A Synthesis of Action Research on Response to Intervention

By Jessica Sliva        

With inclusive learning becoming the norm, schools are faced with the challenge of making sure all students succeed. To target students who are at risk of failing, many schools have begun to implement a Pyramid Response to Intervention model, also known as RTI or PRTI. The purpose of this article is to synthesis teacher research from the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement that speaks to the issue of Response to Intervention. In this article, I will attempt to answer the question: “How might Response to Intervention help teachers’ work?”

From 2000- 2013, the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) provided “targeted funding to school authorities to improve student learning and enhance student engagement and performance” (Alberta Education- About AISI) through the assistance of the Alberta Government. Districts completed Action Research projects in 3-year cycles based on needs they wished to address in their districts. Because AISI focused on addressing and solving problems at the school and district level that could hinder school improvement, I was interested in looking at how schools used the Pyramid Response to Intervention to address the needs of at-risk students, as well as what successes and challenges teachers found as they engaged Respons to Intervention as a teaching process.

What is Response to Intervention?

According to Buffum, Mattos and Weber (2010), “RTI’s underlying premise is that schools should not wait until students fall far behind to qualify for special education to provide them with the help they need. Instead, schools should provide targeted and systematic interventions to all students as soon as they demonstrate the need” (Buffam, Mattos & Weber, 2010, p.10). As one district noted, RTI “is not a special education initiative but is in fact a general education obligation. RTI is a systematic approach for improving teaching and learning that answers the question, ‘How do we respond when learning does not occur?’”

The pyramid has three levels where children can be placed based on their academic or behavioural needs. All students begin at Tier 1, where students receive regular classroom instruction. If they are not successful, they advance to Tier 2, which is for targeted students who need additional support delivered through small group instruction. If students continue to need more support, they advance to Tier 3 where students who need intensive instruction are generally engaged with one-on-one instruction.

Conceptual Framework

As an elementary teacher faced with the growing need to promote inclusion in my classroom, I have been trying to find ways to better meet the needs of all my students. My district has begun to use the RTI framework because it provides a tiered model structure that allows teachers to provide targeted and intensive intervention to students who don’t achieve success solely through general classroom instruction. My grade-level team has also begun to use this framework in the grade 1 classes that I teach. However, I know that, because PRTI is a model, schools and districts have used it in various ways based on their needs. By looking at AISI projects done on the topic, I hoped to discover what different models might look like as well as gain insight into the successes, changes, and challenges each district experienced. By focusing on this topic, I hope to learn from other schools how to strengthen the RTI model being used by my grade team to further promote student success.

Research Questions

When reviewing the AISI data, I focused on two main questions: (1) How did school districts use the Pyramid Response to Intervention model as a strategy during cycle 4 of AISI? and (2) What successes, areas of concern, and changes emerged from the implementation of a Pyramid Response to Intervention model?

Data Sources

Data for my work came from the AISI archives found on the Alberta Education website under AISI Cycle 3 & 4 Project Search (http://education.alberta.ca/teachers/aisi/leaders/synopses.aspx). This website contains completed reports on all the projects districts and schools completed during Cycle 3 and 4. All AISI projects’ final reports can be searched through keywords, titles, themes, or by district. Searches can also be limited to either Cycle 3 or Cycle 4. To find my information, I searched the keywords “Pyramid of Intervention” and limited my search to cycle 4. This delimitation is further explained below.


I chose to limit my data collection to AISI Cycle 4 because, after an initial look, I believed the nine AISI research reports found there provided enough information to understand how the PRTI model will be used in schools. I chose to not use three articles from my original search response, which provided 12 articles, because upon reading them more carefully they lacked information regarding use of the PRTI model.


My research will be limited to reports from the AISI website because I wanted to focus on how schools in Alberta were using RTI in regards to school improvement. Because this was my focus, I did not look at how RTI was implemented in schools outside of Alberta.


To collect information for my report, I accessed the AISI Cycles 3 and 4 search page. I used the keyword search to locate articles containing the phrase “pyramid of intervention” and narrowed my focus by selecting Cycle 4. Twelve AISI reports matched the search terms. After a first reading of the 12 articles, I removed three reports from my synthesis because they only mentioned PRTI as a strategy, but never explained how interventions were implemented. During my second reading, I pulled out key strategies that pertained to my topic from the remaining nine articles. I then took the main themes from each report and grouped similar ideas. I also compiled the information about what (a) worked well, (b) what didn’t work, and (c) what changed into a chart.


As more schools move towards a PRTI approach to allow for inclusive classrooms where all students receive the supports they need, questions still remain about what this model might look like. Although the 3 Tiers remain the same, how schools interpret and implement this model varies based upon school needs. My goal in looking at completed AISI projects was to better understand what successes, challenges, and changes occurred as the projects developed throughout the three-year cycle. I believe my work will allow new schools who use the RTI model gain information that will help them better prepare to utilize the initiative by being able to understand the successes teachers from other schools have had using the new model and problem-solving ways to eliminate challenges other schools have faced.

AISI Cycle 4 project specifics

The nine reports I analyzed used the PRTI model in three main facets: (a) student support teams or teacher that targeted at risk students, (b) effective strategies used to differentiate instruction, and (c) meeting grade level or IPP goals.

Pyramid Response to Intervention: Student Support Teams

It was important to know which individuals were the driving forces in implementing RTI at the school level. Of the nine reports, four specified having a student support team in place to create, implement, assess, and re-evaluate the effectiveness of the PRTI on an individual-by-individual basis. Many teams involved the principal, lead teachers, special education teachers, FNMI coordinators, counsellors, and other individuals needed to decide what interventions were best for each child. Two reports discussed how their division had chosen to place an Interventionist teacher at each school to help facilitate student interventions. Although three reports did not specify whether a specialized team or teachers were in charge of interventions, these reports noted that staff training helped teachers become more able to identify struggling students effectively, suggesting that every teacher in the school was expected to implement the Pyramid Response to Interventions for students struggling in one or more areas. One AISI report noted, “Teachers are now better at identifying when students get it or are struggling; increased focus on how to close the gap for those who struggle which has led to increased number of students who achieve acceptable levels” (p. 12).

Pyramid Response to Intervention: Effective Strategies for Differentiation

With the growing importance of creating an inclusive classroom, many teachers needed to learn how they could reach every student through differentiation. By using the RTI model, teachers were able to provide additional support to students who needed it. Although much discussion notes providing small group support when students are in Tier 2, other interventions can also take place, such as a student having an audio version of a novel study or a student completing a presentation to demonstrate knowledge instead of writing a test. One AISI report noted, “Because of the emphasis on differentiation and assessment, we explored the Pyramid of Intervention more aggressively. We found that by using this model we were getting closer to ‘inclusive’ classrooms with a focus on differentiation.”

Pyramid Response to Intervention: Meeting grade level or IPP goals

The RTI model recognizes that, although most students are able to understand concepts in the regular lessons, some students will require additional help to reach those same goals. For this reason, many schools decided to implement RTI in their schools if their goals for the AISI project were to boost student achievement and decrease student failure rates. A comment from one AISI report stated, by “using the pyramid of intervention as our tool, we have adapted our teaching styles to accommodate students that need adapted/modified programs. Our units are now created to allow for all ability levels and learning styles to achieve success at their own pace/style/learning.”

Summary: Big Picture Understandings

The PRTI model targets students who are not currently meeting their academic goals and provides them with additional supports to shrink or eliminate the gap. Although many teachers already are performing additional supports through inclusion and differentiation in their classrooms, it is critical that we are aware of what interventions are implemented, to ensure that no students fall between the cracks. As one AISI report noted, RTI “is a process of tiered instruction and intervention that provides educators with a reflective, proactive process for addressing the needs of every student to assure that every child is given the extra time and support needed to be successful.” By using the pyramid, the district was able to identify students who required targeted or intensive interventions.

Implications about teacher professional learning

Based upon my synthesis of the nine AISI reports, many schools are moving towards the PRTI model to help accommodate student needs within the classroom. Many districts reported success using the model to identify students and targeting students who continued to struggle because they found, by using these interventions, several students became able to achieve acceptable levels.

Schools also saw success when continuous student monitoring took place by classroom teachers, Student Support/Success teachers, school teams, or combinations of all three because they could discover which interventions were working well and adapt, modify, or discontinue interventions that weren’t working or were no longer needed. Use of the PRTI also led to a greater collaborative effort in many schools because teachers were using their professional learning communities (PLCs), professional development, and collaborative planning time to improve instructional strategies for Tier 1 teaching and to determine what students required Tier 2 and 3 interventions. PLC teams also decided what interventions would be used based on assessment data collected and who would be leading the interventions. One teacher said, “PRTI enabled us to pinpoint areas to work on as a collective group educating students in our school, not just in our own grades. Teachers were open to trying new things and had authentic conversations about what worked, what didn’t work, and where to go from here.”

Although some school boards found success, some met challenges. Not understanding the model correctly, especially at the high school level, and feeling that the model created additional work on top of what teachers were already doing made it difficult to get staff on board initially. Another hesitation some schools faced was being aware if the model was responsible for the increase in student achievement or if other changes had resulted in the increase because too many other variables were involved.

Other challenges schools faced once the PRTI model was in place included an increased number of student interventions needed, which often created challenges scheduling the Student Support Teacher or having enough support. One school explained that they put in place a Student Support Team, but struggled to meet the needs of all students referred by the third year of the program because of budget cuts and the volume of referrals they had received.

Over the three-year AISI cycle, many schools noted changes that occurred based on end-of-each-year reflections. Many schools took a stronger approach to implementing PRTI as a focus to further target increased student achievement and differentiation goals. At the beginning of the AISI cycle, some districts only had a few schools participating in PRTI; however, many districts increased the number of participating schools during the cycle. Some districts saw this as a first step towards implementation of PRTI; other districts wished to further develop this area during Cycle 5.

Seeing the value in additional supports, some schools broadened their student supports by including more members in their intervention teams. As well, some schools chose to target improving Tier 1 instruction during PLCs to ensure all students were receiving best practices of teaching. By improving Tier 1 instruction, fewer students were requiring intensive and targeted instruction, which was a benefit when supports were limited.

Based on the findings that occurred through the nine AISI projects, a number of suggestions for best practices when using PRTI are:

a)      Targeted instruction for students not succeeding with ongoing progress monitoring helps ensure that correct supports are being put in place to meet the students’ needs;

b)     collaborative team efforts in schools can lead to PRTI being more successful because staff can target all needs, instead of isolating students by classes;

c)      teachers must be well-informed and understand how PRTI is used in their classrooms or schools to be successful and gain teacher buy in;

d)     as PRTI grows in a school, the level of supports will increase because more students will be identified in Tier 2 or Tier 3 areas and so scheduling needs will also increase; and,

e)      an increase in the use of best practices at Tier 1 will reduce the number of further interventions required.

Implications for future research

As many schools move towards dissolving Special Education classes in favour of inclusion, while also focusing on increased student achievement, the need for the PRTI model will continue to grow in schools as staff and districts look for methods to help struggling students. Although this synthesis provides many reasons to incorporate PRTI as a model in all classrooms, it unfortunately also leaves the question about the impact PRTI has on student achievement when variables are hard to control. Many schools often introduced the PRTI model, along with other factors, such as differentiation, additional support, collaborative planning, and an increase on the use of best practices. None of these AISI reports compared how results from a school or class with PRTI might compare to schools who hadn’t implemented PRTI yet. This area seems open to future studies that might ensure other variables were controlled. For example, a study that compared a control group with an experimental group receiving the PRTI model would help researchers compare results to see which group had greater growth. Such research could become valuable as more schools implemented programs that might help them discover student success.


Alberta Education. About AISI. Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/teachers/aisi/researchers/about.aspx

Buffum, A., Mattos, M., & Weber, C. (2010). The why behind RTI. Educational Leadership, 68(2), 10-16.