Getting Clear on Response to Intervention (RTI)

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By Kori Hamilton and Elaine Mulligan
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)

There seems to be some confusion as to what Response to Intervention is and how teachers and schools can use this approach to help children. So, let’s start with some basics: RTI is not an action verb. You cannot RTI a student to support his or her learning and behavioral needs. RTI is not a place or a room in your school; you cannot send a student to the RTI room. So what exactly is RTI, then?

RTI was added to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004 and became part of the nation’s approach to identifying and helping students who are struggling academically or behaviorally in school. It is a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs. Struggling learners are provided with interventions at increasing levels of intensity to accelerate their rate of learning, and you, general education teachers, special educators, and specialists, provide those services.

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Key elements of RTI

Although there is no specific definition of RTI, essential elements can be found when we take a look at how states, schools, and districts fit RTI into their work. In general, RTI includes:

Universal screening. This means all students are involved in an initial assessment of knowledge and skills. From this universal screening, it’s possible to identify which students appear to be struggling or lacking specific knowledge or skills in a given area.

Tiered instruction. Students identified through the universal screening as “at risk” or “struggling” then move through the general education curriculum with adapted and individualized interventions that increase in intensity.

Evidenced-based interventions. Instruction within an RTI process is based on what research has shown to be effective with students. Using evidence-based practices ensures better results for students.

Progress monitoring. Student progress is constantly checked, which indicates whether the evidence-based instruction is working or if the student is still having difficulties in general or in specific areas.

Informed decision making. Progress monitoring can provide the information by which informed judgments can be made about the learning of an individual student. This includes deciding whether or not a student needs to move to the next tier of instructional intensity, or perhaps be referred for a comprehensive and individualized evaluation under IDEA.

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Where’s the parent in all this?

RTI is typically used before a child is evaluated under IDEA, before the public agency is even proposing to evaluate the child, so many of IDEA’s provisions for parent notification have not yet come into play.

Engaging parents along the way is important, valuable, and good policy. Parents are usually informed when the child is unsuccessful in Tier 1 and moves on to Tier 2 of the intervention model. Tier 2 interventions tend to be more intensive and targeted, with the instructional intervention delivered to small groups of students, rather than the entire class. This is a great time for parents to meet with school staff to discuss strategies to address the student’s lack of progress. This would include discussing:

  • What type of performance data will be collected, and how much;
  • What general education services are planned;
  • What strategies the school will use to increase the child’s rate of learning; and
  • What role the parents can play in providing support at home.

Teachers, this is a good opportunity for you to inform parents about other choices they might have. Let them know that they have the right to request that their child be evaluated under IDEA—a full and individual evaluation—to see if a disability is causing the child’s learning difficulties. If parents do request such an evaluation, the school must promptly give the parents prior written notice, ask for parents’ written consent, and conduct the evaluation in keeping with IDEA’s time frame requirements (60 days from receiving parental permission, or within the time frame designated by the state).

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Resources you can trust

There’s a lot of information about RTI out there – who can you trust? We like to stick with non-profit resources, as they’re usually reviewed for quality and free! Here are some good places to start:

  • Building the Legacy / Construyendo el Legado training curriculum was produced by NICHCY at the request of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education.  Module 6 (available in English and Spanish) covers Early Intervening Services and Response to Intervention.
  • IRIS Center offers seven online professional learning modules for educators on RTI: Overview (in English and Spanish), Assessment (in English and Spanish),  Reading Instruction (in English and Spanish), Putting it All Together, A Closer Look at Tier 3, RTI Considerations for School Leaders, and Mathematics.
  • IDEA Partnership’s RTI Collection includes videos, Powerpoint presentations, dialogue guides, and glossaries to help support effective implementation.
  • The National Center on Response to Intervention, whose mission is to provide technical assistance to states and districts and to build the capacity of states to assist districts in implementing proven models for RTI. 
  • National Center on Intensive Intervention builds state and district capacity to support educators in using data-based individualization to effectively implement intensive interventions in reading, mathematics, and behavior in Grades K–12.
  • RTI Action Network, a program of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, offers resources to support RTI implementation at the pre-K, K-5, middle school, and high school levels, including helpful checklists and an informative blog.

So what do you really need to know about RTI? Bottom line is that Response to Intervention is not a program. RTI is an approach to sorting out whether a struggling child really is a “child with a disability” as defined by IDEA or just needs more intensive regular education strategies to succeed in school. All procedures, guidelines, resources, and discussion around RTI should be grounded in that purpose.
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