Secrets to Implementing Secondary Response to Intervention that Work!

Typical Response to Intervention (RtI) models, grown out of elementary schools, have found success with younger clients having smaller numbers of students in a classroom, smaller schools, and manageable grade level teams. Most secondary schools simply don't fit this model and have struggled with implementing Response to Intervention (RtI) like their counterparts. In addition, many secondary schools struggle with buy-in from teachers and staff concerning primary RtI components, such as professional learning communities, implementing support programs for student who may not seem motivated to learn, and differentiating instruction with larger class loads. The sheer size of many secondary schools, as well as a teacher's student class list, is daunting to the bravest high school principal when considering RtI implementation. The square peg simply doesn't fit in the round hole. So, what's the secret?

The secret is: Cut a new hole for the square peg! Implementing RtI at the secondary level requires a much different approach from that of elementary. In general, people in organizations respond most willingly to change when they witness immediate results that benefit them individually. The same is true in this case. This article describes several specific strategies in implementing RtI successfully in secondary schools.

About the Author

Dr. Pam Bruening

Dr. Bruening, now Director of Planning & Services with Provenio Group, was formerly the Collier County, Florida's, Director of RTI and PBS where she oversaw the planning, implementation, data collection, and monitoring of one of the nation's most accomplished and acclaimed RTI programs. Dr. Bruening holds a Doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership and Human Resources Development from Nova Southeastern University. She holds a Masters of Education in Reading from James Madison University. More importantly, she is one of the nation's preeminent experts in RTI, PBS, and behavioral initiatives and has incredible experience as an educator, administrator, strategist, and implementer of services.

Start with Behavior

One strategy to secondary RtI implementation is to start with behavior, the greatest concern and frustration of most secondary teachers and administrators. Behaviors include attendance, discipline issues, engagement and attention to task in the classroom, and homework completion. In addition to creating greater buy-in from reluctant secondary educators, behavior changes quickly impact student grades and the classroom climate. One of the strongest frameworks provided for this kind of large scale implementation with a great amount of impact in a short amount of time is the use of Positive Behavior Support (PBS). School wide Positive Behavior Support (PBS) not only involves all students and staff, it has a tremendous positive impact on school climate and culture, a contributing factor to high student achievement. Moreover, PBS provides secondary schools with a systematic framework for reward and recognition which can be drawn upon for encouraging a variety of desired behaviors all tied to school wide expectations that define the culture of the school.

In implementing RtI for behavior, one of the challenges at any grade level is that of using systematic data analysis to drive organizational problem-solving, from the classroom to the administrative level. Carefully tracked behavior data, including office discipline referrals, attendance, and tardies, provides a plethora of information that can help teachers and administrators understand the organization's progress, analyze strengths and weaknesses, use resources wisely, and intervene in an timely manner. In addition, strong data analysis can lead to school administrators taking a more proactive stance in providing support in data-driven areas of need within the school. Making this data readily available to administrators, teachers, and professional learning communities (teams of teachers) encourages problem-solving discussion centered on data and empowers administrators and teachers to create proactive solutions and interventions in data-driven areas of need.

Focus on the Most At-Risk

Focusing on the at-risk factors for dropping out of school is another key strategy in successful secondary RtI implementation. Most at-risk factors are behaviorally based or at least related to behavior in some way. All are related to student achievement and if addressed directly, will automatically impact student achievement for the school. At-risk indicators include reading two or more grade levels below current grade, retention of one or more years sometime in the student's educational history, absences of 10 days or more within a school year, a high number of discipline incidents resulting in in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension, and one or more failing course grades.1 Focused attention to students with one or more at-risk indicators and implementation of early intervention increases student achievement, reduces drop-out rates, and allows further academic intervention within specific skill areas to make a greater difference in student achievement.

Student Engagement is Critical

A third strategy of focus in implementing secondary RtI should be that of establishing a variety of ways students can connect to school, and more importantly, with adults and students within the school setting. In fact, there is a high correlation between school environment and drop-out rates.2 By the time students arrive in secondary schools, many have started to disengage from school and are commonly viewed as unmotivated. One of the reasons students disengage from school is due to lack of connection to the social aspects of school and to their academics.3 The feeling of connectedness is also cited as one of the three keys in motivating students to learn.3 One of the greatest by-products of School Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) is the connectedness of school culture in that school expectations are linked to a variety of positive school behaviors and ultimately school pride. It provides a cohesive mantra upon which students and staff can embrace as their school culture.

The element of connectedness is paramount to RtI implementation in larger secondary schools, whether it is brought about by academic communities, freshman academies, or smaller learning communities within the larger schools. Schools reported as much as a 91% increase in grades for students who view school as an important and supported learning environment.4 While PBS implementation often meets and connects the motivational needs of many students, the implementation of several research-based strategies simultaneously focused in intrinsic motivation meet the needs of many more students. Secondary disengaged students have been found to respond positively to routine specific goal setting with regard to their courses.5 Students were also found to respond well with increased engagement and academic growth when the goal setting was combined with their own data analysis as part of the goal setting, regular positive teacher feedback, and the implementation of some student choice in learning activities.5

Don't Stop Working on the Big Picture

A fourth strategy in secondary RtI implementation is that of focusing on school wide issues with the tools that are already in place. Secondary school that focus on increasing attendance, decreasing discipline problems, and enhance the school culture usually experience an immediate increase in student achievement. This can be accomplished through the work of school based RtI teams with tools such as School Wide Positive Behavior Support and the planning and implementation of key school wide support systems addressing areas of concern. Simultaneously, teachers in professional learning communities can collaborate to solve academic issues by working together to strengthen their core instruction, personalize learning for students, and integrate simple interventions within their content classes.

Celebrate Your Successes!

A final strategy in implementing secondary RtI, especially in the creation of buy-in from students and staff, is to advertize every success in the form of data. People in general like to see accomplishment and trace growth. Not only does this re-emphasize the importance of RtI, it communicates a clear message concerning school wide goals, commitment to those goals, and creates a synergy among the students and staff regarding accomplishing those goals together. Advertizing success through data is a form of celebration, part of reward and recognition, and encourages further progress toward school improvement goals.

Implementing RtI at the secondary school level holds a plethora of challenges. By cutting a new hole for the square peg in tackling school wide issues first and focusing on drop-out prevention indicators, and building a positive school culture to engage both students and staff in this process, secondary schools can experience success in this endeavor. Ultimately, successful RtI implementation in secondary schools results in overall school improvement, decreased student drop-out rates, and individual student achievement, impacting society at large and the individual lives of many.




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  3. Holdsworth, R. (2004, June). Good practice in learning alternatives. Keynote address at the Australian Youth Research Centre, The University of Melbourne, Australia; accessed at
  4. Turpin, R. & Hinton, D. (2000). Academic success of at-risk students in an alternative school setting: An examination of students' academic success out of the main-stream school environment. Unpublished master's thesis, Campbellsville University, Kentucky; accessed at
  5. Albrecht, E., Haapanen, R., Hall,E., & Mantonya, M. (2009). Improving secondary school students' achievement using intrinsic motivation. Dissertation Thesis (ED504829); accessed at