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Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (Questions and Answers)

by Staff


It started as RTI (Response to Intervention) and PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports), and now it’s MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support). MTSS is the standard for how schools tackle academic and behavioral concerns. It also plays a big role in how children are diagnosed with learning disabilities. Here’s everything you need to know about this acronym that’s a part of everyday teaching.

What does MTSS mean, exactly?

MTSS is a proactive framework of tiered instruction and support for all students. We think about MTSS as a triangle with three “tiers.” Every student in a school will fall somewhere on the MTSS triangle—either Tier 1, 2, or 3. MTSS is not a curriculum or program, but a way to think through how to best intervene and provide resources and interventions for students who are struggling with reading, math, or behavior.

How did MTSS start?

MTSS was introduced in the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015). It combined RTI (Response to Intervention) and PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports). RTI addressed academic interventions through tiered support, while PBIS addressed behavior and social-emotional interventions. MTSS rolls both up into one and incorporates an expectation that schools and teachers are using evidence-based or research-based approaches and programs.

After the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2004) was revised, MTSS became a part of how schools approach interventions and supports before they have an IEP. Put another way, IDEA allowed schools to match the support given a student with the demonstrated need, without waiting for special education diagnosis. This changed how learning disabilities were identified and was a shift from how learning disabilities were defined in the past. It focused more on how students responded to instruction rather than whether the student had a discrepancy between their IQ and performance. Now MTSS is the gold standard for how to address intervention in education.

What are the tiers?

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Image: Bloom Township High School

There are typically three tiers in MTSS frameworks.

Tier 1: Universal Instruction (80% to 90%)

In Tier 1, students are provided with high-quality instruction and universal screening (assessments). Tier 1 also includes school-wide behavior management (like whole-school PBIS implementation). Typically, when Tier 1 instruction is going well, 80% to 90% of students are making expected progress—meaning that students are showing improvement on the universal screeners.

For example, a school may use a curriculum to teach math skills and monitor students’ progress using the NWEA MAP assessment or another formative assessment tool. If 80% of students are making progress or growing steadily, then the core instruction is effective.

Tier 2: Intervention (10% to 20%)

Tier 2 is the first level of intervention for students who do not show progress in Tier 1. Students are provided with Tier 2 interventions when they need support to meet academic or behavior goals. These interventions are delivered in a small group and are focused on helping students catch up with peers. It’s expected that when Tier 1 instruction is effective, about 10% to 20% of students will need Tier 2 interventions to address concerns that come up.

In the math example, after the NWEA or formative assessment, the school may identify 10% of students who are not mastering a core concept (maybe number sense or place value) and provide these students with a small group math intervention. While they’re in Tier 2 intervention, these students would receive additional progress monitoring in math to make sure they are making progress on that math skill. A portion of students in Tier 2 intervention will “graduate” once they’ve mastered what they missed and move back into Tier 1. Others will need Tier 3 intervention.

Tier 3: Intensive Intervention (<10%)

If a student does not make expected progress in Tier 2, they move into Tier 3. Tier 3 is intensive intervention, or intervention that is more frequent, individualized, and intensive. When the MTSS structures are working, and Tier 1 and Tier 2 are effective, fewer than 10% of student should need to be in Tier 3.

To finish out the math example, if a few students who are in the intervention group are not showing progress on the progress-monitoring tool, the interventionist may work with them one-on-one using manipulatives to see if the students respond to the additional intervention. The interventionist will continue to collect data that will give the team an idea of how the student progresses, or responds to, the additional intervention. After Tier 3 intervention, some students may master the skills and move back into Tier 2 or Tier 1. A few students may be referred for an evaluation to determine if they have a learning disability, based on how they responded to intervention.

What are the components of MTSS?

Since MTSS is not a specific curriculum, states and districts have flexibility. As long as they are using a tiered approach, data-based decision-making, along with evidence-based practices and interventions, they are following MTSS.

Universal Screening

MTSS is proactive, so students who need extra support are identified through universal screening fairly early in the process. Teachers use data from universal screening (like the NWEA MAP test or another assessment) to identify students who would benefit from intervention. This is more proactive than waiting for a child to fail before providing support.

Tiered Approach

MTSS incorporates three tiers of instructional support and intervention, depending on a student’s needs. Schools can set clear criteria for how students move between tiers and what interventions are provided at each tier.

Evidence-Based Interventions

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Image: Branching Minds

In Tier 1, the idea is that all students get high-quality instruction using methods that have been shown to be effective. In Tiers 2 and 3, students receive evidence-based interventions using programs or strategies that have a strong research base. For example, a district may use a curriculum that provides students with a foundation in phonics and word reading. Students who are not making progress in Tier 1 may receive intervention using an evidence-based intervention, like Sound Partners, in Tier 2 or 3.

You can find evidence-based interventions and programs through the What Works Clearinghouse or Intervention Central.

Data-Based Decision-Making

Teachers collect and monitor data to make decisions about whether or not to move students between tiers. Data collection and analysis also means that teachers are collaborating around how to teach and intervene. Data-based decision-making is the way that teachers make decisions for whether or not to move a student from Tier 1 to 2, or back from Tier 3 into Tier 2.

Parent Involvement

Parents should be notified and involved as their child enters intervention and moves through the tiers. Sometimes, after a child has been in intervention, the team will refer them for a special education evaluation, so involving parents during MTSS helps the team communicate around special education as well.

Read more: What is special education?

How long does MTSS take?

MTSS will take a different amount of time for each student. Typically, a school will have protocols set up that determine how long an intervention “round” can take—usually six to eight weeks. Students may receive multiple rounds of interventions to track their progress and determine how they’re responding, so it’s not unusual for a student to spend a year or two in intervention before they either are back in Tier 1 or they are referred for special education.

Can a student be in multiple tiers at one time?

Short answer: yes. Because MTSS addresses social-emotional, behavior, and academics, a student may be in Tier 3 for reading but Tier 1 for behavior and math.

Challenges to Implementing MTSS

MTSS is the current “gold standard,” but there are still challenges.

  • Personnel: MTSS takes personnel (interventionists, instructional coaches) to implement well.
  • Data-Driven Decision-Making: Just having data doesn’t mean that it will be used in the best way to support students. Teachers have to know how to use data and be able to collect and monitor data regularly.

What’s the connection between MTSS and special education?

MTSS originally came from efforts to improve special education services, specifically in terms of identifying students who needed special education services for learning disabilities. IDEA (2004) incorporated the Response to Intervention model for identifying students with learning challenges. This was a shift from the previous “wait to fail” model or definitions of learning disabilities that relied on a discrepancy between a child’s IQ and their educational levels. This meant that students could receive supports in Tiers 2 and 3 before being referred for an evaluation for a disability.

Students with IEPs can be in Tier 1 for general education, receiving the same instruction and universal screening as their general education peers. But their specially designed instruction would be provided through their IEP, not necessarily the MTSS model.

Recommended Reading

cover-image-of-the-m-t-s-s-start-up-guide

For more information about MTSS, below are links to some recommended books for professional development.

(Just a heads up, WeAreTeachers may collect a share of sales from the links on this page. We only recommend items our team loves!)

The MTSS Start-Up Guide by Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan and John E. Hannigan

Best Practices at Tier 2: Supplemental Interventions for Additional Student Support by Bob Sonju et al.

10 Success Factors for Literacy Intervention: Getting Results With MTSS in Elementary Schools by Susan Hall

Conducting Behavioral and Social-Emotional Assessments in MTSS: Screen to Intervene  by Nathaniel von der Embse et al.

Do you have more questions about MTSS? Come discuss them in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

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