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What Is Intervention in Education? Insights for K–12 Educators

10 Min Read
Student and teacher at a whiteboard in the classroom

Imagine a reading classroom where three students seem to be struggling with most of the vocabulary in a text, four students can read the text but not fluently, two students can read the text fluently but aren’t sure what it means, and one student thought it was math class. Do you have the right interventions to meet all levels of learners? In this article, we take a deep dive into what it means to provide students with math and reading interventions.

A supportive educational environment is something that every child should have. In recent years, national data on school performance is emerging that shows large gaps in learning. Since 1990, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administration found the largest drop in math performance in 4th and 8th grades. In fact, the NAEP notes that poor academic performance spanned across all socioeconomic and racial groups, suggesting declines across the board.

But when these learning gaps appear, there is a shared goal to help students overcome them. One way to work towards meeting benchmarks in academic testing is a comprehensive intervention strategy. Using educational interventions can help improve student outcomes in schools and districts, and it’s important that the intervention program proves effective and is backed by research, like Read 180 and Math 180.

Education Intervention Definition

Think of the definition of educational intervention as a set of action items that a teacher or administrator can take to improve a child’s academic progress. Typically, an intervention population in a K–12 environment refers to students who are performing below grade level, with intensive intervention being for students who are performing two or more years below grade level. There are various types of intervention strategies, such as enhancing personal interactions to understand your students' interests and experiences, setting up your classroom space to minimize distractions, finding what motivates your students, among others. Frameworks like multi-tiered systems of support and response to intervention are often put in place to get students on a pathway to success.

Importance & Benefits of Intervention

The importance of intervention in the classroom for students who are performing below grade level cannot be overstated. The sooner interventions are put in place, the sooner students can perform at their grade level and collaborate among their peers. According to EdWeek, “graduation rates fell in at least 31 states for the class of 2021, and the latest graduating class of 2022 had historically low scores on college placement tests.” Providing at-risk students with effective intervention is critically important for their future success and ability to compete in the job market.

When teachers have an intervention strategy in place, there are many benefits for students. As teachers give personalized attention and focus on certain skills or areas of study where students need support, students will likely make progress faster. Once students begin to see some progress in the learning, their confidence will build, allowing them to participate more fully in the core classroom.

Intervention Frameworks

There are three main intervention frameworks that help guide educators in the classroom. RTI is a tiered approach and relies heavily on data to drive decision-making for intervention, whereas MTSS uses tiered instruction to support all facets of student needs, including SEL. Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) focuses more heavily on behavioral, social, and emotional support and works well along with the other frameworks to support students.

Many educators wonder if they should consider MTSS vs. RTI. There are pros and cons to all of the frameworks, but they can also be used together for a comprehensive intervention approach.

  • Response to Intervention (RTI), when used most effectively, relies on data to identify student needs. According to the National Center on Response to Intervention, RTI uses the three-tier system to “maximiz[e] student achievement by integrating ongoing assessment of student progress with increasingly intensive intervention."
  • Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is an integrated, proactive framework of tiered instruction and support for all students. The framework helps educators to effectively allocate instructional resources, align academic and behavioral standards across the board, and support the well-being of the “whole student.”
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) focuses heavily on the social and emotional learning of the child and uses behavioral support from organizations in their networks to increase mental health care for students as an intervention strategy.

The 3 Intervention Tiers

You may recognize the RTI pyramid below as a typical way to visualize RTI. In this three-tier approach, teachers can pinpoint if students are behind, on, or ahead of their targets.

  • Tier 1 – General Core Instruction
    • This is the starting place for students as their academic performance is assessed. Start with rigorously designed and focused units of instruction and include engaging, differentiated instruction for all students.
  • Tier 2 – Targeted Interventions
    • Allow for more time and differentiated supports for students who HAVE NOT mastered the content priorities in the unit.
  • Tier 3 – Intensive Interventions
    • This tier is recommended for students who require significant intervention relative to their peers in foundational skills, such as reading, writing, numeracy, and behavior, and for students who have not responded to Tier 1 and Tier 2.

However, now that many more students are struggling with academic performance in a post-pandemic school setting, the model is shifting to a distribution curve. There are more students who need intervention, both in the core classroom and in an intervention classroom if available. It’s important to uncover instructional gaps and identify the right solutions for your students’ needs. Because more students require support to meet their benchmarks, Tier 2 and Tier 3 are tending to make up a larger portion of the classroom.

Push-in vs. Pull-out Intervention

A push-in model refers to students receiving flexible (and often digital) intervention as part of their core classroom experience. A pull-out model refers to students who receive intensive intervention in a class period that is separate from their core classroom and led by a teacher who is an intervention specialist. A flexible push-in model allows educators to keep students in the classroom and provide access to intensive intervention work within the core classroom period or block. The pull-out model supports teaching students with low academic performance outside of the core classroom to help them improve with intervention.

There are benefits to both practices. The push-in model allows for differentiated instruction and intervention to happen alongside peers who are performing on-grade level for the same standards. There is less stigma involved for students who are falling behind. It also allows for students to start on an intervention pathway earlier and in a less intensive structure. This could help educators to work with students before they need deeper intervention.

However, the push-out model allows students the space to have truly individualized assessment and support. Students will also have more time allocated to their intervention needs and a specialized teacher who can help them achieve academic success.

Special Education vs. Intervention

Special education and intervention have similarities and differences in their implementation in schools.

Both RTI and special education are in place to help students who need individualized instruction in the classroom. Years ago, RTI was regarded as a special education process because it was introduced in many districts and schools with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reauthorization in 2004. According to HMH's Director of Academic Planning and Data Analytics, Dr. Suzanne Jimenez, “through the RTI process, teams will sometimes find that the interventions are insufficient for students to progress. In some cases, these students may be referred for evaluation to determine if they have a disability and require special education services.”

Special education is personalized instruction that is designed and provided to students who qualify for more support. This could be part of the RTI framework, but would include more intense interventions and involve an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Incorporating the guidelines of RTI in special education work provides helpful guidelines when working with students.

Accommodations vs. Interventions

Accommodations and interventions can sometimes be confused, but they are quite different.

Accommodations can be made for all students, but some may need to be explicit for students with physical or learning differences, such as dyslexia. Accommodations are instructional adjustments made to enable students “to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities without lowering learning or performance expectations and without changing what is being measured.” These can look like extra time for a test, flexible seating in the classroom, or a public display of your classroom routine to help students with special needs.

Interventions can also be used in the core classroom but will be explicit for students who are behind grade-level with their academic performance. Some examples of interventions are individualized instruction and digital assignments on skills that need improvement. Using data to track the performance of a student to identify where they need more support is a helpful assessment for intervention teaching.

Students generally need different kinds of interventions and at different times depending on their academic performance. Accommodations are typically seen as a modification to how a child learns to help them improve.

Educational Interventions by Discipline and Student Population

Though many intervention strategies work across subjects, some interventions can vary depending on the discipline.

Interventions for Math Students

Students who need math intervention may benefit from one of these interventions:

  • Peer Tutoring - Pair students up and have them teach a concept to each other.
  • Account for Student Strengths - Create an interest survey where students share their feelings about math, along with their other interests, which you can then incorporate into math lessons.
  • Employ Metacognitive Strategies - Get students to think critically about math. How does math come up in their household?
  • Employ Mindset Strategies – Help students to talk more openly about math and reframe any negative thinking about the subject. If math feels achievable, their confidence will grow.

Read more math intervention strategies on Shaped.

Interventions for Reading Students

Students who need reading intervention may benefit from one of these interventions:

  • Word Study - All students need an understanding of sentences that should not come from memorization, but from a systematic scope and sequence that introduces each phonics skill progressing from simplest to more complex.
  • Fluency Practice - On top of reading words accurately, learning to read words with automaticity and connected text with fluency are crucial for comprehension.
  • Vocabulary Growth - Teachers can incorporate vocabulary instruction in a variety of ways, whether in their daily conversations with students, explicit vocabulary lessons, or selecting a variety of genres of texts.
  • Building Comprehension - The more readers know about a topic, the easier it will be to comprehend a text written about that topic.

Read more reading intervention strategies on Shaped.

Interventions for ELL students

English language learners (ELL), or multilingual learners, may also need intervention as they navigate new coursework, as well as a new language. They may benefit from one of these accommodations for ELL students.

  • Targeted Assignments - Assign appropriate tasks to individuals, groups, or the whole class. For example, practice oral fluency in a small group. You might suggest students incorporate a specified vocabulary list that will vary in difficulty by group.
  • Build Background and Make Connections - According to HMH consultant Dr. Elena Izquierdo, “When you have material that is relevant to a [student's] background and a program that incorporates building background, it makes all the difference in the world to engagement.”
  • Incorporate Visual Aids - Using visual guides, like anchor charts and timelines, can help students who are learning English as they progress in their language acquisition.

Helpful Intervention Resources

Luckily, there are many resources to help you navigate intervention. You can start on Shaped and read through our intervention articles and resources.

Find more intervention web resources below:

  • The What Works Clearinghouse is a “trusted source of scientific evidence on education programs, products, practices, and policies.” It is an investment of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the U.S. Department of Education that was established in 2002. You can find research on intervention on their website.
  • For more information on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), you can visit


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