When first establishing a school’s pyramid of interventions, it is important to first determine what supports and interventions are already in place, focusing on what the school already has, rather than what it does not. Schools already have a number of interventions happening that have not traditionally been viewed through the lens of a pyramid approach. As Buffum, Mattos and Weber (2009) remind us, “Historically, special education has utilized programs that have a strong research base, even when students may lack a diagnosed need in the area that the program targets. These programs should be adapted and reformulated for targeted intervention.” (p. 56, italics in original). In workshops and presentations, we have argued that this doesn’t need to be a convoluted or complicated process. By following the very simple workshop design detailed below, schools can begin to envision their own pyramid of interventions, specific to a focus area.
1. Determine the focus – the focus for the pyramid can be established in a number of ways. It may be guided by an analysis of data, to determine the area in most urgent need of attention. For instance, we have worked with schools where their data indicated a need to focus on the literacy achievement of students. We have also worked with other schools where school-wide data pointed towards supports and interventions related to student behavior.
The focus of the pyramid could also be determined by a school’s current area of strength, in order to gain confidence in constructing a pyramid. Knowing that a number of supports and interventions are already in place can assist in developing a comprehensive pyramid of interventions and provide a quick win for a school before later tackling more pressing areas of concern.
The school may also determine that a particular area of focus is appropriate for one set of grades while another is best suited for a different set of grades. We have experience in a school where the K-3 staff focused their efforts on devising a system of supports and interventions related to literacy, while the grades 4-6 staff placed their attention on broader academic skills.
Typically this focus area is determined before the workshop, either by administration, a leadership team or in alignment with a school’s improvement goals.
2. Ask “What are we already doing?”
In small groups, staff are asked the question “What do you do in your classroom or do we do in our school when a student struggles in our area of focus?” In their groups, they brainstorm and list all that currently happens as a response when a student struggles in literacy, numeracy, engagement, or whatever the focus area is for the question. The lists that are created are posted for all to see. Time is then provided for staff to ask clarifying questions of anything that is posted. At this point, a school could decide to leave the lists posted for a measure of time, to allow for further addition to the lists or for conversations to percolate prior to proceeding to step three. We have seen schools that have left the lists posted in their staff room for a number of days before returning to them for step three.
3. Organizing into Tiers
Step three places focus on organizing interventions, strategies and supports into defined tiers. Staff are divided into four groups. These groups can most easily be defined as:
- Best practices for all students in the classroom
- Differentiated strategies or interventions provided by the classroom teacher
- Programs or interventions provided by someone other than the classroom teacher
- Intensive interventions for highest need students
In these groups, staff survey the lists created earlier to determine strategies, practices, supports and interventions that best fit their group’s area of focus. These are written individually on large post-it notes or slips and paper and then grouped together on a wall, to visually organize current practices. For any duplications, discussion follows to determine the best fit (or to further clarify if being interpreted differently). The following posters have been developed to display, if already envisioning a four tier pyramid of interventions.
The collections of strategies, practices, supports and interventions become the foundation of a school’s pyramid, to be refined, added to and further clarified over time. For schools establishing a three tier pyramid of interventions, the first two categories described above become grouped together as agreed-upon best practices, as well as differentiated strategies and interventions employed at the foundational tier of the pyramid.
This exercise will also help to point to next steps. Perhaps the classroom-based best practices are collectively weak and need to be addressed. Perhaps the school overall is deficient in supports beyond the classroom teacher. This early molding of a pyramid of interventions also can point to coaching opportunities, capitalizing on the instructional strengths of staff in the building. If “internal expertise is of more value than what we import” (Schmoker, 2006, p. 118), this can point to areas of internal expertise that can be utilized to improve instructional response across a school.
Buffum, A., Mattos, M., & Weber, C. (2009). Pyramid response to intervention: RTI, professional learning communities, and how to respond when kids don’t learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.