Implementing a Combined RTI/PBS Model

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    At the beginning of the 2009–10 school year, we began a two-year Response to Intervention/Positive Behavior Supports (RTI/PBS) implementation project with Silver Sage Elementary School in Idaho. Silver Sage is a small school of just over 200 students in grades K–5 with a demographic make up that closely mirrors the Idaho state average: 82% of the students are White, 10% Hispanic, 4% Black, 3% Asian and 2% American Indian. About a third of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

    The school had an existing tiered service delivery model for reading when we started the project in September, and was interested in implementing school-wide PBS and extending their RTI system to include mathematics. We had worked with the principal in previous professional development trainings on issues like progress monitoring and goal setting, and she was ready to move her staff forward towards a comprehensive tiered service delivery model. The question we now all faced was how do we get started with a combined RTI/PBS model?


    A lot has been written about the similarities between RTI and PBS. They both represent tiered models of service delivery, both have a preventive orientation with the emphasis on ensuring that Tier 1 is highly effective prior to considering interventions for students who aren't meeting performance-level benchmarks, and they both rely on the use of evidence-based practices in instruction, intervention and assessment procedures. However, information on how to combine the models has only recently emerged (see for example the series by Bohanon, Goodman & McIntosh in the Learn About RTI section of RTI

    Our goal with this project is to actually see what it takes to implement a comprehensive tiered service delivery model within a school. In the first 6 months of the process, we've learned a lot, and we hope to share some of our findings with you in this blog series.

    Technical — Personal — Cultural Shifts

    The implementation of any new reform requires building the technical capacity of a school. In the case of RTI and PBS, that includes important elements such as screening, setting expectations, considering how to evaluate the Tier 1 program, developing a system of tiered interventions and so on. Given the extent of the "new" systems and processes the school is faced with, we thought that overcoming the technical challenges — or the "how to" of the process would be our greatest implementation challenge the first year. We were quickly proven wrong on this point. And perhaps we should have seen it coming.

    Daryl Mellard and Don Deshler of the National RTI Technical Assistance Center talk and write frequently about the personal and cultural shifts that are required for new reforms to take hold in a school. Deshler discusses at length the need to allow staff time for "human sense-making" of a new process, addressing such questions as, How does this change my perception of myself as a teacher? What are my new roles and responsibilities in the new system and are they aligned with my current value system? How difficult is it to change? Was I not doing a good job before? Similarly, many researchers and technical assistance centers advocate for SEAs, LEAs and schools to build consensus for the need to implement an RTI system as an initial step in the getting started process.

    If we don't allow school staff to build consensus and to engage in these kinds of discussions, we run the risk of alienating them with new processes and procedures they may not fully agree with or fully understand — which puts the implementation effort at risk for failure, falling prey to what Deshler calls the "Attempt-Attack-Abandon" cycle to which so many educational reforms have surrendered.

    At Silver Sage, we found that staff had a difficult time with a number of issues that we took for granted as merely technical concerns; for example, examining class-wide data to determine the efficacy of the Tier 1 program. Our fall benchmarks using the Monitoring Basic Skills Program Concepts and Applications and a new reading measure, the Test of Silent Reading Efficiency and Comprehension (TOSREC), showed significant percentages of students as not meeting grade-level benchmarks. As researchers, our response was, "So, it looks like we have some work to do in the Tier 1 program." As veteran teachers, the staff's response was, "There is something wrong with those assessments."

    Similarly, on our first attempt to conduct behavior screening using the Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders (SSBD), we never considered that teachers would have a difficult time identifying an initial list of 10 students who best met the definitions for demonstrating internalizing and externalizing problem behavior. The goal behind this process is to ensure that teachers take the time to really consider the behavior of all their students, not just those with whom they've most recently had negative interactions. When teachers asked us repeatedly why they had to identify 10 names even if they didn’t really think 10 students might have behavior concerns, we repeated this explanation — and repeated it, and repeated it. We thought it was clear. Later we discovered that teachers were very concerned with the "labeling" of students as potentially at risk for behavior disorders.

    These two examples are small ones — and we did work through them. We reassessed students using multiple measures and then reviewed data and information on students who did not meet benchmarks. We are working to develop screening processes for behavior concerns and to educate staff on the goal of a tiered service model so that the purpose and processes are transparent. We spend more time listening to teachers as we move forward with the development of an intervention system that can address the primary needs of their students.

    The technical components of the system will continue to challenge us — setting decision rules and selecting appropriate interventions is difficult work. However, we now also pay attention to the staff reaction to the process, spending time collecting feedback and discussing the changes in order to more effectively implement the RTI and PBS framework.

    In our next entry we'll talk about how we got started with implementation — we hope you’ll come back to read more and post your own comments, concerns, and experiences with RTI and PBS implementation.

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