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MTSS vs. RTI: What’s the difference?

Morgan HugoboomNovember 1, 2022

MTSS vs. RTI: What’s the difference?

Does your school implement a response to intervention (RTI) approach? Wondering how it differs from the Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model? 

The two methodologies are sometimes discussed interchangeably, though they are not the same. RTI is an evidence-based academic support system for at-risk students. MTSS is an umbrella term that includes RTI while also incorporating programs to target behavioral and environmental factors that contribute to overall student success.

Both MTSS and RTI share certain key elements like data-backed decision-making and a tiered system of support and intervention. However, there are also some important differences between the two. By the end of this article, you will understand the key elements and differences of MTSS and RTI.

What is response to intervention?

Response to intervention (RTI) is a tiered support system that helps students who are struggling academically. The system is divided into three tiers, each one corresponding to a different level of support. Through tools like screenings and classroom observation, schools identify which students need further support. Students in Tiers 2 and 3 receive additional targeted support to help them succeed. Ideally, they’ll be moved to a less intensive tier where they can continue to succeed.

The three RTI tiers

Tier 1 Interventions: The whole classroom

If the response to intervention model was viewed as a pyramid, Tier 1 would be at the base. Sometimes known as “universal instruction,” this tier in the RTI model encompasses 80-85% of students. They all receive high-quality instruction that is appropriate for their developmental level. Students in this tier require very little intervention to perform at the same level as their peers.

Tier 2 Interventions: Targeted instruction

This tier typically includes 10-15% of students in a school. Students in Tier 2 will still receive the same universal education as Tier 1 students but they will also receive additional support such as small-group teaching. The goal is for students in this tier to address challenges and later be able to return to — and succeed in — Tier 1.

Tier 3 Interventions: Intensive individualized support

The smallest group at only 3-5% of students, Tier 3 provides individualized instruction such as 1-on-1 teaching. This tier can also involve outside support from specialized professionals.

Primary components of RTI

Data-based decision making

This is the core of every other aspect of RTI because it informs all decisions and practices involved. From deciding where a student falls on the RTI tiered system to measuring schoolwide progress, all points of response to intervention are guided by high-quality data.  

Universal screening

Schools implementing an RTI program screen all students to ensure that no one is missed who might need additional support. This also allows schools to see a schoolwide measurement of how students are doing and what their needs are. This universal screening continues throughout the year so struggling students are identified and supported quickly. By addressing issues at the start, schools provide more effective support for students before challenges become more significant.

Multi-level prevention system

As explained above, RTI is a multi-tiered system that depends on different levels of support per tier. This tiered system helps to identify and help struggling students before they face long-term issues. If a student does not respond to one level of support, they receive additional support at the next level. This tiered support system allows for targeted instruction with appropriate prevention at all levels of learning.

Progress monitoring

After identifying students who need targeted and individualized support, schools using RTI  continue to monitor student progress. For example, not all students require ongoing support and some are ready to succeed in Tier 1 after receiving the support they needed in Tier 2. Some students continue to struggle in their tier and need additional or modified support. Ongoing monitoring ensures that students always receive the resources that match their needs.

What is MTSS?

Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) is a comprehensive approach to supporting education. While MTSS typically incorporates RTI practices for academic support, it also addresses the behavioral and environmental challenges that might hinder a student’s learning.

Schools following an MTSS framework often employ RTI in conjunction with social-emotional learning (SEL) and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS.) Together, these provide a preventative support system that promotes positive learning outcomes for all students.

What are the key elements of MTSS?

MTSS will vary from school to school because the needs of each learning environment are different. The central goal is to build a framework that supports the unique needs of a particular school, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. MTSS strategies will look slightly different from one school to another, and that’s okay! 

While details of the model will vary across campuses, all multi-tiered systems of support should have the same fundamental elements in place.

Social and emotional support

MTSS understands that academic success depends on factors both inside and out of the classroom. In addition to bolstering academic support through response to intervention, MTSS also promotes frameworks like PBIS and SEL.

Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and social-emotional learning (SEL) improve academic performance in schools. They foster a more inclusive, engaging, and motivating classroom. They have also been shown to reduce instances of bullying, adverse behaviors, and instances of detentions and suspensions that disrupt classrooms and inhibit learning. 

MTSS tiers of support

Like RTI, the MTSS framework follows a tiered system to address different levels of student need. All students receive the same core support, regardless of where they fall in the tiered system. Regular screenings identify challenges and provide early intervention. This early detection of issues allows educators to support a student and resolve the challenge within their current tier. The tiered system also helps allocate resources to where they’re needed, reducing waste and focusing efforts on appropriately responding to student needs.


A successful MTSS framework relies on strong leadership. School administrators often provide a clear vision and set of goals for the program. They also share data and best practices, empower teachers with tools and professional support, and encourage students and parents to collaborate with the school as partners in shared success.

Focus on data

Just like in RTI, data is the main driver behind MTSS initiatives. The multi-tiered systems of support model is built on data and research, from the studies that corroborate its efficacy as a system to the regular data-tracking that schools perform in their classrooms. MTSS focuses on data to provide empirical benchmarks for success, insights for teachers on how successful their methods are in the classroom, and crucial insights for key decision-making.

Teacher resources and professional development

MTSS programs invest heavily in supporting teachers with the tools and resources that they need to successfully implement the MTSS initiatives. Support can include peer mentorship, professional development, data points and metrics on school performance and their own classroom data, and strong leadership that regularly invites collaboration and partnership when implementing MTSS. 

Parent engagement

A key element of MTSS is going beyond the classroom to engage directly with parents and caregivers. Schools using MTSS will typically share data and resources about MTSS and the student so that caregivers understand the logic behind MTSS as well as where their child might need additional support at home. MTSS programs invite caregivers to engage as valued partners in the student’s continued success.

Benefits of MTSS?

Multi-tiered systems of support employ a comprehensive framework to support the entire student. Benefits to MTSS include:

  • Targeted use of resources — The tiered system allocates resources according to need, and regular screenings ensure that students are continuously matched to their appropriate level of support.
  • Comprehensive system — The MTSS model relies on collaboration. This allows departments to work in tandem, schools and districts to share common goals, and students to enjoy a support system that is both cohesive and well-rounded.
  • Provides data points — Regular screenings provide school boards, administrators, parents, and teachers with snapshots of the program’s success. Issues can be identified and resources allocated. Teachers can track their performance in the classroom and see where they can refocus efforts. School boards and parents can review the data to remain confident in the program’s efficacy.

MTSS vs. RTI at a glance

While response to intervention and multi-tiered systems of support share many commonalities, there are ways in which the MTSS umbrella expands beyond what RTI offers. 

Typically addresses academic needsTypically addresses academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs
Supports students who are falling behind or are at riskSupports all students, regardless of need (with tiered support for students needing additional help)
Resources go to students who need additional supportResources go to all students as well as teachers, staff, and parents
Support takes place in the schoolSupport takes place in the school, the wider community, and in the home


Response to intervention and multi-tiered systems of support are both important tools in promoting student success. Whereas RTI focuses primarily on providing support for students who are struggling academically, MTSS expands this support to include factors like social-emotional and behavioral support. MTSS helps to collect various successful programs and implement them together as a cohesive, single model. On its own, RTI is a valuable tool for helping at-risk students succeed academically. Combined with other programs in the MTSS framework, the two provide a powerful approach to supporting students at every level.

Photo credit: Google Education

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Proven impact on learning and motivation

Learn how Classcraft’s approach demonstrates a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes.

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