Skip to main content
Elementary teacher giving a student a high-five for encouragement


RTI Goes to Pre-K

Can teachers and parents of preschoolers identify learning problems early enough to prevent problems later in school? The Recognition & Response model helps adults know what to look for and how to help, so that later remediation and special education may not be necessary.

On this page:

An early intervening system called Recognition & Response

Can teachers and parents of three- and four-year-old children recognize early warning signs of learning disabilities and intervene to mitigate or prevent the disability down the road? This was the question posed by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation to a diverse group of early childhood researchers, policymakers, administrators, and practitioners. Led by the FPG Child Development Institute (FPG), the group is using the principles of evidence-based practice to come up with an answer. The result is the creation of a dynamic systemic approach to addressing the needs of young children — Recognition & Response.

“Typically, the evidence base is established retroactively through evaluation of an intervention,” said Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D., FPG senior scientist and project co-director. “We quickly recognized that developing the evidence base for Recognition & Response from the onset would provide a powerful lens through which to develop innovations in the field.”

Step one: Research — what do we know?

With little existing information on the identification of learning disabilities for three- and four-year-olds and appropriate interventions for this age group, researchers looked to the Response to Intervention (RTI) movement used with school-age children for guidance.

In the past decade, RTI has changed dramatically how schools approach children who have characteristics of learning disabilities. Previously, children had to be formally diagnosed and labeled in order to access special education services. To be labeled as learning disabled, a child had to demonstrate a measurable discrepancy between his or her aptitude and academic achievement — something that typically does not occur until the second or third grade.

With RTI, labeling might be an end result, but not the trigger for assistance. “RTI essentially says why wait for a label? Why not intervene as soon as we see that a child is struggling to learn?” said Virginia Buysse, Ph.D., FPG senior scientist and project co-director. “If the child does well with extra support in the classroom, then the child may be able to avoid labeling and special education altogether.”

RTI emphasizes early intervening rather than waiting until children fail. Teachers use early and intensive interventions in the general education classroom before they refer children with learning difficulties for further assessment and special education services. A major premise of RTI is that early intervening can prevent academic problems for many students and determine which students actually have learning disabilities versus those whose underachievement can be attributed to other factors, such as inadequate instruction.

The key components of RTI (and Recognition & Response) are systematic screening and progress monitoring, the use of multiple tiers of increasingly intense interventions, and a problem-solving process to aid in decision- making. In both approaches (RTI and Recognition & Response), there is an emphasis on using interventions that have been found to be effective through scientific research and on linking assessment results to interventions that are specifically tailored to address individual needs.

3 RTI tiers

In the first tier of RTI, all children in a class are screened to determine if the curriculum and instruction are meeting their educational needs. If the majority of the children in a particular classroom meet predetermined benchmarks in academics and behavior, then the general education curriculum is presumed to be of sufficient quality. For children who are not meeting those benchmarks, the teacher employs a second tier intervention by modifying the curriculum or teaching methods for these children in ways that are minimally disruptive to classroom routines.

For children whose educational needs still are not being met, the teacher uses a third intervention tier of individualized instruction. A small number (perhaps 5 percent or less) will not respond to any classroom interventions and would be referred for special education services.

The RTI process requires collaboration between classroom teachers and specialists, continuous monitoring of individual progress, and research-based instruction and curriculum. In the past such cooperation would have been difficult because schools were not allowed to combine different sources of money to serve the same child, largely because educators faced an uphill battle to provide special education services. Policymakers feared that if money was not earmarked specifically for special education, it would be thrown into the school’s general funds at the expense of children with disabilities.

Schools are finally at a place where resources can be streamlined to maximize benefit. As a result, RTI is permitted under the new funding rules of the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004.

“Children’s needs are better met if we pool resources rather than fragment them. This is the pragmatic part of RTI. It allows you to blend resources and funding so that schools can better meet the needs of all children,” Coleman said. “Children access supports in the general education classroom based on need and not a label.”

Most importantly, there are some indications that RTI is working. A research synthesis conducted by Coleman, Buysse, and Neitzel on 14 studies concluded that there is an emerging body of empirical evidence to support claims of the effectiveness of RTI. The findings suggested that RTI is effective for identifying children at risk for learning disabilities and for providing specialized interventions, either to ameliorate or to prevent the occurrence of learning disabilities.

The authors noted that the synthesis findings are limited by variability across studies in how RTI was defined, implemented, and evaluated. Despite the limitations, the findings suggest that RTI is a promising approach, particularly because of its focus on sound instructional principles such as intervening early, using research-based interventions, monitoring student progress, and using assessments to inform instructional decisions. The authors concluded that intervening in kindergarten, and possibly earlier, is a promising practice that could produce positive outcomes for young children who are at risk for learning disabilities, but additional research is needed to evaluate the efficacy of this model for this age group.

Step two: Critical contexts — what's happening in the early childhood field?

Research paints only part of the picture. Any system for preschoolers must take into account the world in which it will operate. What are the values, beliefs, and recommended practices in the early childhood field about the best way to address learning difficulties in young children and how do these fit with the proposed Recognition & Response system?

“At every step, we had conversations with our partners about what this would look like in practice, what concerns teachers and parents might have, how the proposed system fit with current program practices and standards, and whether it made sense in the real world,” Buysse said. “We are continuing to ask these questions to make sure that our efforts are grounded in practice.”

Quality tops the list. Time and again, research has validated the importance of quality early childcare and the long-term benefits for children. Professional organizations have responded. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children established a national, voluntary accreditation system to set professional standards for early childhood education programs and to help families identify high-quality programs.

School readiness is another key context that came to the forefront in 1991 with the National Education Goals Panel. The panel stated as its first goal that “all children in America will start school ready to learn.” A smooth transition to kindergarten has been identified as critical to early school success. This recognition has given birth to a movement to create public early education programs. Today, most states offer some form of public pre-k. The Tremaine partners quickly recognized the importance of linking the Recognition & Response system to efforts aimed at improving children’s school readiness outcomes.

With the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1986, policymakers recognized the importance of early intervention. For the first time states were required to provide free and appropriate public education and related services for children ages three through five with developmental delays or disabilities (Part B-Section 619 Preschool Program). In addition, states had to develop a comprehensive system of early intervention services for children birth to three years with developmental delays or disabilities (Part C Infant-Toddler Program). The partners in the Recognition & Response initiative realized that any new system for early intervening would have to be coordinated with existing Part B-Section 619 (Preschool) and Part C (Infant-Toddler) services.

Click to see larger graphic

Step three: Research and professional wisdom come together

The melding of research and the field’s collective wisdom and values yielded what FPG and its partners have called Recognition & Response. This new system is specific to the needs of young children. It is not a replica of RTI; but it does benefit from RTI’s existing empirical evidence and its widespread support in the education field.

Recognition & Response is based on the premise that parents and teachers can learn to recognize early warning signs and respond in ways that positively affect a child’s early school success. This effort is critical because three- and four-year-old children who exhibit the precursors of learning disabilities — impulsivity, distractibility, speech and language delays, visual and auditory processing delays, and phonological processing deficits — generally do not meet the eligibility criteria for having a learning disability under state and federal guidelines.

The goal of Recognition & Response is to create high quality early childhood classrooms in which teachers administer periodic, universal screening for all children and research-based interventions and progress monitoring for individual children who show signs of learning difficulties.

Tier 1: Universal periodic screening

This tier provides teachers with the means of determining whether instruction for the whole class may need to be modified and helps them identify children who require additional supports. Teachers conduct universal periodic screening in key language and early literacy skills to (a) determine whether most children are learning in an expected manner and (b) identify children who need additional supports. Adjustments to the general education curriculum to improve program quality may be required in classrooms in which the majority of children do not meet learning benchmarks.

The project is developing a first-of-its kind screening tool (the Recognition & Response Observation and Rating Scale; RRORS) that will allow teachers and parents to document observations of children in natural settings to identify potential learning difficulties.

Tier 2: Group interventions

In tier 2, teachers provide standard research-based interventions that require minimum adjustments to classroom routines to targeted groups of children who do not make adequate progress in tier 1. Group interventions, such as teaching phoneme segmenting to three or four children with frequent opportunities to practice this skill through embedded classroom activities, are selected from a set of standardized research-based interventions.

Tier 3: Individualized interventions and referral

In tier 3, teachers implement more intensive and individualized instruction for children who do not make adequate progress in tier 2. An example of a tier 3 intervention would be the teacher working individually with a child using direct instruction and prompting. Children who do not make adequate progress in tier 3 may need to be referred for formal evaluation of learning disabilities or other special needs.

To make decisions about when to move from one tier to the next or to select particular intervention strategies, teachers should rely on a collaborative problem-solving process with parents and specialists.

At this time, specific guidelines for implementing Recognition & Response do not exist, although efforts are underway to create manuals that specify each of the components and to create the tools and resources needed to implement each component as part of an integrated system.

“There are two key principles behind Recognition & Response,” Coleman added. “It is never appropriate to deny a special education label when we have the evidence that one is needed. And it is never appropriate to deny classroom support that we know would be beneficial because the label is not attached.”

Recognition & Response exemplifies an evidence-based approach to developing innovations in the early childhood field. Rather than being an academic exercise, this collaborative effort reflects the real challenges of moving evidence-based concepts from theory into practice. The goal of this initiative in the coming years is to develop the resources and processes that will serve as the infrastructure for implementing Recognition & Response in practice.


FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2007, Spring). RTI Goes to Pre-K: An early intervening system called Recognition & Response. Early Developments, 11(1), 6-10.

For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.