Response to Intervention for Young Children with Extremely Challenging Behaviors: What It Might Look Like

Article excerpt

Abstract. Response to intervention is a framework for organizing planned sequences of prevention and empirically validated interventions ordered by intensity. Plans might increase or decrease in intensity depending on risk status and outcomes. If interventions are well sequenced and technically adequate, these outcomes can be interpreted (with other sources) as evaluation data concerning educational needs. This article presents broad-spectrum response to intervention as a method for answering practical preschool service delivery questions. Following a presentation of key literatures and a model for this purpose, and elaborating on decision making for extremely challenging behaviors, a case study adapted from a school psychology practicum is presented. The case study shows how response to intervention might work in preschools. Possible advantages, problem areas, and practice implications are discussed.


The promise of a response to intervention (RTI) framework stems from its focus on prevention, empirically based and sequentially designed interventions, progress monitoring, and data-based decision making. Prevention is used in two ways: (a) long-term prevention of risk and (b) specific prevention of challenging behaviors through instructional and antecedent environmental interventions (e.g., Neilsen & McEvoy, 2004). Building on discussions of RTI as a broad-spectrum model (e.g., Batsche et al., 2005), one that encompasses variables to reduce social and academic risks, this article presents RTI as a potential method of answering preschool service delivery questions.

Following a presentation of a context for challenging behaviors and a RTI model that includes strategies for addressing early risk indicators, a case study demonstrates its application in a Head Start setting. Advantages, challenges, and role implications are discussed.

Challenging Behaviors and Early Risk Indicators

In the present use, challenging refers to inappropriate, disturbing, or harmful behaviors that might be pervasive social excesses or deficits, situational disturbances, low activity engagement, and episodic crises. Extreme challenges have included highly aggressive children with other characteristics such as minimal language and behaviors such as elopement (e.g., Tarbox, Wallace, & Williams, 2003). Most evident has been the amount of child risk, need for family support, and the deleterious effects on classrooms (e.g., Carr, Taylor, & Robinson, 1991).

In the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA 04; IDEIA, 2004), these early challenges are variously referred to as emotional and behavior problems that might lead to serious emotional disturbance, possible characteristics of autism spectrum disorders, or inappropriate behaviors of children described as disabled that might require positive behavior interventions and supports. Internalizing, externalizing, or psychiatric classifications may be used. RTI provides a functional classification system that fits the challenges of young children and that may avoid inappropriate labeling (Barnett, Bell, Gilkey et al., 1999).

Prevalence estimates for behavioral challenges show rates as high as 7-25% in preschool populations, with higher estimates in high-risk populations (e.g., Feil, Walker, Severson, & Ball, 2000; Qi & Kaiser, 2003). Waiting for children who are at risk to begin schooling is late for prevention and intervention as considerable research links early challenges to later serious problems of adjustment (e.g., Campbell, Pierce, March, Ewing, & Szumowski, 1994).

RTI in Preschools and Head Start

Foundations exist for RTI components in preschools, including systemswide early intervention, positive supports, and problem solving (IDEIA 04; Prasse, 2006). RTI principles might be applied generally in early childhood, but here we focus on a Head Start program because these programs serve children and families characterized by risk factors (e. …