The "Hard" and the "Soft" of RtI Implementation

Topics: Leadership

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    During a recent training in our school district, a presenter spoke to the "soft" and "hard" skills needed to implement change in a school. Using my own loose definitions of "soft" and "hard" skills, I would characterize them in the following way:

    • "Soft" Skills: Soft skills refer to people skills. Soft skills are aligned with building culture and climate. Basically, soft skills are "how business is done around here." Soft skills can either be planned or attended to, or they can develop on their own depending on the personalities of the building and the general inattention to professionalism.
    • "Hard" Skills: Hard skills refer to the technical part of the job. Hard skills refer to processes, procedures, standards, and protocols.



    Learning hard skills is much easier than learning the soft skills needed for any change initiative in a school. Hard skills are measurable, visible, and can be implemented by anyone. As you implement RtI in your school, you will find that the hard skills of the process can be learned by everyone. Some of the hard skills related to RtI implementation might include:

    • Charting data for decision making
    • Teaching a lesson to fidelity
    • Identifying which students will be progress monitored based on established cut scores
    • Establishing instructional groupings of students based on assessment results
    • Implementing an agreed upon schedule
    • Selecting research-based intervention material
    • Understanding state and federal law as related to RtI

    Soft skills, on the other hand, deal with the skills needed by school professionals to collaborate and work together. Pick up any book on RtI implementation and the bulk of the book will be focused around the hard skills of implementation. The technical aspect of RtI implementation is critical. It is the framework that establishes the expectations. But, if you neglect the soft skills your RtI initiative may come to a screeching halt. Soft skills include:


    • Working as a team member
    • Teaching others
    • Negotiating
    • Addressing motivation
    • Employing decision-making models
    • Engaging with others
    • Using problem-solving skills

    As a school, spend a lot of time, at least initially, discussing how you are going to address the current culture of your building. Below is a list of suggestions that, in my opinion, need to be addressed by every school as they begin RtI implementation:


    • Unify around common goals
    • Identify a collaboration protocol
    • Create a problem-solving process
    • Create a "Code of Conduct"
    • Address the importance of personal accountability
    • Use confrontation as a process for positive change
    • Remove fear and reward risk

    If you were to go back and review some of my previous blog posts, you would find that I spent a lot of time focusing on the soft skills of RtI implementation. The hard skills are important, but my history as a building principal has taught me well that nothing happens in a school until you address the heart.

    As a principal, I met with teachers and rolled up my sleeves and worked with them as we established schedules, initiated the testing protocol, created ability groups, created data sets for review, and wrote meeting agendas. All of these activities are imperative to successful RtI implementation. The work done around the soft skills of RtI implementation, in my opinion, was much more important.

    Pay attention to the people, and your RtI program will come to life. If you neglect the people and spend most of your time on the technical aspect of implementation, your RtI initiative will struggle…and most likely fail.


    Here are a few references that I have pulled off the shelf as I have worked with people in my school:

    • Blankstein, A. M. (2004). Failure is not an option: Six principles that guide student achievement in high-performing schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    • Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap… and others don't. New York: Harper Business.
    • Conzemius, A., & O’Neill, J. (2002). The handbook for SMART school teams. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
    • Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (1998). What’s worth fighting for out there? Williston, VT: Teachers College Press.
    • National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2008). Leading learning communities: Standards for what principals should know and be able to do (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.
    • Schmoker, M. (1999). Results: The key to continuous school improvement (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
    • Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Smith, B. J., Roberts, C., & Ross, R. B. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Knopf Doubleday.
    • Wheatley, M. J. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
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