In The Special Education Teacher Identity Crisis: Prescriptive or Pragmatic? Part I, I discussed the special education teacher “identity crisis” as it relates to taking a more diagnostic/prescriptive role to planning instruction versus a more pragmatic role. I also described my observations of two special education teachers at the same school: one a novice and the other a master teacher. There is a great deal the novice teacher can learn from a master teacher across all facets of the school day; however, the greatest gift the master teacher can give to the novice teacher striving to meet the needs of students is how to apply the principles of data-based individualization (DBI). This process alone provides the key to having a firm foundation on which all strategies and methodologies will follow.

DBI is a research-based process for individualizing and intensifying interventions through the systematic use of assessment data, validated intervention, and research-based adaptation strategies. Because DBI is intended for students for whom standard approaches are not enough, DBI is not a single approach, manual, or preset program, nor is it more of the same instruction or intervention that occurred at lower tiers of support. Instead, DBI is a validated, ongoing, and iterative process in which intervention and assessment data are linked to inform adjustments to a student’s supports over time.

Compared to Tiers I and II, DBI is individualized to meet a student’s needs, involves more precise and frequent progress monitoring, and involves more intensive intervention, often with substantive changes in pedagogy and content (Danielson, et. al., 2015). For some students, it may not be enough to intensify Tier II intervention through qualitative changes such as decreasing group size or increasing intervention duration or frequency. Those with the most intensive needs, however, will require more significant and individualized changes to their supports.

While progress monitoring tells us when we need an intervention change, we need more information about how the intervention should be adapted. Diagnostic academic assessment and functional assessment of behavior helps teams determine the underlying reason for a student’s academic or behavioral difficulties, identifying target skills or behaviors that will be addressed by evidence-based interventions. Initial diagnostic or functional assessment may vary in formality and intensity according to the student’s needs. Once the student’s needs have been identified, evidence-based interventions can be matched to those individual needs.

The National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII) describes four categories of practice for planning intensive academic intervention:

  • Practice 1 is changing intervention dosage or time by increasing the quantity of instruction (e.g. by increasing minutes per session or the number of sessions). This allows more time for instruction and practice with feedback. While this may not be sufficient, this extra practice is critical as student with intensive needs may require as much as 10−30 times more practice than their peers to master new skills in mathematics and reading. Strategies for reducing transition time and increasing engagement will help make the most of this increased time.
  • Practice 2 is changing the learning environment to promote attention and engagement. Strategies include reducing group size, creating groups of students with similar needs, and changing the instructional setting to reduce noise and other distractions.
  • Practice 3 is combining cognitive processing strategies with academic learning, as students with intensive needs often struggle with processes related to executive function and self-regulation. Students who struggle with memory may benefit when we teach strategies for taking notes and organizing information, present information in multiple modalities, teach routines for important procedures, review prior learning before presenting new information, frequently check for understanding, use visual or verbal cues as reminders, and model memorization strategies such as mnemonic devices or verbal rehearsal. Strategies to support self-regulation and self-monitoring include modeling thinking aloud, including students in goal setting and progress monitoring, explicitly teaching and modeling the use of strategies and routines, teaching students to ask for help, highlighting behaviors that lead to improved achievement, and teaching students to reflect on their learning, understanding, and problem-solving approaches. We can help students make more positive attributions by including students in setting goals, connecting student effort to progress, and providing scripts or strategies to counteract negative self-talk.
  • Practice 4 is modifying delivery of instruction through prioritizing skills to be taught based on instructional match; providing systematic and explicit instruction; using simple, precise, and replicable language; providing frequent opportunities to respond, including opportunities for guided and independent practice; and providing specific feedback. Ongoing progress-monitoring data determine the student’s response to the adapted or new intervention. In cases where students are not making adequate progress towards their goals, teams need to consider the fidelity of assessment and intervention implementation, the sensitivity of the progress monitoring measure, and student factors that could impact engagement or performance.

Implementing DBI: The Challenges
One of the greatest challenges to implementing DBI in most school settings is the absence of a school team dedicated to designing and supporting intensive interventions. Most regular school-based teams separate academic and behavioral approaches through separate and distinct RTI and PBIS teams. DBI requires dedication to a combined approach. In our schools, many behaviorally challenged students have co-existing academic difficulties. Conversely, many learning disabled (LD) students also have behavioral difficulties as a result of academic frustration. In both examples, it is a chicken-or-egg dilemma. So, our ability to focus holistically on BOTH aspects—behavior and academics—provides a perfect opportunity to provide data-based individualization.

How can we do this in our schools? First, diagnostic detail can be obtained from both Catapult’s iReady Student Profile and Growth reports as well as both formal and informal skill-based assessments (e.g. informal reading inventories, spelling assessments, as well as formal testing such as WRMT, Key Math, and others). The important thing is to have a systematic process in place to look simultaneously at academic and behavioral needs. A process of analyzing data, identifying instructional need, choosing best available academic interventions, and monitoring progress is required. One mechanism is the “4-Step Student Plan ,” an approach to DBI that was implemented in model classrooms in several of our special education schools (Lanham, New Hope, Delaware) as well as in a few of our other Catapult schools. The 4-Step Student Plan is expected to expand across all Catapult schools in the coming year.

In the end, we do not want to lose sight of the pragmatic aspects of addressing grade-level-appropriate standards. Our students need to have access to grade-level curriculum with appropriate accommodations and modifications. However, we must never ignore the reason students are placed in our programs—to address both academic and behavioral needs. We must close the academic gap if our students are to benefit from the behavioral supports we provide. It is through intensive instruction that we can indeed “build confidence and competence through personalized academic interventions.”