The Importance of Understanding before Doing: Fixing Response to Intervention (RTI)

Anyone who reads the RTI literature will see the word “fidelity” in the context of implementing interventions. This is, of course, common sense in that any interventions need to be applied properly. However, in order to attain fidelity, the teachers (and planners) need to have an understanding of why a strategy is being recommended otherwise it is in danger of being applied in a robotic, out of context fashion without any real conviction by the teacher. Having a belief in what is being done can only be accomplished by first comprehending the purpose of the strategy, having an opportunity to ask questions about it and even share objections or reservations about it, and discussing what to do in the event it fails to deliver the expected result.

It has been my experience that teachers often have not been given a framework from which to observe, analyze, and understand student’s difficulties. They are then in the position of doing what they know and if this does not work, they reach an impasse about what to do next. Adopting the principle of understanding before doing is the first step in changing this situation and providing teachers with the supports and tools they need to feel success with their struggling students.

What do they need to understand? Academic and behavioral challenges are best understood through the lens of the framework the Cattell-Horn-Carroll cognitive processing theory provides. First, teachers need to know that academic subjects are really byproducts of neuropsychological processes like cognitive processing abilities and executive functions. Second, by understanding the linkages between cognitive processing and academic subjects, teachers can better identify the specific processing domains that are causing a student’s struggles. At the very least, they can begin to generate informed hypotheses about the root causes which can then be translated in interventions tailored to the individual student’s cognitive profile.

Providing the “toolbox” or evidenced based strategies is the easy part. Training teachers to understand students’ difficulties and to create an instructional approach that emanates from this understanding is the key to fixing RTI. That is, we need to stop shooting from the hip or applying general strategies top individual students. This is one of the reasons RTI may not work. Moreover, having a framework to understand academic and behavioral challenges allows teachers to have an idea of what to do next if a strategy fails. It is important not lose faith if this occurs because each failure yields important information about what to do next.

However, it is essential to understand before doing. Students are complex and teaching is equally complex. Being able to break down academic tasks into the prerequisite processing skills needed will provide teachers with a concrete way to identify, understand, and “fix” their students’ challenges. Without it, RTI can be an exercise of whistling in the wind.


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