This paper analyzes existing literature related to RTI for young children with learning disabilities. Research studies that have focused on learning disabilities are investigated in the context of how Response to Intervention (RTI) helps to address learning disabilities in early childhood education. The review also discusses strategies that teachers could use to educate children with learning disabilities and how the RTI could support their educational outcomes.
Hall and Mahoney (2013) define the Response to Intervention (RTI) as “a service model designed to meet the learning needs of students prior to diagnosis and placement in special education settings” (p. 273). There are three tiers of RTI. The first one involves interventions that are designed for the whole class, while the second tier focuses on the provision of learning interventions to small groups of children who are unable to improve their educational performance in the first level of RTI (Kaminski & Powell-Smith, 2017).
The last tier centers on providing intensive interventions, which are targeted at improving the educational outcomes of individuals (Hall & Mahoney, 2013). RTI shares a link with learning disabilities because they support the formulation of appropriate interventions. According to Ali and Rafi (2016), a learning disability is “retardation, disorder, or delayed development in any one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic” (p. 111).
The purpose of this paper is to review existing literature related to RTI for young children with learning disabilities. Twenty-five research articles were analyzed. They were sourced from credible databases, including Google Scholar, Emerald Insight, and JSTOR. The keywords used were “response to intervention,” “learning disabilities,” and “young children.” The criterion for this review is premised on identifying what other researchers have said about RTI, learning disabilities, and the connection both concepts have in improving the educational performance of children with learning disabilities.
The current debate on RTI stems from weaknesses and limitations in defining the role of RTI in accurately identifying children with learning disabilities. These discussions are contextualized within broader debates and controversies associated with the use of RTI as a replacement of the ability–achievement discrepancy model, which often uses intelligence quotient (IQ) testing to identify learning disabilities. The findings of this review are important in understanding the extent of research that has been conducted to explain the role of RTI in addressing learning disabilities among children.
This review has six main themes. The first two focus on what researchers have said about RTI and learning disabilities. The third one discusses the relationship between RTI and learning disabilities, while the fourth and fifth themes explain how teachers should use RTI in the classroom and highlight the types of learning strategies they could employ in the same context. The last theme explains how RTI supports children with learning disabilities in schools. The conclusion section, which summarizes the main findings, is the last part of this paper.
Response to Intervention
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education and Council of Administrators of Special Education (2006) say that the RTI is grounded in law through the Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA) of 2004. In light of this observation, this legislation is used to support RTI. Comparatively, O’Connor, and Sanchez (2011) say that all RTI interventions are designed to maximize a child’s learning abilities. O’Connor and Sanchez (2011) also say that through specific academic and behavioral interventions, RTI is designed to enhance the performance of children who have learning disabilities. They also say the initial focus of the intervention was to improve the performance of children with disabilities in reading and mathematics (O’Connor & Sanchez, 2011).
Relative to the above assertion, Higgins, Baker, and Rinaldi (2014) say that many schools have adopted RTI as a tool for making sure that students who need interventions receive them. However, because the researchers noted that there is no peer-reviewed guidance to help teachers implement RTI effectively, they encouraged educators and principals to identify appropriate assessment and intervention resources to implement RTI.
Fuchs, Fuchs, and Stecker (2010) said that different states have varied implementations of RTI because there is no consensus regarding basic questions, which should underscore RTI. Consequently, they pointed out two largely configured points of reference for understanding RTI. The first one is centered on the IDEA and the second one focuses on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act (Fuchs et al., 2010). The IDEA suggests that RTI should focus on early childhood intervention and use valid methods for identifying disabilities. Comparatively, the NCLB school of thought confines RTI to state policies on inclusion and early intervention (Fuchs et al., 2010).
Hughes and Dexter (2011) said that RTI could be scaled by acknowledging four key components: extensive professional development, administrative support, the provision of adequate meeting time for coordinating RTI functions, and teacher support. Hughes and Dexter (2011) also said that the research for categorizing the impact of RTI is still at the infancy stage. At the same time, they acknowledged that RTI programs had a positive impact on children’s academic achievement (Hughes & Dexter, 2011).
In a different study, Wagner and Compton (2011) pointed out that RTI was important in undertaking learning assessments because conventional methods were ineffective in identifying the learning needs of children who lived in diverse educational and cultural environments. Wagner and Compton (2011) also emphasized the need to focus on the future improvement of educational status as opposed to current learning limitations when implementing RTI.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that children who have general learning disabilities often manifest significant impairments of adaptive, intellectual, or social functioning (Greenwich JSNA, 2013). In this regard, WHO says some of the common disabilities affecting children include auditory processing disorders (APD), Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Dyslexia, Language Processing Disorder, Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) (Greenwich JSNA, 2013). Generally, Dean and Burns (2002) say, “Students with difficulties in specific cognitive processes and academic achievement with otherwise normal levels of intellectual functioning are classified as having a learning disability” (p. 75).
The above definitions of learning disabilities have largely been associated with the traditional model of using aptitude testing to determine whether a child has a learning disability or not. However, Dean and Burns (2002) express their dissatisfaction with the discrepancy model because it fails to differentiate children who have learning disabilities from low achievers. Consequently, they say the model is inconsistently implemented and is not well-grounded in research that should support its instructional validity (Dean & Burns, 2002).
From a policy perspective, Buttner, Hasselhorn, and Buettner (2011) argue that the existing legal environment allows children with a learning disability to get the best educational services. As highlighted in this review, the IDEA and NCLB are among the most prominent laws that support RTI. The IDEA is a four-part law that guarantees the provision of appropriate education for children who have learning disabilities (Buttner et al., 2011).
The first two parts (Parts A and B) are regarded as the most effective tenets of the legislation (Buttner et al., 2011). The first part (A) mainly covers the general provision of the law, while the second part (B) is concerned with the availability and use of learning resources for children with disabilities (Buttner et al., 2011). Parts C and D cover the provision of educational activities for children below the ages of 0-3 and national aspects of the law, which are operationalized at the federal level (Buttner et al., 2011).
Comparatively, the NCLB is a federal piece of legislation that requires states to be responsible for the academic progress of children who are in their education systems (Gartland & Strosnider, 2018). Although these legal provisions are not mandatory, noncompliant states lose their privilege to access federal financial support (Gartland & Strosnider, 2018).
The IDEA and NCLB support children with learning disabilities by improving the delivery of special education services (Gartland & Strosnider, 2018). Besides improving access to educational services, the IDEA has also helped children with learning disabilities to receive high-quality interventions to maximize their learning potential (Gartland & Strosnider, 2018). NCLB has also helped children with a learning disability in a similar way because it supports the improvement of educational performance in early childhood development. Comprehensively, these two laws help children with learning disabilities to get a better quality education by the transformation of the conversation of early childhood education from access to performance issues.
RTI Linked to Learning Disabilities
As highlighted in this study, RTI is a general education process for children who are struggling in the education sector because of learning disabilities. Hinged on a universal learning design, which allows educators to develop flexible learning environments to cater to individual learning needs, teachers could use RTI in the classroom to identify children with learning disabilities and provide them with customized interventions (Kavale & Spaulding, 2008).
Kavale and Spaulding (2008) say the popularity of the RTI in early childhood education is rooted in the failure of the ability–achievement discrepancy model to accurately identify learning disabilities. Indeed, they say RTI offers a more improved version of identifying learning disabilities because it minimizes the effects of ineffective instruction in the identification of these disabilities (Kavale & Spaulding, 2008). The RTI is also liked with learning disabilities because it is deemed a tool for identifying learning disabilities (Kavale & Spaulding, 2008). However, Kavale and Spaulding (2008) say that the presence of learning limitations does not imply the existence of learning disabilities.
Why should Teachers use RTI in the Classroom?
Almalki and Abaoud (2015) encourage teachers to use RTIs in the classroom because it allows them to understand children’s learning gaps and bridge them to meet grade-level expectations. Grosche and Volpe (2013), who say that teachers should use RTI because it creates opportunities to provide a personalized touch to the provision of education services to children who have learning disabilities, support this view.
Abou-Rjaily and Stoddard (2017) add that teachers should also use RTI in the classroom because it is a proactive learning tool. Their views are supported by the assertions of Cakiroglu (2015), who contends that the RTI prevents teachers from “sitting by” and wait to find out if children fail their grades. Instead, RTI makes sure that children receive targeted practice and help. Lastly, Reschly (2014) says that the RTI gives teachers a structure to provide individualized interventions, thereby improving the educational outcomes of children with disabilities.
Teaching Strategies for Children with Learning Disabilities
Children with learning disabilities need specific teaching strategies to improve their educational performance. Stultz (2013) argues that computer-assisted techniques are effective teaching strategies for children with learning disabilities. Evidence of their success has been witnessed in improved mathematics grades (Stultz, 2013). Adebisi, Liman, and Longpoe (2015) also proposed a similar learning strategy by encouraging teachers to use assistive technologies to teach children with learning disabilities.
Their overall research was premised on the need to include 21st-century skills and techniques in designing teaching strategies among children with disabilities (Adebisi et al., 2015). Comparatively, Satsangi and Bouck (2015) proposed the use of virtual manipulative technologies to develop teaching strategies for teachers, while Kellems and Edwards (2016) suggested the use of video modeling and prompting techniques to teach children with learning disabilities. Generally, these researchers supported the use of technology-based teaching strategies.
How the RTI Supports Children with Disabilities in the School
RTI is linked to learning disabilities because it could be used as a method to identify learning disabilities. Indeed, Lucas, Richter, and Daelmans (2017) define RTI as the primary tool for identifying learning disabilities. This relation accounts for its association with the IDEA because within the IDEA legal framework RTI is used to assess the eligibility of children to enroll in learning disability programs (Grünke & Cavendish, 2016). Therefore, RTI provides a framework for addressing learning disabilities.
The RTI also aligns interventions with child reviews because assessments should define the kind of interventions that should be offered (Wagner & Compton, 2011). Here, RTIs could be used as the basis for service delivery and a resource for making learning assessments (Wagner & Compton, 2011). These arguments support the need to align assessment techniques with early intervention methods.
Lastly, the RTI supports children in school by encouraging the proactive formulation of learning interventions, which help to improve their learning outcomes. This benefit emerges from criticisms of the traditional aptitude assessment method because of its reactionary nature. In other words, it “waits” for students to fail before the development of an appropriate intervention (Wagner & Compton, 2011). Based on this limitation, the RTI model emerges as an upgrade to this technique.
In this literature review, RTI appears to serve several interests in the promotion of the educational performance of children with disabilities. Particularly, it has been highlighted as a tool for identifying learning disabilities. Several researchers have also highlighted the use of technology-based interventions to develop teaching strategies for children with a learning disability. The current debate on RTI stems from weaknesses and limitations in defining the role of RTI in accurately identifying children with learning disabilities. Broadly, the main research gap that emerges from this review is the failure of current research to explain the extent that RTI helps teachers to improve the educational performance of children with learning disabilities.
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