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.


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