson, 2009). As mentioned earlier, although the support in the empirical literature for a three-tier model of behavior-based RTI is only emerging, key components of behavior-based RTI, such as behavior intervention plans, have significant and sizeable literature supporting their effectiveness for students who may be needing a Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention (Kelly, Frey, et al., 2010). Additionally, recent literature has emerged supporting the use of PBIS as a three-tier model to positively impact student behavior and academic achievement (Horner et al., 2009; Towvim, Anderson, Thomas, & Blaisdell, 2012). Still, RTI and PBIS proponents acknowledge the need for further study, as well as more clarity about what a standard RTI protocol should look like and even what the “R” (response) is in RTI and what that response indicates about a student’s academic ability and current educational strengths and weaknesses (Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009).

RTI in Action: Social Workers Using Evidence-Informed Practice to Effectively Operate at All Three Tiers

School social workers can bring their skills to a variety of components of the RTI framework and can increasingly find evidence-informed interventions at each tier to use in assisting students. What follows are, first, examples of how schools are active at each titer and then how school social workers can be involved in both teams at each tier and also in designing and delivering interventions across all three tiers using data and evidence-based practices.

Tier One

Schools that effectively implement Tier One supports first start with an emphasis on the universal components of academic and behavioral expectations. For example, a school with a strong Tier One level will teach all students the behavioral expectations (how to line up, what is expected behavior in the hallway, etc.) and may also have students practice the specific behaviors early in the school year. Academically, the core curriculum of the school forms the basis for the universal level of instruction each student receives at the school, with local assessment tests giving teachers and Tier One team members a clear picture of students who are performing below the school and state standards in specific domains. Additionally, schools can elect to provide specific evidence-based social or emotional programs at the Tier One level, such as Second Step or the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, that are designed to address student behavioral issues, or to institute a “Gotcha” program, where teachers and school staff “catch” students following the behavioral expectations they learned at the start of the school year.

In some ways, school social workers are likely to be paradoxically the least involved at this tier, unless they assume leadership on the Tier One team. That is because much of the instruction and program implementation at this level is carried out by administrators via school assemblies and by teachers in their classrooms and in other places where the behavioral expectations are rehearsed (this is even more true when RTI ideas are being implemented for purely academic Tier One interventions such as reading and math instruction). Still, school social workers should be keen to support these efforts in their school because the degree to which Tier One supports and expectations are in place is an important indicator of the ability for all three tiers to operate effectively (Bradshaw, Koth, Thornton, & Leaf, 2009).

Tier Two

A school with a strong Tier Two has some assessment tools in place in Tier One (often called universal screeners as well as office discipline referrals) and is ready to offer more intensive support to students who are not having their academic or behavioral needs met through Tier One. For a student with academic and behavioral problems, this could take the form of small-group reading instruction as well as a social academic instructional group, possibly led by the school social worker in his or her office. The social academic instructional group curriculum is structured around a specific evidence-based curriculum (for example, Skillstreaming for Youth and Skillstreaming for Adolescents) that often uses a mixture of short handouts, discussions, and role plays to help students with their social or emotional learning goals. In addition, some schools elect to implement structured daily progress monitoring tools with students, such as the Daily Report Card or Check In/Check Out, and school social workers are often involved in the daily progress monitoring, particularly for students who also may have special education IEPs.

Tier Three

Schools that have both Tier One and Tier Two supports in place are well positioned to offer the most intensive supports in Tier Three. These supports at this point usually focus on one specific student and his or her academic or behavioral needs. School social workers collaborate with a Tier Three team to coordinate intensive services for the student. Most often, this intervention is at least in part focused on a student’s in-school behavior and often involves the completion of a functional behavioral analysis and a behavior intervention plan to improve the student’s day-to-day functioning at school. This process has solid empirical support when implemented with fidelity (Kelly, Frey, et al., 2010). Additionally, school social workers can work with a Tier Three team to consider whether a student may benefit from having a formal case study evaluation to determine eligibility for a special education IEP. Finally, in the case of highly complex student cases, a school social worker can convene a team of school and community-based professionals to do a Wraparound intervention to provide additional learning and behavioral supports to the student (http://www.pbisillinois.org).

School Social Workers and RTI/PBIS Roles: Rich Opportunities to Engage, but Strong Barriers to Implementation in Actual Practice

Given the emphasis in both RTI and PBIS on the prevention of student academic or behavioral problems, it is understandable to expect that school social workers would naturally gravitate to promoting RTI and PBIS in their schools (Kelly, 2008; Sabatino, 2009). In many ways, the core ideas of early intervention, parental involvement, teacher consultation, and whole-school interventions evoke memories of school social work’s early years in the twentieth century and may in some ways enable school social workers to return to their core mission of linking schools and families in a common purpose of improving student school performance (Kelly, 2008; Massat et al., 2008). However, recent survey data indicate that although many school social workers say they would like to be involved in RTI- and PBIS-style prevention work in their schools, they often experience overwhelming caseloads, day-to-day school crises, and crushing paperwork demands that limit their ability to be involved in Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels with students (Kelly, Berzin, et al., 2010; Kelly, Frey, et al., 2010). Additionally, although they might seem well suited to assume leadership roles as RTI and PBIS team facilitators, recent survey data indicate that many are not becoming RTI or PBIS leaders and some are not even fully included in their school’s prevention work because these roles are being assumed by other school mental-health practitioners (for example, school psychologists, school counselors, and school nurses) (Kelly, 2008; Kelly & Lueck, 2010). Addressing barriers that school social workers face in becoming more involved with RTI and PBIS in their schools is a policy and practice focus at state and national school social-work organization levels (including the National Association of Social Work’s School Social Work Section), and the challenge of how to involve school social workers more fully in RTI and PBIS work going forward will be one of the major challenges of the this decade (Frey et al., 2012; Kelly, Frey, & Anderson-Butcher, 2011).


As described in this entry, RTI and PBIS are frameworks for intervention, not specific interventions in and of themselves. They are rooted in public-health ideas of primary prevention and they have been shown in some research literature to improve student academic performance and reduce behavior problems in schools. RTI has become embedded in federal and state educational policy as a prereferral framework for schools to consider when looking at students who are struggling academically, and it is likely that RTI and PBIS will continue to be used by many school districts eager to find alternatives to traditional special education and discipline procedures as means to help students with academic and behavioral challenges. School social workers have historically operated with a practice philosophy that is highly compatible with RTI and PBIS concepts, but high caseloads, role definition, and other barriers continue to impede some school social workers from adding RTI and PBIS work fully to their twenty-first-century practice repertoire.


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Further Reading

Association for Positive Behavior Support: http://www.abps.org/

Daily Report Card Example: http://ccf.buffalo.edu/pdf/school_daily_report_card.pdf

Intervention Central: http://www.interventioncentral.org/home

The Office of Special Education Programs: http://www.pbis.org/

RTI Action Network: http://www.rtinetwork.org/

Wraparound Tier 3 Tools: http://www.pbisillinois.org/evaluation/simeo-ii-tools