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Student Interventions: One Size Does Not Fit All

By Terry Wilhelm February 27, 2013
Intervention Pyramid

A commonly missed step in improving a school-wide academic intervention system is to carefully consider the categories of students who need intervention.

There are roughly three categories of students needing academic intervention:

  1. Academically high-need but motivated
  2. Academically capable but not motivated
  3. Academically high-need and not motivated

Additionally, a student in any category may not have a home environment conducive to studying and completing homework (this may be unknown to staff members).

Developing your system without knowing your students individually or paying attention to their needs and characteristics will result in a system where many are still falling through the cracks. It is also important to note that a student can be in different categories for different classes at the secondary level, depending on his/her background skills and knowledge of the content as well as the relationship the student has with the teacher.

Best first teaching

The base of the pyramid structure of interventions is always best first teaching, with the classroom teacher having the first-line-of-defense responsibility to intervene for students who “missed the boat” during initial instruction. It is essential that the individual teacher does everything possible to not allow students to fall behind academically. Every teacher must have a re-teaching loop in place for the “missed the boat” students.  For the capable but unmotivated students, the problem may be poor classroom behavior and/or lack of work completion.

Collective effort and REDs

While each teacher has a moral imperative to provide as much base intervention at the classroom level as possible for each category of students, systems at the next level of the pyramid — the team level – quickly become a necessity. A teacher who cannot reach a failing, unmotivated, but basically capable student can benefit from the collective wisdom of others who have had success teaching similar students.

One effective team system is REDs (remediation/enrichment days), where students are re-grouped weekly or biweekly among the team to focus on their individual needs. Students in these groups include those who need help with homework, classwork catch-up for the capable/unmotivated, re-teaching for the students who did not achieve the new skills, and enrichment for those who demonstrated both capability and motivation (completed all the work).

At the secondary level, this is done period-by-period among the teachers who are teaching the course at the same time.

Principals: Improve interventions by encouraging teacher teamwork

Strong teamwork also benefits the planning process for each new unit of instruction.

Principals have the responsibility not only to know and intervene with individual teachers who are not providing an adequate “pyramid base,” but also to support the development of teams that are capable of providing mid-level interventions.  Only then will there be an effective school-wide safety net of interventions to catch any student in danger of falling through the cracks, and the tip of the pyramid be reserved for the very small number of students who need extreme interventions, such as special education referrals.

Terry Wilhelm has served as a public school teacher, principal, district office and area service agency administrator, and adjunct university instructor in educational leadership. She is a regular contributor to Leadership, the bimonthly magazine of the Association of California School Administrators.

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