GuidesWebinarsCase studiesWhite PapersBlogOther Resources

What is Response to Intervention (RTI)?

Classcraft TeamSeptember 19, 2022

What is Response to Intervention (RTI)?

Your toolkit for a successful year

FREE PBIS TEMPLATES to lighten your workload and effectively manage your classroom

Download now

From a traditional education perspective, getting students to improve and succeed in school is often a matter of pressure and consequences. Failure to learn effectively means failure to perform well, which leads to poor grades and, ultimately, criticism and punishment from authority figures. Unfortunately, this model is both too common and frequently harmful.

The good news is that there are better, research-backed approaches for achieving successful student outcomes, and many of them are built around two very powerful things — data and support. Providing support that is based on student needs — and optimizing that support with data — has been shown time and time again to make a positive impact. PBIS is one of the most well-known examples, but another important framework is RTI. 

We’re here to help you understand what RTI is, how it’s related to PBIS, and what RTI strategies will lead to the best results.

Want to learn more about how to provide students with effective support? Our guide to PBIS implementation offers a closer look at best practices for crafting successful initiatives, and it even includes an implementation checklist.

The basics of RTI

RTI stands for Response to Intervention. It’s a framework that allows educators to identify students’ individual academic and behavioral needs early and helps them provide for those needs with data-driven support. The focus is on understanding students at a deeper level to anticipate and prevent potential struggles so they don’t fall behind in the future.

The name of the framework comes from the idea that, when necessary, students should be supported through instructional intervention. This term may sound a bit heavy and intimidating, but it simply refers to the process of adjusting or fine-tuning the educational path that a student is on instead of forcing them to conform to one that’s pre-established and standardized.

RTI isn’t implemented the same way in every school or district, but it does have a set of recommended methods and a core structure that educators should follow to make the most of it. In some states, the use of RTI is required in public schools. It’s typically implemented schoolwide and is guided by a system of evaluations and assessments. These help educators allocate students into tiered levels of instruction and support according to their needs. They also help to determine if and when a student should be moved from one tier to another, as well as whether or not special education services are needed. 

Common questions about RTI

It’s normal for educators and parents to have their fair share of questions about RTI when learning about it in depth for the first time. Here are answers to three of the most common ones:

What’s the difference between RTI and PBIS?

If you’re familiar with PBIS, what we’ve outlined about RTI so far probably sounds familiar. PBIS and RTI are both built on philosophies of support and driven by data-driven decision-making. They also both follow a three-tier structure that determines how intensive and individualized each student’s support system is.

The key difference between RTI and PBIS is that PBIS focuses first and foremost on student behavior, while RTI has a primary focus on academics. Both aspects of education are addressed by both frameworks, but their priorities are flipped. Conveniently, this makes them complementary to one another, so the two can be integrated if a situation calls for it.

Is RTI a form of special education?

The short answer is no, RTI is not a special education program. It’s an approach for assessing and meeting student needs on a proactive basis. The word “proactive” is key here. The great thing about early detection and intervention is that it optimizes the process of determining which students do and don’t need special education services. 

In fact, this is how RTI came about in the first place. It was developed to address issues with the discrepancy model of special education assessment, which relied on IQ tests to assess student performance. These assessments were not reliable enough to accurately indicate student needs and were easily compromised by bias related to race and socioeconomic background, often leading to unnecessary placement in special education and strain on resources.

RTI provides a more accurate and equitable model that accounts for students who can benefit from intervention, but don’t need special education services.

Does RTI matter for students who don’t need additional support?

Absolutely. One of the most important aspects of the RTI approach is the quality of the primary level of instruction. Since RTI is a tiered framework, its success depends significantly on how effective the first and largest tier of instruction is at educating and supporting students. A strong core curriculum under RTI will benefit the vast majority of learners.

Not only this, but RTI is about avoiding the assumption that a student who doesn’t presently need additional support will never need it at a later time. Instead of a “wait and see” approach that hopes to leave student growth on autopilot, RTI allows educators to stay proactive in anticipating and preventing scenarios where students are left behind.

RTI in three essential tiers

The key to understanding RTI is understanding its three tiers of intervention. It’s not unheard of for schools and districts to organize their RTI implementations into more than one tier, but this is the fundamental structure that RTI initiatives are recommended to follow:

Tier 1: High-Quality Classroom Instruction, Screening, and Group Interventions

The first tier of RTI is generally thought of as the base-level, day-to-day education that the majority of students receive. It’s essential for this to be high in quality and carried out by skilled, qualified educators, not just because this is what all students deserve, but because it allows for more accurate assessment — if a student needs additional support, it should not be due to flawed instruction. Tier 1 should meet the needs of about 80% of students.

Like all tiers of RTI, this tier is maintained with consistent screening and assessment to identify students who may need instructional intervention. If a student in Tier 1 is identified as at-risk, they’ll be given additional support for a limited time (usually for no more than eight weeks). The student’s progress will be observed and re-assessed, and depending on assessment results, they will either be returned to basic Tier 1 instruction or be moved to Tier 2.

 Tier 2: Targeted Interventions

The second tier follows similar procedures of assessment and monitoring to measure performance and progress, but takes a more targeted approach to instruction and intervention. Instruction under Tier 2 usually takes place in small group settings, and should normally encompass about 15% of students. How long a given student is in Tier 2 and how intensive their interventions are can vary widely depending on the student, their grade level, who is assisting in the interventions, and other factors. 

Usually, students won’t be in Tier 2 for longer than a grading period before assessment indicates where they should move next, but extended periods of time are possible. Depending on how well this tier serves their needs and how much progress they show, they will either be moved back to Tier 1 or to Tier 3.

 Tier 3: Intensive Interventions and Comprehensive Evaluation

The goal of Tier 3 interventions is to identify and accommodate the skill deficits that are preventing a given student from meeting the progress requirements of Tiers 1 and 2. If these more targeted interventions are insufficient for helping the student progress and move back to Tier 2, they’ll be given a comprehensive evaluation that will indicate whether or not special education services are needed.

A key advantage of RTI is that student performance data from all tiers can be used to determine eligibility for special education and provide the student with the most appropriate support possible within the special education setting. While some parents might be concerned that RTI simply creates opportunities for delaying or even preventing placement in special education, this fortunately isn’t the case.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 gives parents the right to request an evaluation for special education eligibility at any time.

Helping every student thrive

Like any support-based framework, RTI is about moving beyond the idea that all students should be expected to conform to a single, universal instruction model. It also makes the administration and implementation of special education services more equitable, efficient, and sustainable.

Of course, RTI doesn’t provide a flawless system that you can set and forget, and it won’t deliver results unless it’s implemented with all the right components. 

Data-driven decisions, attentive and consistent progress tracking, and high-quality assessment processes are the lifeblood of all RTI initiatives. The importance of parent partnerships also cannot be overstated — building strong relationships between parents and educators is crucial to making the RTI process as smooth and effective as possible. Additionally, when the voices of students themselves are heard throughout the process, they can be given a sense of ownership and agency over their own learning that can prove enormously beneficial to their success.

When everyone is on the same page and research-backed practices are followed with fidelity, empathy, and care, the result is a better and more balanced learning environment for all.

Your toolkit for a successful year

FREE PBIS TEMPLATES to lighten your workload and effectively manage your classroom

Download now


Your toolkit for a successful year

FREE PBIS TEMPLATES to lighten your workload and effectively manage your classroom

Download now