By Barbara J. Ehren, EdD, CCC-SLP, Judy Montgomery, PhD, CCC-SLP, Judy Rudebusch, EdD, CCC-SLP, and Kathleen Whitmire, PhD, CCC-SLP
The responsiveness to intervention (RTI) process is a multitiered approach to providing services and interventions to struggling learners at increasing levels of intensity. It involves universal screening, high-quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, frequent progress monitoring, and the use of child response data to make educational decisions. RTI should be used for making decisions about general, compensatory, and special education, creating a well-integrated and seamless system of instruction and intervention guided by child outcome data.
As a schoolwide prevention approach, RTI includes changing instruction for struggling students to help them improve performance and achieve academic progress. To meet the needs of all students, the educational system must use its collective resources to intervene early and provide appropriate interventions and supports to prevent learning and behavioral problems from becoming larger issues. To support these efforts, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA '04) allows up to 15% of special education funds to be used to provide early intervening services for students who are having academic or behavioral difficulties but who are not identified as having a disability.
RTI also provides an alternative to the use of a discrepancy model to assess underachievement. Students who are not achieving when given high-quality instruction may have a disability. This approach was authorized in IDEA '04 through the following provisions: (a) local education agencies (LEAs) may use a student's response to scientifically based instruction as part of the evaluation process, and (b) when identifying a disability, LEAs shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can play a number of important roles in using RTI to identify children with disabilities and provide needed instruction to struggling students in both general education and special education settings. But these roles will require some fundamental changes in the way SLPs engage in assessment and intervention activities.
RTI requires changes in terms of assessment approaches as well as models of intervention and instructional support. Regarding assessment, there are challenges to SLPs working in districts that undertake the shift from traditional standardized approaches to a more pragmatic, educationally relevant model focused on measuring changes in individual performance over time. Such challenges include the shift from a "within child" deficit paradigm to a contextual perspective; a greater emphasis on instructional intervention and progress monitoring prior to special education referral; an expansion of the SLP's assessment "tool kit" to include more instructionally relevant, contextually based procedures; and most likely the need for additional professional development in all of the above. In addition, the use of formal evaluation procedures may still be an important component of RTI in many districts. Teams must still conduct relevant, comprehensive evaluations using qualified personnel. SLPs' expertise in language may be called upon to round out comprehensive profiles of students having academic or behavioral difficulties.
Regarding intervention and instructional support, SLPs must engage in new and expanded roles that incorporate prevention and identification of at-risk students as well as more traditional roles of intervention. Their contribution to the school community can be viewed as expertise that is used through both direct and indirect services to support struggling students, children with disabilities, the teachers and other educators who work with them, and their families. This involves a decrease in time spent on traditional models of intervention (e.g., pull-out therapy) and more time on consultation and classroom-based intervention. It also means allocation and assignment of staff based on time needed for indirect services and support activities, and not based solely on direct services to children with disabilities.
SLPs working in districts that choose to implement RTI procedures are uniquely qualified to contribute in a variety of ways to assessment and intervention at many levels, from systemwide program design and collaboration to work with individual students . SLPs offer expertise in the language basis of literacy and learning, experience with collaborative approaches to instruction/intervention, and an understanding of the use of student outcomes data when making instructional decisions.
SLPs can be a valuable resource as schools design and implement a variety of RTI models. The following functions are some of the ways in which SLPs can make unique contributions:
SLPs have a long history of working collaboratively with families, teachers, administrators, and other special service providers. SLPs play critical roles in collaboration around RTI efforts, including the following:
SLPs continue to work with individual students, in addition to providing support through RTI activities. These roles and responsibilities include the following:
The foundation for SLPs' involvement in RTI has been established through the profession's policies on literacy, workload, and expanded roles and responsibilities. The opportunities for SLPs working within an RTI framework are extensive. To some, these opportunities may seem overwhelming-where in the workday would there be time to add all of these activities to our current responsibilities? Certainly if the traditional roles continue, it would be difficult to expand into these new roles. The point of RTI, however, is not to add more tasks but to reallocate time to better address prevention and early intervention, and in the long run serve more students up front rather than at the point of special education evaluation and service. Where RTI has been faithfully implemented, this seems to be the outcome. Some districts report reductions in special education referral and placement; even where placement rates have remained stable, staff nevertheless report a change in the way they spend their time. The reallocation of effort will hopefully lead to more effective interventions, both for students who remain in general education and those who ultimately qualify for more intensive services.
Successful RTI programs rely on the leadership of a strong principal or designated leader who has budgetary power and the ability to bring all educators to the same table to share professional development, children, time, space, money, and curriculum resources. The sharing of resources is sometimes a stumbling block, yet strong leaders can overcome these barriers by keeping the focus on the children being helped. SLPs can begin the RTI process by sharing with principals the benefits of an RTI approach and the support offered through IDEA, including the incentive that 15% of a school's special education funds can be used to launch the RTI process.
To meet this challenge, SLPs will need to be:
IDEA '04 does not mandate significant change or prohibit traditional practices. Rather, it encourages the adoption of new approaches that promise better student outcomes. Such innovations in education offer numerous opportunities to enhance speech-language services to the benefit of all students.
Butler K., & Nelson, N. (Eds.). (2005). Responsiveness to intervention and the speech-language pathologist [Special issue]. Topics in Language Disorders, 25 (2). (See six articles on RTI and SLPs.)
Mellard, D. (2004). Understanding responsiveness to intervention in learning disabilities determination .
National Association of State Directors of Special Education. (2005). Response to intervention: Policy considerations and implementation.
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (2005). Responsiveness to intervention and learning disabilities . Available from LD Online.
Strangman, N., Hitchcock, C., Hall, T., Meo, G., & Coyne, P. (2006). Response-to-instruction and universal design for learning: How might they intersect in the general education classroom? [PDF]
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (2006). Responsiveness-to-intervention online professional consultation packet.
Adapted with permission from "Problem Solving and RTI: New Roles for School Psychologists" by Andrea Canter, 2006, February, Communique, 34 (5). Available from National Association of School Psychologists.