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Creating a First-Response System for Struggling Students

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Imagine if a committee were required to meet before hosing down your burning home. Or perhaps having to do a six-week mandatory traffic study before transporting injured patients from a car crash. Both of these scenarios are preposterous. Yet they are akin to the approach to intervention we often take in our schools.

When it's a house fire or a car crash, resources are deployed quickly and solutions found. It is time for educators to tear a page from the first responders' book when coming to the aid of struggling students.

Here's how response to intervention currently works at my school: When educators see a need for intervention, we are required to go through a lengthy process that includes gathering academic and social data, calling a meeting of educators to help design interventions, applying those interventions for a minimum of six weeks, then holding another meeting, and then possibly trying another set of interventions for an additional six weeks. At some point in time far removed from the original discussion, testing may or may not be indicated. Test results determine whether or not a child has a learning disability and this in turn determines if the child will receive special education services.

The process is slow and bureaucratic, and I don't think my school is alone in this regard.

Delayed Interventions

In a low-income school with families who are unlikely to advocate for their children, educators' hands are tied by the system. One of my students, Brad, was referred to the student intervention team (SIT) in kindergarten. Brad was in 4th grade when he finally received services for his learning disability. (Note: The student names used in his article are fictional.)

Another student, Nina, was referred to the SIT in her first year of kindergarten. Eight weeks of interventions and data that were collected prior to the SIT meeting were disallowed. The process required six weeks of data starting on the date of the SIT meeting. Before the required six weeks passed, she transferred to another school in the district, which dropped the ball. The following year, Nina returned to our school and struggled to keep up with her peers in her repeat year of kindergarten. Now she is in 1st grade, and the process will start anew.

Kirk is also a repeat kindergartner. When he left mid-year he didn't know his colors, numbers to 5, or shapes. Now, after six months of preschool, he knows his colors and some shapes, but numbers and letters are still difficult for him. I hold up the number two. "Six?" he guesses. We have completed the required SIT meeting and six weeks of data collection and interventions. But Kirk's attendance is spotty, so the SIT team's recommendation is that he attend school consistently while I continue the data collection and interventions for an additional six weeks to see if regular attendance will improve his academic achievement.

Emergency Response

What we need is something more like a 911 service for struggling students. Our schools are populated with Brads, Ninas, and Kirks. Just as we expect an immediate response to a burning house, we must provide aid to these students as soon as we identify their needs. It is the only sane response.

What would 911 for struggling students look like? First off, it's time to shift interventions team meetings into the digital age. Currently, educators gather once a week at the end of the school day in meetings to discuss interventions for one or two struggling students. Specialists are late. Parents don't show. The classroom teacher is waylaid in the hall by an administrator or concerned parent. And the meetings can be inefficient, at best.

Initial communication between the classroom teacher and members of the team should be done via email (or some other digital platform created for the purpose). Email is portable and can improve the process so that educators have time to communicate, collaborate, and pool their creativity and critical thinking to design and discuss interventions for at-risk students. Only specialists that have contact or expertise with a particular problem or issue would be expected to respond. This would allow remaining SIT members time to address issues pertinent to their own expertise.

Next, with team members leveraging more efficient communication protocols, referrals should be addressed immediately instead of languishing until a coveted spot opened up on the meeting schedule. Interventions should be applied within days instead of weeks. Using this model, multiple at-risk students could be served simultaneously. The absence of the in-person meeting requirement would also free up specialists who commute between schools or districts.

Planning thoughtful interventions, record-keeping, and reflection on progress would require freeing up time for classroom teachers and specialists alike. In order for this system to work, administrators must build time into staff schedules for communication and reflection. At the beginning of the school year, specialists' schedules should include time during the school day to respond to classroom teachers, observe students, and perform assessments as needed. As the year progresses, those slots could be used to deliver services directly to students. In turn, classroom teachers would also need to be allotted more nonteaching time to communicate with specialists concerning planned interventions.

After a reasonable duration of authentic but unsuccessful interventions (two to six weeks), the parent would be invited to meet with the full complement of SIT members who will explain their concerns and ask for consent to test if indicated.

Had a process like the one proposed here been in place for Brad, Nina, and Kirk, perhaps resources could have been deployed and solutions found fast enough to make a substantial difference for them.

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