Guest Post: Universal Design for Learning and Differentiation: The Firm Foundation for RTI in Your Middle School Classroom

By Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., and Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., coauthors of RTI in Middle School Classrooms: Proven Tools and Strategies

Kelli Esteves EdD, FSP Author

Kelli Esteves

Imagine a middle school where teachers and students delight in the diversity each student brings to the learning environment. The classrooms are places for students to deeply engage in learning that capitalizes on their interests, multiple intelligences, and cultural backgrounds. New ideas are built upon prior knowledge, and personal growth is valued above all. Educators work and study together in a professional community with a shared goal of delivering a student-centered education that meets the needs of all learners. Maybe this is a middle school organized around a well-coordinated Response to Intervention (RTI) structure, or maybe RTI has never been mentioned. Either way, the school has figured out a way pull together and educate the hearts, minds, and spirits of their students.

It might seem like an unreachable ideal, but it is not. We hope many readers are nodding their heads in agreement and recognize their school in this description. We are not writing this blog post to convince you that RTI is an education panacea, but we believe that RTI is worth championing and, if well implemented, can significantly increase the academic, social, and emotional development of your middle school students.

Elizabeth Whitten, PhD FSP author

Elizabeth Whitten

Response to Intervention is a way of honoring diverse classrooms by using a school-wide team approach to planning for and responding to learner diversity. The foundation of RTI is the implementation of curriculum and instruction grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and differentiation. Intentionally designing your instruction, curriculum, and students’ learning environment to acknowledge learner diversity is the basis for UDL.

As educators, we know that learners differ in a myriad of ways; therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach has been (and will always be) an ineffective means of engaging all learners. How does RTI help? The framework for RTI involves a multifaceted approach to assessment, involving students in personalized goal setting, instruction aimed at meeting goals within a multi-tiered system of support, and the monitoring of each learner’s responsiveness to instructional interventions. A single “right way” to implement RTI does not exist, but these essential elements must be actualized in order for the approach to be considered RTI.

Let’s break down the multi-tiered system of support to address how UDL and differentiation complement one another, and how they dovetail with RTI. Tier I, the foundation, involves the UDL approach. UDL is “a framework for guiding educational practice that a) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the way students are engaged; and b) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains instructional accommodations” (Thompson, Morse, Sharpe, and Hall, 2005, as cited in RTI in Middle School Classrooms). It’s a pedagogical approach that incorporates multisensory instructional methods and encourages students to make choices about how they will learn. Differentiation is similar, but is more reactive to individual student needs. It is done in fluid ways throughout the delivery of lessons and during the assessment process. Differentiated classrooms are responsive to the student range in readiness levels, interest areas, and learning profiles.

RTIinMiddleSchoolClassroomsIn a similar way, providing Tier II or III level of support is a response to a student who is not succeeding at a Tier I level of support. It’s about responding to the learner and crafting a different approach that is aligned with his or her specific strengths and needs. It’s not the 21st-century version of tracking students. Instead, it is a marriage of UDL and differentiation based on learner preferences, interests, and academic readiness, which together make learning more enjoyable, effective, and efficient.

Implementing RTI successfully takes a school-wide collaborative effort led by educators who believe in an inclusive community in which learner diversity is embraced. Planning for and responding to different levels of academic readiness is not a challenge when we choose to see and honor the knowledge each student brings to our classroom, and when we expect students to have diverse skills and abilities. We believe that our middle school students deserve the learning environment described in the opening paragraph. If you agree, place UDL principles and differentiation at the foundation of the RTI framework.

Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kelli has experience as a special education teacher and reading specialist in the Rockford (MI) Public Schools.

Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., is a professor of special education and literary studies at Western Michigan University. Prior to her eighteen years in higher education, Elizabeth was a teacher and administrator.

Kelli and Elizabeth are the authors of RTI in Middle School Classrooms.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Counselor’s Corner: Kids’ Goal-Setting: SMART Goals

Smart Goals Blackboard SignAs educators we are called upon at the beginning of each school year to set goals for ourselves. Throughout the year, we reflect and change our practice based on our goals. Educators and parents can play a valuable role in modeling goal-setting and teaching students how to set goals of their own.

To help your students set goals, declare a week in October to be Kids Goal Setting week. Here are examples of SMART goals for students at each school level.

SMART goals are:

  • Specific. What is it that you want to accomplish? Usually answers the 5 Ws (Who? What? Where? When? Why?)
  • Measurable. How will you know when the goal is accomplished?
  • Attainable. Is it realistic?
  • Relevant. Does this goal meet a need?
  • Time-bound. What is the deadline for meeting this goal?

SMART Goal for Elementary Student
dreamstime_s_21260519-c-pressmaster.jpgPoorly defined goal: Become a better reader.

SMART Goal: I will increase my reading level from a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) score of 30 to a DRA of 40 by the end of third grade. To reach this goal, I will increase my reading time outside of school from 20 minutes a day to 30 minutes a day. I will go to the library with my family and pick out books at my reading level that interest me. (This goal would require adult help to write.)

  • Specific. The goal identifies a specific reading score increase.
  • Measurable. The goal is measurable with DRA scores and states a specific desired increase in that score. It also has a measurable means for attaining the goal: a specific number of minutes for which the student will increase daily reading time.
  • Attainable. The student’s goal represents a reasonable amount of progress given the time frame.
  • Relevant. This goal is relevant for an elementary school student because reading is an important skill to practice at the elementary level.
  • Time-bound. The goal has an end date and takes into account the amount of work that will need to be accomplished in that time frame.

SMART Goal for Middle School Student
wikimedia commons kids choir detail by Eva Rinaldi
Poorly defined goal: Participate in extracurricular activities.

SMART Goal: I will participate in three extracurricular activities during my 6th-grade year. I will make a list of clubs and sports programs in which I am interested and then talk to teachers or advisors of those organizations. I will complete applications for the organizations by the required due dates.

  • Specific. The goal identifies a specific number of extracurricular activities and a process for selecting and joining them.
  • Measurable. The goal is measurable because it states a specific number of activities in which the student will participate.
  • Attainable. Three extracurricular activities is a reasonable number for a middle school student to participate in throughout the whole school year.
  • Relevant. This goal is relevant for a middle school student because it is important for middle school students to establish interests outside of school and to make friends.
  • Time-bound. The goal has an end date and takes into account the amount of work that will need to be accomplished in that time frame.

SMART Goal for High School Student
College applicaiton formsPoorly defined goal: Apply to college.

SMART Goal: During the fall of my senior year, I will complete applications to five colleges by November 15 in order to get them in by the November 30 deadline. To accomplish this goal, I will decide on five colleges to apply for by meeting with my school counselor. I will gather all the application materials I need (including three letters of recommendation), write my personal essays for the schools, and submit the applications online.

  • Specific. The goal names a specific number of applications to complete, a process to follow, and a timeline for doing so.
  • Measurable. The goal is measurable because it states a specific number of schools for which the student will apply.
  • Attainable. This goal is realistic because it gives a reasonable number of schools to apply for in the amount of time specified. It also gives some buffer time if the goal is not met so the student still has time to finish the applications by the November 30 deadline.
  • Relevant. This goal is relevant for a high school senior seeking to attend college after high school.
  • Time-bound. The goal has a specific end date and takes into account the amount of work that will need to be done in that time frame.

Check out my previous Free Spirit Publishing blog posts about SMART goals here.

How do you help students create SMART goals?

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Guest Post: Committing to a Peaceful Year on the International Day of Non-Violence

By Naomi Drew, author of  The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts,  and Christa Tinari

The International Day of Non-Violence, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, is celebrated each year on October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. UN Intl Day of Non-Violence bannerThis day affirms “the universal relevance of the principle of nonviolence” and the desire to create “a culture of peace, tolerance, and understanding.” On this day, schools and organizations worldwide focus on awareness, action, and education.

Sadly, too many kids in North America and around the world live with the daily threat of war, neighborhood violence, and domestic violence. Even for those who don’t, bullying and social cruelty can bring a more subtle form of violence into any child’s life.

Naomi Drew, M.A., FSP Author

Naomi Drew

The good news is that our classrooms can be havens of safety and peace. As one seasoned fifth-grade teacher said, “My classroom is always a place of great kindness and respect. It’s something I strive to create every single year. My kids thrive as a result.” As educators and youth-serving professionals, we each have this capacity—and this responsibility. It starts with an unwavering dedication to creating a peaceful classroom, and it lives in what we model for our students moment by moment, day by day.

Christa M Tinari courtesy PeacePraxis dot com

Christa M. Tinari

It’s important to remember that nonviolence is not simply the absence of physical or emotional violence. Instead, it’s a commitment to respecting the dignity and human rights of all people. In practice, nonviolence requires awareness of self and others, fairness, compassion, communication, critical thinking, and conflict resolution. With today’s packed schedules, these essential character-builders are often the first things to go. That’s why we are such strong advocates of putting them back into every classroom—now!

To help you with this mission, here are some practical things you can start doing today and continue all year.

Start each day with a peace pledge.
Kids will value what we value most. By taking a moment each morning to say a simple peace pledge after the Pledge of Allegiance, we show them that we take this very seriously. Here’s a short pledge you can start using now:
“We pledge to be peacemakers at all times,
to treat others with kindness and respect,
and to live by the Golden Rule.”

You can also make up a pledge with your students. Sometimes that’s even more meaningful.

Create an awareness of the classroom as a caring community.

What we give attention to increases. Here are some questions you can pose to your students as they work and interact with each other to build the kind of community we want:

  • What can we do to encourage and support each other?
  • What can we do so every member of the class feels safe and accepted?
  • How kind and cooperative are we being right now?
  • What will help us get back on track, together?

By the way, here’s a poem you can use to set the tone.

Model and expect kindness, respect, and compassion. 
Then set the expectation that these three things are the class standard. Never settle for less. As Gandhi reminded us, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Let kids know: “In our classroom, kindness counts!”

Click here for five free lessons that will help you make this happen (scroll down that page).

Introduce the concept of “basement and balcony.” 
When we’re faced with conflict and anger, we often go down to the basement of ourselves and act from the lowest part. Instead, we need to choose the balcony, and act from the higher part—the part that can communicate respectfully and hear what the other person has to say.

To help your students learn to navigate conflicts respectfully, try the conflict resolution guidelines at this link.

To help them manage anger, try this activity.

Teach students about inspiring role models of nonviolence.
Sometimes it’s hard for children to understand why they should take the high road. But we know that violence begets violence, so in order to break the cycle, we need to make another choice. Amazing things can happen when we do! Help kids understand the power of nonviolence by sharing the story of Malala Yousafzai. Attacked by those who wanted to deny her right to education, Malala redoubled her efforts to help other students through peaceful means. See her story here.

For an excellent free downloadable curriculum titled “Actions of Peace” from the Rubin Museum in New York, click here. It’s filled with wonderful creative activities and can be adapted for all age groups.

For a list of recommended reading for educators on peace, nonviolence, conflict resolution, and more, click here.

And be sure to share the following words of Gandhi with your students: “If we wish to have real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.” For more information on the International Day of Non-Violence, check out this link.

Wishing you a peaceful year!  – Naomi and Christa

The authors are seeking middle school educators to administer an anonymous, brief, national student survey about conflict, bullying, and kindness. Teachers who opt in will receive a special free offer from Free Spirit Publishing. Contact or to learn more.

Naomi Drew, M.A., is recognized around the world for her work in conflict resolution, peacemaking, and anti-bullying. NoKiddingAboutBullying © FSPShe is the award-winning author of seven widely used books, including her most recent, No Kidding About Bullying. Her landmark book, Learning the Skills of Peacemaking, was one of the first to introduce peacemaking into public education. Her work has been featured in magazines and newspapers across the United States, including Time, Parents, and The New York Times. For more information, go to

Christa M. Tinari, M.A., is a nationally known safe schools specialist who has worked with thousands of teachers and students to prevent bullying and implement social-emotional learning in the classroom. A former Student Assistance Counselor, she is founder of PeacePraxis Educational Services, creator of the Feel & Deal™ Activity Deck, and co-creator of the School Climate Thermometer®. She can be reached at and at

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2014 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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5 Ideas for Anti-Bullying Bulletin Boards

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. If you’re looking for ways to motivate students to keep the anti-bullying message fresh and clear at your school, try some of these ideas for bulletin board activities, many of which can be adapted for students of any age.

1. Good Reason in Season Tree
Anti Bullying TreeA tree full of good reasons to stop the bullying! Create a large, leafless tree with many branches on your board or wall. Make it easy to pin or tape items on and usable for the entire school year. Then cut leaves in seasonal shapes and colors, or try snowflakes for winter and flowers for spring. For each season, cut 20 or more leaves. Write one anti-bullying idea, technique, reason, or upstander activity on each leaf. You can repeat messages in each seasonal set, or use new ones. Put the fall leaves in a jar and every day have a student select one, read it, and put it on the tree. When the tree is covered with leaves, remove one fall leaf each day and replace it with a winter snowflake. This can serve as a daily reminder of good behavior in your classroom and school.

2. Act It Out!
Make your bulletin board look like a theater marquee, leaving a large spot for a Now Playing poster. Every few days, pop up a “poster” sharing a bullying scenario. Bully Free MarqueeAsk students to create short plays and act them out, showing how they would respond to the situation depicted on the Now Playing poster. Each time you change the poster, a new cast can star in the next anti-bullying show. Keep an eye on students’ reactions, too—laughter and applause are great, but no bullyish critics.

3. Book ’Em
Cover a bulletin board with anti-bullying book titles, or have kids draw pictures to depict something from the books. Highlight two or three age-appropriate books that show great ways to stop bullying. For young children, reading them in class is great. Ask older students to find an additional book suggestion in the library and tell the class why they picked it.

4. The Great Put-Down Rewrite
Listening to the radio, a lot of catchy tunes have lyrics that seem to celebrate bullying or treating others poorly. Sometimes they tell tales of being put down by others. Have the class select a song. Post the lyrics, leaving lots of room between lines, and ask kids to rewrite them to create an anti-bullying version of the song. Leaving it up for a few days might encourage more kids to participate. Perhaps a few brave students will decide to belt out the lyrics!

5. It’s in the News . . .
Negative adult headlinesPolitical campaigns. Terrorism. Questionable sportsmanship. Road rage. Fashion critics. Controlling bosses. Schools may send out a zero tolerance message for bullying, but kids hear the news or see bullying behavior from public figures, and that has a lasting impact. Bring a newspaper or magazine to class. Have the kids select examples of adult behavior that don’t stand up to their test of being bully-free. Plaster half of the bulletin board with those stories and images. Then have people find stories that are positive—about upstanders, paying it forward, viral kindness, and more. The contrast is sure to make for interesting discussions.

Looking for Resources?
Check out Free Spirit’s full list of bullying prevention and conflict resolution resources at this link. We also love this suggested reading list put together by our friends at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.

What bullying prevention messages get kids’ attention in your classroom?

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Guest Post: Getting Off to a Good Start with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

By Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., and Charlotte Ryan, Ph.D., authors of The PBIS Team Handbook

Beth Baker, FSP Author

Beth Baker

As we near the end of September, the excitement of the beginning of the school year has probably faded somewhat at your school. But it’s still early in the year, and there are several things teachers, PBIS teams, and administrators can do to promote a successful start to their PBIS programs.

  1. Plan to reteach the schoolwide expectations to students, staff, and others. Review the process for teaching and acknowledging positive student behavior. Schools that do this right away often report their best ever start to a new year.
  2. Plan to teach and orient of all new students and adults at the school in PBIS principles. Turnover of students and staff is a given in all schools.
  3. Char Ryan, FSP AUthor

    Char Ryan

    Make sure the expectations and matrix are current and posted in all settings.

  4. Review the school social and behavioral goals with staff and assure buy-in. Use your end-of-year data to recognize progress and set goals for the year.
  5. Schedule time to discuss PBIS at faculty meetings over the course of the entire year.

Behind the scenes, the PBIS Leadership Team has met well before school begins and will have reviewed office discipline referral (ODR) data from the previous year and set action plans for the new year. Some questions they might ask:

  • How much of a reduction in ODRs have we had?
  • Which behavioral categories have the highest and lowest numbers of referrals?
  • Was our schoolwide reinforcement system embraced by the students and staff? In what way?
  • Do our behavioral expectations continue to be relevant to our school community?
  • How will we kick off our new school year?

When Beth was a PBIS coach, the building principal liked to start off the school year with grade-by-grade assemblies. There was music, balloons, and a video of the staff and students from the previous year. There was excitement as she welcomed everyone to a fresh start. This was also the time when she restated and re-modeled the school expectations.

When Char was a trainer and evaluator, she worked with researcher Kent McIntosh and others to conduct a piece of research that compellingly illustrates the benefits of early intervention and PBIS. Known as the “October Catch,” this work demonstrated a couple of important findings. First, students who had two or more referrals by October were highly likely to have more than six by year’s end. October Catch for PBISThe other dramatic finding was that screening with Office Discipline Referral data and intervening when a student had two referrals reduced this trajectory so that students did not follow the trend of more referrals, and consequently did not lose instructional time. We have the data and we have the power to influence behavior of all students in a positive and predictable way. This is the time of year when the benefits for prevention and early intervention abound.

Have a terrific start to the year and recognize the power of being positive.

Beth Baker, M.S.Ed, is an independent behavioral consultant and intervention specialist at Minneapolis Public Schools, where she works to create positive behavioral environments for elementary students. PBIS Team Handbook from Free Spirit PublishingShe was formerly the lead PBIS coach for a school district in the Minneapolis metropolitan area, as well as a special educator working for many years with students who have emotional behavioral disability (EBD) needs. Beth lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Char Ryan, Ph.D., is a PBIS coach, evaluation specialist, and Minnesota State SWIS (Schoolwide Information Systems) trainer. She is also a licensed psychologist and consultant with the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health. Formerly, Char was an assistant professor at Saint Cloud State University and state PBIS coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning. She is a frequent conference presenter and has been published in numerous journals, including Psychology in the Schools. Char lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Char and Beth are the authors of The PBIS Team Handbook.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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