“All of us who work under [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] need to be cognizant of the big picture and understand the trends in our area of practice,” says Jean Polichino, MS, OTR, manager of related services for the Harris County Department of Education in Houston, Texas.
One of those trends is a movement toward using Response to Intervention (RtI) to address student learning needs and improve academic performance.
Unlike traditional special education interventions, the RtI approach looks first at the curriculum and how it is being taught as opposed to assuming that learning problems lie within the student.
It is an evidence-based, multitiered approach to general education, which the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging states to adopt. To help occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants stay atop this trend, the American Occupational Therapy Association has published frequently asked questions about RtI. (See Related Content at right for a link to the FAQs.)
Polichino and Gloria Frolek Clark, MS, OTR/L, BCP, FAOTA, an occupational therapist with the Heartland Area Education Agency in Johnston, Iowa, and education/research liaison to the School System Special Interest Section, developed this new resource. “The IDEA Partnership Project [of which AOTA is a member] wanted the participating service providers to train their groups to use the RtI approach. AOTA knew that we had to be proactive in training occupational therapy practitioners in RtI or get left behind,” Frolek Clark explains.
Polichino and Frolek Clark each have more than 25 years of experience working in or with school systems; but their levels of experience with RtI differ. “I think one of the reasons AOTA asked us to develop the FAQ is that we come at it from opposite ends of the spectrum. I am in a state that is just beginning to implement RtI, and few people really understand it,” says Polichino. “Gloria is in a state that has been using a similar model for many years and has a better grasp on RtI. Our experience reflects the diverse levels of knowledge and experience in the OT community, and hopefully we have used what we learned from each other to help get all OT practitioners on the same page as far as RtI.”
Although the use of response to intervention is not mandated by IDEA or No Child Left Behind, the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA included language about a process like RtI as an approach to determining whether a student has a learning disability. In addition to encouraging states to adopt RtI, the Department of Education has been promoting the approach through the IDEA Partnership Project.
“Research suggests that schools have been too quick to dump kids into special education,” Polichino points out. “RtI has the evidence behind it to screen out kids who truly have learning disabilities from the general education population. And now the thinking is, ‘Why don’t we use RtI across all areas of education to improve the learning curriculum?’ The goal is to find out how to promote the best learning experience for each student.”
For occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants in school settings, that could create new opportunities to work with children in general education, depending on how states and school systems decide to implement RtI.
For example, a practitioner might be asked to make suggestions to improve learning in the general classroom, which could involve offering ideas about how to modify instruction, teaching materials, or the environment. Of course, the level of involvement occupational therapy practitioners will have in general education will vary according to state licensure laws.
“If your state and school district are using this model, you need to understand your role in it. If we can work with children earlier, in the general curriculum using an intervention that is supported by evidence, we can help reduce the number of children being referred to special education who may not truly have learning disabilities. Not only does that reduce the cost to society but it also has an effect on kids’ self-esteem,” says Frolek Clark.