No more triangles. No more tiers.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois, Ed.D.

One of my clients is building a system for supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic achievement for the first time. Another is revising their approach to ensure that they are aware of their students’ social, emotional, and academic needs and has already created a system for supporting anything that might prevent student learning. Often, people call this “response to intervention” or “RTI.”

Also, they’re doing this with no triangles, and no tiers.

This is the beginning of a process that I expect to revise several times this year. However, the fundamentals seem to work. And, while the steps I’ve outlined below are meant for school- or district-level teams, individual teachers or people working in caring professions can likely use a similar process to organize resources and accelerate growth towards goals.

Step 1: Answer this question—At our school, what might students experience that affects their learning?

This first step is best done individually. Distribute sticky notes to each team member. On each post-it note, write one item that affects how students learn. Some items might accelerate learning (“Most parents of sophomores check for missing homework”) and others might prevent learning (“Low reading fluency beginning in second grade”).

This is the time to consider all variables that affect learning. Depending on your school’s unique context, the degree to which your team is aware of trauma, racism, how families might be differently resourced, and—most importantly—what your academic and discipline data reveal about your students all uncover opportunities to accelerate your students’ social, emotional, and academic achievement.

Step 2: Sort items from most common to least common.

Your team’s next step is to assess how prevalent each item is at your school. The best way to sort items is vertically from “most common” to “least common.” 

It may be that some item affect all students school-wide, while others affect smaller groups or individual learners. Note that all students—without exception—are important. We are not prioritizing based on numbers. Rather, by noting how common our students experience “poor grades due to missing work,” for example, we can better locate where the solution needs to live. Similarly, if we have a small group of students who would benefit from intensive math intervention, we can design a solution meant for them.

Step 3: Resort items from “supportive” to “disruptive.”

After your team has agreed on your “most common” to “least common” list, resort your items from “supportive” to “disruptive.” Make sure you keep your horizontal list in order. All that changes here is that items that are “supportive” slide to the left, and items that are more supportive than others slide further to the left. Similarly, items that are “disruptive”  slide to the right, with the item that most disrupts student learning sliding furthest to the right.

You’ll know you’ve done this step correctly if your “most common” to “least common” items stay in order and none of them have any items directly above or below.

Step 4: Circle all items that your school currently has the capacity to address.

What makes TGS Educational Consulting’s approach to RTI different than anything else I have encountered in practice, in research, or on the internet is that this approach expects and allows your team to be honest. For example, it might be true that your students need five more teachers, and it might also be true that hiring five more teachers is impossible. For now, hiring five more teachers will not be part of your work plan. 

Rather, focus your attention on what your team has the capacity to address. To assess capacity effectively, it may help to ask:

  • Do we have unused resources?
    • Interventionist with short rosters, under-referrals for counseling services, parent volunteers who could be trained as reading fluency coaches, paraprofessionals ready for new skills
  • How hard would it be to get new resources?
    • If there’s something we want to do, who in the room is able to make it happen? If that person isn’t in the room, who do we need to ask? 
  • What could we stop doing that might free up resources?
    • Hint: If you’re not sure what you could stop doing, your teachers probably know and want to tell you.
  • Which items are we truly excited and committed to address?
    • Truthfully, my most successful teams are the ones that set goals that matter to them. This might take some courage from the school leader if the team wants to pursue a goal that might not directly line up with some other strategic plan somewhere. However, teams that accomplish goals that matter to them generally choose goals that matter to students as well.
  • Which items are we simply unprepared to address?
    • If something is preventing students from learning, you’ll need to work on it at some point. However, giving yourself and your team permission to be honest about what you are not yet ready to address means that you can enthusiastically commit to working on items that you know you can change.

For most educators, 80% or more of their day is spent teaching students or running a school. Time available for new initiatives is much more limited than most people truly understand, including a few school leaders and central office administrators. For any approach to RTI to work, everyone involved must have the courage to be honest about what their team and their staff has the capacity to address.

Step 5: Pick one. Maybe two. Not three.

At this point, I typically recommend that teams lift the circled items off the chart paper, whiteboard, or Jamboard and look just at the items that their school currently has the capacity to address. While all of the items might be possible, addressing all of them at once typically isn’t. 

Serve your students better by focusing on one item until it’s done. If you must, pick two items. Three or more rarely get done in a year if attempted all at once.

Step 6: Break it down.

Beginning with your “most common” and “most disruptive” circled item, create a work breakdown structure. Stop when you realize that you are at 80% capacity. You’ll need the additional 20% to absorb individual student needs that will undoubtedly emerge as you get started.

A work breakdown structure is really just a list that breaks down each part of the project into small “packages” in the order that someone needs to do them. There are many ways to draft a work breakdown structure, and some of the most effective involve a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. What is important, however, is that your work breakdown structure include the following:

  • What you are doing?
  • For whom are you doing this?
  • How do you know who needs to participate?
    • What are their names?
    • What consistent and equitable data protocol led you to find them?
  • Who will do it and by when.
  • Why you are doing it.
  • How you will know when it’s getting better / fixed.

While it’s not always essential (or even possible) to have 100% of the plan completed before you get to work on your item(s), the more clarity you can have at the beginning, the more likely you are to be successful. 

Step 7: Work the plan. Work the plan. Work the plan.

The teams that achieve the most dramatic results are the teams that work their plan. Between one meeting and the next, everyone leaves knowing exactly what their role is in supporting their students’ social, emotional, and academic growth.

And, the teams that routinely feel deflated are those that leave meetings unsure of what they are supposed to do. Worse, sometimes staff leave professional development sessions confused or ill-equipped to do what they have been asked to do.

What helps mitigate resistance is making sure you’ve built a plan for supporting students that is based on what you know to be true for students at your site. Also, brainstorming and sorting goals based on how common and how disruptive they actually are supports your team by focusing effort on what matters most. Furthermore, committing only to what your team wants to do and has the capacity to achieve allows you and your team to continue your primary day-to-day tasks, only extending yourselves where you truly have time, energy, and resources to do so.

You’ll notice that there are no triangles or tiers in this plan.Triangles and tiers are not necessary, and are problematic from an equity and an achievement perspective. Instead, you’ve considered what you know to be true about your students, and developed a plan for your students based on what you are actually equipped to do. Especially now, when the work of teaching and learning is as complex as ever, focusing on what you actually can do and want to do is an outstanding opportunity to achieve excellence where you can.

Here is a graphic organizer of this process. Feel free to download.

While meeting the needs of our students has always been required, triangles and tiers are optional.

If you’d like to talk more about how this process looks in real life, click here and schedule a time to meet. It’s always free to talk.

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