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What is a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS)?

Mary DeanMarch 12, 2020

Teacher helping students

Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) offer an excellent way for administrators and teachers to provide structure and support to students at school. Simply put, MTSS is a framework consisting of three tiers that target a different level of need among students. We’ll go into more detail regarding these tiers below.

What does multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) aim to solve? 

Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) focus on two areas: behavioral and emotional support. What sets this framework apart from other behavioral strategies is how it is implemented. In other words, instead of dealing with a problem after the fact, MTSS aims to proactively identify behaviors and other signs that a student needs extra support before the problem worsens. 

Some MTSS strategies can include:

  • Comprehensively screening all students early in the school year to identify warning signs or problematic behavior.
  • Monitoring the progress of identified students to ensure interventions are working. 
  • Implementing a multi-tiered prevention system schoolwide. 
  • Explaining the system (important!) so that students understand its purpose, ensuring the best results. 
  • Using data-based decision-making to identify the right strategies to support a struggling student. 
teacher helps students computer
Photo: Google Edu

What are the three tiers of MTSS?

In the world of MTSS, there are three tiers under which a student may fall. Usually, the tier level is determined during the initial screening of each student and can improve or worsen depending on the actions taken by school staff. These tiers are targeted at the class as a whole, followed by small group interventions and then one-on-one support.

Tier 1: The whole class

Think of MTSS as a pyramid with three parts. Tier 1 is the base of the pyramid and by default, every student is part of it. The students who stay at Tier 1 do not need specialized treatment.

The next two tiers are targeted at students who are struggling in certain areas of instruction. These students may need a combination of the three tiers to succeed, or they may fit in one tier better than any other. Tier 1 is a great place to start when identifying students who may need extra support. If you identify a struggling student, move them up one tier at a time until you see a marked improvement.

Tier 2: Small group interventions

Small group interventions fall in the middle of the MTSS pyramid. This tier includes a slightly smaller group of students but is still relatively large. Students who fall in this tier need moderate support to reach their full potential.

Many teachers and administrators find that breaking up these students into a small group works well to improve their academic or behavioral success. These students receive targeted, supplemental instruction to ensure they don’t fall behind their peers.

Tier 3: One-on-one support

One-on-one support is at the top of the MTSS pyramid. Tier 3 encompasses the smallest group of students defined by MTSS and requires the most attention. Students who fall under this category need a much more targeted and individualized approach to solving academic and behavioral problems.

Additionally, students who are classified under Tier 3 of MTSS need longer sessions and a more tailored instructional experience than their peers. Teachers, administrators, and other school personnel must work together in order to pave the best path of success for these students.

teacher helps student
Photo: Google Edu

What are some MTSS early indicators?

So we know that teachers and other school staff are encouraged to look for warning signs in students and immediately apply strategies to address them. But what are these signs, and what do they look like in a school setting? Answering these questions is essential to the success of MTSS and making a difference in students’ lives.

1. Failing grades

Failing grades are one of the most prominent indicators that a student needs targeted instruction to assist them. Teachers are encouraged to keep a close eye on their students’ grades and determine why these problems are occuring (if they are at all). Students may need to be broken into smaller groups or given access to one-on-one instruction with a narrow scope of guidance in order to catch up with their classmates.

2. Misbehavior

Students who don’t understand what is going on in the classroom are more prone to exhibit misbehavior. This can be the result of frustration or embarrassment, or it could be an indication that these students need more focused attention in order to succeed. Instead of punishing kids for displaying this type of behavior, MTSS seeks to find the root cause of the problem and fix it proactively to prevent further issues from arising.

3. Poor attendance

A poor attendance record can develop for a number of reasons, one of which is difficulty in understanding school assignments or doing poorly in school. A student who doesn’t feel like he or she is succeeding in school may not be motivated to come in each day. When school staff recognize an attendance problem, it may be necessary to provide more targeted support in order to redirect or improve that type of behavior.

teacher helps one student
Photo: Google Edu

What are some MTSS examples?

Multi-tiered systems for support take on many shapes and forms. In fact, MTSS can be described as an umbrella term for many other schoolwide strategies aimed at improving academic and behavioral health.

1. MTSS and RTI

RTI, or response to intervention, focuses mainly on improving students’ grades. This process identifies students who struggle academically and aims to help them catch up with their classmates. RTI employs a similar system as MTSS does: separating under-performing students into different categories based on the level of support they need.

2. MTSS and PBIS incentives

MTSS allows teachers to determine which students are in need of the aforementioned incentives, and how those incentives help improve the academic performance of the students. This goal is to encourage positive behavior by using a reward system. In other words, instead of focusing on punishing students for misbehavior, PBIS incentives concentrate on promoting positive behaviors.

3. MTSS and special education

If a Tier 3 student doesn’t respond well to MTSS interventions, a special education evaluation may be needed. These students may have mental health difficulties that can be better served in a personalized educational environment. These evaluations are often performed following an extensive MTSS process that includes a lot of documentation.

4. MTSS and ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mentions MTSS explicitly in its subject matter. More specifically, ESSA states that expanded access to psychological support in schools is imperative to students’ success. ESSA suggests that a school psychologist is a valuable resource who can positively affect students’ success regardless of which MTSS tier they fall under.

School psychologists employ many different strategies to help students reach their full potential, academically. These trained professionals are specialized in doing the following within a school environment:

  • Assist teachers and administrators to tailor a plan specifically designed for students who struggle in various areas at school.
  • Serve as a hub of communication between teachers, administrators, school counselors, and parents to bridge the gap between school and home life.
  • Help strengthen bonds between students and school staff, making for more engaged and supported students.
  • Answer questions from school staff and parents regarding how to diagnose and solve observed academic or behavioral problems.

Multi-tiered systems of support and you

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or are implementing MTSS in your school for the first time, you can be successful. As long as you watch for the warning signs and apply the interventions promptly and proactively, you will see the positive results you want.

Students who have access to an extensive team of support personnel with strategies in place to help them reach their full potential are better equipped to do well in school. As long as MTSS is implemented correctly, no child should have to worry about falling behind or failing in school.

Photo: Google EDU


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