Understanding Intensive Intervention within a MTSS Framework

Intensive intervention is an important tool that educators can use to address the learning needs of students with significant learning deficits. Often referred to as Tier 3 within a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework or a Response to Intervention (RtI) model, intensive intervention is an individualized and data-based iterative process that usually requires a significant commitment of school resources over a period of time.

When used carefully within the problem-solving process of MTSS or RtI, very few students will require intensive intervention. But, for those that need it, intensive intervention can create the conditions for their success in school and life.

What Is Intensive Intervention?

Intensive intervention involves direct and systematic instruction in core learning areas such as reading, writing, math, and social skills. The National Center for Intensive Intervention (NCII) is an online technical assistance center for resources related to intensive student supports. The NCII website identifies the five following key features of intensive intervention:

  • A Process
  • A sustained and ongoing level of support
  • Individualized to student need
  • Data-based (using progress monitoring and diagnostic data)
  • For a small subset of students

Each of these features is important to understand.

Feature #1: A Process

Intensive intervention is not just one lesson or program provided for a student for a fixed period of time. Instead, it is a process of trying possible options, collecting data, and reviewing the data to see if each option worked. When the first effort indicates the student did not respond to the intervention, the team needs to try again. Ideally, the first choice will work, but this is not always the case. For this reason, school teams need to understand that students who have significant learning difficulties, will require ongoing efforts to find the right solutions.

Feature #2: Sustained Over Time

Once the right solution is found, it needs to be provided for as long as it takes for the student to reach his or her goals. A student who is significantly behind his or her classmates will require dedicated resources in order to catch up. In some cases, the student might not “catch up” before reaching graduation age. For this reason, teams must understand that intensive interventions require a serious time commitment.

Feature #3: Individualized to Student Need

There are many reasons why a student might struggle in school. Therefore, there are many possible solutions for their success. Students who continue to struggle in school after participating in the Tier 1 core instruction as well as Tier 2 “standard protocol” supports have learning challenges that cannot be met using universal solutions that work for most students. For this reason, intensive intervention must always be designed for an individual student’s unique learning needs.

Feature #4: Data-based

In order to find the most promising solutions for students with significant learning challenges, teams need to examine student data. Scores from both Tier 1 universal assessments (e.g., benchmarks) and Tier 2 progress monitoring are the best sources of information about students’ specific learning needs as well as what has or has not worked for students in the past. There is no benefit to repeating efforts that did not work before. By examining individual student data, teams can identify specific learning needs as well as rule out instructional practices that did not lead to improvement. Together, this information will shed light on possible next steps.

Feature #5: For a small subset of students

The good news is that the increased resources and efforts to find solutions for students who require intensive interventions will be needed by a small number of students.  This is because the combination of Tier 1 core instruction plus Tier 2 supplemental intervention will lead to school success for the majority of students. Both statistical models and actual school data indicate that intensive intervention is necessary for only about 5% of all enrolled students.

Intervention Materials and Programs

A number of published materials that can be used for intensive intervention are available.  These materials include research-based procedures, often accompanied by teaching scripts that incorporate direct and systematic instruction (Stockard, Wood, Coughlin, & Khoury, 2018).  Such procedures include the following practices:

  1. Modeling: The teacher demonstrates the skill to students during a lesson.
  2. Guided Practice: The students try out the skill with a high level of teacher support.
  3. Independent Practice: The students use the skill with limited teacher support.
  4. Mastery: The students use the skill spontaneously in the classroom for the target purposes (e.g., students automatically read assigned stories without teacher help).
  5. Generalization: The students apply the skill to situations different from the setting where it was learned (e.g., students select and read stories at home).

The amount of time required to implement intensive interventions varies, however, creating and using specific time blocks in the student’s schedule will optimize intensive instruction outcomes.


The reality is that intensive intervention requires a significant commitment of time in order to be effective. As all teachers know, there are only so many hours in each school day. Students who require intensive intervention have (most likely) already participated in Tier 1 core instruction plus Tier 2 supplemental intervention.

While adding more instructional minutes to a student’s current schedule might be one way to provide intensive intervention, it is unlikely that there are any more minutes available for such activities. Teams also need to keep in mind that prior intervention efforts did not result in the student’s success. Given that there are a fixed number of minutes in each school day, and that prior or existing interventions did not work, Tier 3 intensive interventions can be provided in place of the Tier 1 and 2 instruction and intervention. When intensive intervention is provided at the same time as, and in the place of, the prior instruction it is called “replacement core” instruction.

As noted, intensive intervention should be for a few students. This is important because schools most likely cannot offer different “core” instruction for very many students. That said, for students whose learning needs have not been met with the standard core instruction supplemented with intervention, using the time blocks allocated for Tiers 1 and 2 makes it possible to have enough time in the school day for intensive intervention.

It is important to note that providing a “replacement core” program for students who have not found success with the standard program plus intervention does require personnel resources.  Although using the “replacement core” approach for intensive intervention is an effective way to individualize instruction, it also requires that additional teachers be available to provide such instruction. When school teams and leaders examine staffing needs and teaching loads, they need to think about which teachers will be assigned to teach the much smaller classes designed for students requiring intensive intervention.

Progress Monitoring

Intensive intervention should always be accompanied by regular progress monitoring. Given the fact that students participating in such intervention have very significant learning needs, the progress monitoring should be much more frequent than used for other students.

The importance of higher frequency is similar to how physicians monitor patients with certain health conditions more often. We recommend that students participating in intensive intervention complete weekly progress assessments. Weekly monitoring allows teachers to see how the students are doing at regular intervals so they can adjust instruction as needed. Importantly, interpreting progress data requires the accumulation of data over time.  When progress monitoring happens more often, review of the data and any needed instructional changes can happen more quickly.

Interested in learning more about how FastBridge supports intensive interventions? Contact us today.

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Stockard, J., Wood, T.W., Coughlin, C., & Khoury, C.R. (2018). The effectiveness of direct instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half a century of research. Review of Educational Research, 20, 1-29. DOI: 10.3102/0034654317751919.


intervention, response to intervention, MTSS/RTI, student achievement, Tier 3, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

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Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Dr. Brown is the Senior Academic Officer at FastBridge Learning. She was a faculty member at the University of Southern Maine for 16 years and has authored multiple books and articles about Multi-Tier Systems of Support (MTSS), Response to Intervention (RTI), and effective academic instruction.