What Is a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) in Education?

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Multi Tiered System of support HERO

As educators, we know how important it is to identify struggling students early and intervene quickly. Implementing a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) can help.

What, exactly, does MTSS mean? 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.”

Data-driven and focused on problem solving, MTSS guides educators to make smart decisions about how to work together to support the needs of every student. The MTSS process is also an iterative one, in which educators assess data on an ongoing basis so that they can adjust and improve.

The MTSS model encourages collaboration and communication throughout the entire school infrastructure. At all levels—from the classroom to administrative leadership to technology support—stakeholders work together in a systematic fashion to support positive outcomes for all students.

“I believe the heart of a good MTSS model is the dedication of those staff (teachers, counselors, social workers, and psychologists) who are constantly identifying and engaging in supporting student needs,” says Scott Wuggazer, assistant superintendent for student services at Community High School District 99, in Illinois.

What Is the History of MTSS?

The concept of MTSS in education was first introduced under the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, but implementation differs from state to state and within specific school districts. Some states may even refer to it by a slightly different name, such as a “multi-tiered system of supports” rather than a “multi-tiered support system.”

There is no one official version of MTSS. But the essential MTSS framework encompasses many elements of two others that preceded it, both of which also rely on proactive policies and have multi-tiered systems. Many educators may be familiar with these already: RtI (Response to Intervention) and PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports.)

RtI, which emerged after the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), has traditionally focused on maximizing students’ academic achievement with ongoing assessments and interventions.

PBIS, on the other hand, is more focused on behavioral expectations, mental health, and well-being. AASA, the School Superintendents Association, describes PBIS as “a framework rooted in a positive discipline philosophy that celebrates students for appropriate behaviors…PBIS uses a proactive approach to teach and model appropriate behaviors, and reinforce positive expectations for behavior through affirmations and rewards.”

MTSS brings these two frameworks together under one roof, incorporating principles from each, expanding upon them, and adapting them. It has become the gold standard for what works in education. According to a research brief from the Urban Special Education Collaborative, “MTSS leverages the principles of RtI and PBIS and further integrates a continuum of system-wide resources, strategies, structures, and practices to offer a comprehensive and responsive framework for systemically addressing barriers to student learning. MTSS offers the potential to create systemic change, which results in improved academic and social outcomes for all learners.”

What Is MTSS in Schools?

While versions of MTSS can vary depending on the individual state and district approach, some of the key elements of the model are:

  • Three tiers of instructional support and intervention, depending on where students fall on the ability spectrum. (The MTSS tiers are explained in more detail below.)
  • Data-driven decision making, coupled with a problem-solving approach.
  • Frequent collaboration and communication among all stakeholders, from school leadership to classroom teachers. This also includes families and caregivers, students, and the larger communities.
  • Inclusive and equitable instruction, often with an eye toward restorative practices and addressing barriers and biases that affect students of color, LGBTQ+ students, multilingual learners, special education students, students with an economic disadvantage, and others.
  • A philosophy that incorporates social and emotional learning (SEL) and addresses mental health. (For help on integrating this into your MTSS plan, download the SEL MTSS Toolkit for State and District Leaders from the American Institutes for Research.)
  • Strong team leadership to drive implementation and ensure competency.

Family communication and collaboration is especially important, as it “creates a unified team approach in supporting the needs of students,” says Wuggazer. “This collaboration also provides valuable insights into student experiences in school and out of school that can help determine the appropriate intervention or support.”

Lori Hensold, MEd, director of the Illinois MTSS Network, expands on providing equitable instruction: “MTSS supports equity by building on students’ strengths, focusing on factors we can control, and using our resources strategically to support equitable outcomes for all.”

What Are the Three MTSS Tiers?

The MTSS pyramid (see below) is designed around three tiers of integrated instruction, support, and intervention—meeting students’ academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

RTI tiers image

Tier 1

Tier 1 is the core classroom instruction that all students should receive when they enter the classroom. Educators often refer to it as “universal” instruction, as it is intended to provide appropriate support to every student in the classroom. In the MTSS framework, however, Tier 1 should not be considered “basic” instruction—it is preventative, proactive, and should be aligned to the highest standards.

In most situations, Tier 1 is the largest tier and includes not just high-quality classroom instruction, but also differentiated instruction, social and emotional learning, and general best teaching practices.

Tier 2

Some students will need support beyond the universal instruction provided in Tier 1. School leadership and intervention teams can work together to provide targeted interventions that are guided by assessment data and observations.

These students might need the additional support due to a wide range of factors, including learning disabilities and mental health issues. Tier 2 instruction is typically delivered as specialized services that meet students’ needs in small group settings.

Tier 3

If students in Tier 2 continue to struggle, they may need the more intensive support of Tier 3. In this tier, students usually work one-on-one with a teacher, school counselor, or special education expert to get the personalized support they need.

Because MTSS addresses social, emotional, and behavioral needs as well as academic needs, educators may encounter a situation in which a Tier 1 student needs rapid Tier 3 intervention. For example, a student who has always met or exceeded grade-level benchmarks might suddenly undergo a trauma.

It may be helpful to think of these three tiers like checkups at a doctor’s office. Tier 1 might be considered routine, preventative care—a healthy individual’s annual well visit. Tier 2 would represent more frequent, intensive visits to address and cure a health concern. Tier 3 could be thought of as an urgent visit to a specialist. In all three cases, the ultimate goal is the same: to ensure that everyone is as healthy as possible.

With the MTSS framework, the term “health” is apropos, as MTSS addresses every aspect of well-being—from the student to the larger district as a whole. However, the doctor’s visit analogy does not hold up as well in schools or districts where many, if not nearly all, students require Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention. Another way to visualize the MTSS tiers is along a normal distribution curve where student performance falls along a scale associated with placement from assessment. This can especially help administrators in determining the right interventions for their students’ unique situations.

Shaped 2023 RTI bell curve with title WF1735931

What Is the Future of MTSS in Schools?

MTSS has been eagerly adopted by many districts, but implementation comes with challenges. Strong leadership is crucial, and as Wuggazer notes, “Ensuring a quality MTSS process also means you have enough personnel to implement it. School districts need to be open to hiring additional staff to support students through the MTSS process.”

This view is echoed by the Center on Multi-Tiered System of Supports, which states that “Successful implementation of MTSS demands ongoing planning, continuous improvement, and sustaining and expanding efforts. Teams must examine current capacity and readiness, develop plans for ongoing professional learning, create structures and processes, conduct ongoing evaluation and review of implementation to inform continuous improvement, and engage stakeholders as partners in the work.”

Data always remains a key component of MTSS. “In terms of implementation, it is helpful to be able to produce and analyze student data in order to determine the most appropriate intervention,” says Wuggazer. “It is essential when looking at academics, social-emotional, or attendance, for example, that you are able to see the various demographics of your student population. This will help you to identify trends or sub-groupings of students who require specific strategies.”

Given the positive impacts on school climate and culture (including parental and community engagement), improved academic outcomes for all students, and an approach that supports mental well-being as well as social and emotional growth, the MTSS interventions model has great potential to create powerful, ongoing change in the education system.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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