Insights Regarding the Implementation of RtI in Early Childhood Settings

I am a school psychologist in my third year at Prairie Children Preschool (PCP) in Aurora, IL, an inclusive early childhood program operated by the Indian Prairie School District # 204. Previously, I worked for a special education cooperative and serviced early childhood classrooms throughout many districts. When program leaders implement change at the system level, the change process will encounter many peaks and valleys. Systems level change requires not only a shift in procedures and expectations but also a shift in philosophy and thinking processes. Both are essential in order for sustained and lasting change to occur. Systems and expectations must be in place to maintain this philosophical shift. In this blog entry, I will describe some starting points around the link between assessment and instruction to promote discussion and talking points rather than outlining a complete guide for RtI implementation. Let’s take a look at two applications of the assessment process that need to be considered in creating an RtI initiative.

The Problem Solving Process – Identifying Problems

Within any system, people must be provided with a common way to think about solving problems. The four steps of the problem solving process described in the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) RtI document, Response to Intervention: Policy Considerations and Implementation, can provide practitioners with that framework. The first step is to identify the problem. If we do not have common ways to identify problems, then it is very easy to get stuck at this step and have difficulty moving forward. I have engaged in many discussions at the building, team, and child level in which problem identification was particularly challenging. In my opinion, this is due to the nature of assessment with young children, the infancy of the development of General Outcome Measures in early childhood (e.g. a quick assessment that is predictive of a broader skill), and the larger changes occurring in education (e.g. accountability, high stakes testing, etc.). The struggle lies in coming to common agreement around the data sources that will be used to drive instructional decisions, which is the primary purpose of assessment. Therefore, a vital first step in the RtI implementation process is to develop a common assessment process throughout the program so that staff can begin to discuss problems with a common language.

At PCP, we redesigned our data collection process for monitoring classroom progress so that we have common discrete skills in each developmental domain, aligned with the Creative Curriculum objectives, that are aligned with the Illinois Early Learning Standards (IELS). Each teacher keeps an assessment binder with sections for each individual student where protocols for gathering information on student progress on the discrete skills are kept. The binder also includes information from a variety of other assessment sources including curriculum-based measurements (Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs), Preschool Numeracy Indicators (PNIs)), portfolio items, and evaluation tools tied to specific curricula. Instructional decisions are guided by the synthesis of these data sources. This gives staff a common place to start talking while reviewing data and allows for problems to be identified more consistently. Requiring this type of data collection has spurred healthy debates over how we can identify problems reliably and what types of data are going to be considered valid for specific decision-making purposes in our program. It’s not that there is a lack of data collected to help identify problems in early childhood. Actually, the opposite is true. There is an overwhelming amount of data and choosing the most essential pieces and arranging them for easy access and decision-making is challenging. The key is to find ways to assess students reliably with tools that have been validated for specific purposes in ways that are not overwhelming to staff and students. On our journey at PCP, we have made leaps ahead in this area, but still have a ways to go.

Collaborative Inquire/Collaborative Learning

Not only is it valid to have a common assessment language and process, it is also vital to have a system in place that allows teachers and support staff time and a set of procedures to discuss the link between assessment and instruction. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) were introduced into the school district a few years ago as a school improvement initiative. This offered an opportunity for PCP staff to focus on melding the process of collaborative inquiry around ways we link assessment to instruction into our evolving RtI practices. This type of inquiry and learning allowed us to create a foundation and structure for teachers and support staff to grow together professionally. There are other collaborative inquiry models in the literature besides PLCs. So, implementation of collaborative learning can occur under many titles. We use PLCs in our school to be consistent with the district’s initiative. Using our experiences, our data, our examples, and our students, PLCs have provided a structure for internal professional development. PLCs provide the structure for us to learn within the context where the acquired skills need to be applied.

The first year of implementation was a struggle. So during our second year, we created a survey to help us identify the problems. The problem-solving process is not only applicable for student-oriented problems but also can and should be used to identify systems-level issues. By doing this, administration and staff in leadership roles modeled how this way of thinking can be used at any level. After reviewing and analyzing the problem, we created an action plan that included the development of a core group of staff members who were viewed in leadership roles within their collaborative group. This core group engages in collaborative inquiry to learn about the core principles of PLCs and ways to gauge students’ responses to instruction. Then, they bring their learning back to their own collaborative group and vice versa. The learning that occurs in each collaborative group also guides the learning of the core group. Within an RtI framework, PLCs provide the necessary means to engage in embedded professional development around the provision and evaluation of differentiated instruction that is driven by the needs of our staff and our students.

In summary, a strong foundation for assessment and collaborative inquiry are essential in an RtI framework. I hope that this commentary has sparked some new thoughts and questions about your program, your staff, your students, and education in general. Please contact me using the Comment feature below with any comments or questions.
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