I am the first to admit that I didn’t even know how to get my students more intense help for many years. As a new 7th Grade ELA teacher, I just thought I was failing as a teacher. As I gained experience and training, specifically in English as a Second language, I learned how to make my instruction more accessible and to identify those students that needed help beyond core instruction. In many ways, I remained at a loss for how to provide the intervention they needed.
Many middle and high school teachers feel the same way, unsure of what to do with struggling students. Leaders and staff might hear: “I have no idea what to do with this kid,” “They probably just need Special Education or an IEP,” or “They just need to try harder.” Without the collaboration and support of an intervention structure, it can be difficult to get the help a student truly needs. A Multi-Tiered System of Supports provides resources and a framework for teachers to provide needed support for their struggling learners.
What Is MTSS, and Why Is It Important for Secondary Schools?
A Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a collaborative, evidence-based approach to differentiating and personalizing instruction and intervention across academics, social-emotional learning, and behavior for all students—so that every student can achieve academic and life success.
Tier 2: whole-class differentiated instruction + small group targeted instruction (in addition to core instruction)
Tier 3:whole-class core differentiated instruction + additional targeted instruction (often small group in addition to core instruction) + intensive support.
As Dr. Mark Shinn, Professor of Psychology and Educational Consultant, says, “An MTSS perspective…increas[es] attention to improving the quality of academic and behavior support to meet the needs of all students, preventively and by providing increasingly intensive basic skills remediation to those students who still need it.” (Shinn, Windram, and Bollman 2016)
The MTSS framework encompasses the whole student, not just academics. It begins with assessing students' skills and proactively identifying students who may need additional support. MTSS can be necessary for the secondary level, given the students navigating complex texts and concepts are set on a trajectory toward graduation and careers. Often the gaps are more significant for students lacking basic skills, and interventions are less intense because of the time and capacity of secondary schools.
MTSS can work at both levels, but let’s consider the elements of the elementary model to the secondary. Secondary schools differ in many ways from their elementary counterparts, and their MTSS practice must also vary.
MTSS at the Elementary Level:
The same classroom teacher is assigned a group of 20-25 students, teaches all core subjects, and spends most of the day with them.
Students are learning basic foundational skills.
Interventionists may push in for small groups for supports and interventions.
Universal screeners are administered three times a year, with easier progress monitoring and data keeping by the classroom teacher.
MTSS at the Secondary Level:
Most teachers have 4-7 sections of 25-30 students per class, teaching one subject or more.
Students have increased focus on content-area curricula.
Teachers teach one or a few subjects as content experts.
Universal screeners may be given at the middle school level but taper off later in high school, where common departmental assessments are measures of growth and academic achievement.
Methods and practices of secondary schools are different from elementary, and it is unrealistic to try to apply the MTSS framework and practices in the same way. Dr. Shinn explains, “Without a clear MTSS purpose, it is easy to extend elementary MTSS practices to secondary schools without considering the developmental educational needs of older students and the culture, climate, and training of secondary teachers, nearly all of whom are content-area specialists.” (Shinn, Windram, and Bollman 2016)
Secondary teachers are typically trained first in their specific content area and perhaps in classroom management. MTSS has not been a training priority in pre-service programs for soon-to-be middle school or high school teachers. Research has indicated that “most secondary educators are not very familiar with MTSS and are not receiving sufficient professional development to support these deficits.”
There are clear challenges to implementing MTSS at the secondary level:
Teachers may see themselves as content experts, not interventionists.
The learning gaps have often widened by the secondary grades, making intervention more challenging.
Scheduling and adequate staffing to provide intervention is complicated
What Can Leaders Do To Empower Secondary Teachers?
With any initiative, the roll-out matters. Given that MTSS is a framework and way of providing needed intervention and support for all students, introduce MTSS as an embedded routine that aims to support all students rather than an add-on to teachers' and staff’s busy schedules.
COMMUNICATE a Clear Vision of MTSS With Your Staff/Team
“A clear vision, backed by a definite plans, gives you a tremendous feeling of confidence and personal power.” - Brian Tracy
The boat will reach its destination when everyone is rowing it with the same effort in the same direction. A clear vision that is shared is much the same. All staff must understand the purpose, goals, and methods to get there. The wind and current may be strong, and this is where your teacher leaders are essential. Not only the like-minded ones, but you also want ones on the team that might push back and question how things are done, bringing a different perspective to the table. These teacher leaders can help bring the staff together.
It’s especially important to communicate around MTSS and Special Education (SPED). The two often get confused, so it is a good idea to address misconceptions. And since there are misconceptions, a shared vision with Special Education leaders is essential. MTSS isn’t about a SPED referral process but about supporting all students. Having the Special Education Leaders within the team will help communicate the vision to all stakeholders. Learn more about how MTSS supports SPED here.
Often, at the secondary level, teachers have a student for 45-50 minutes a day and don’t always get a complete picture of how a student is performing. Working as a team to understand the whole student will ultimately assist in that student's success. Keeping teachers in the loop with how the students perform will help keep everyone on the same page. Most teachers will welcome the insight and assistance for students that need it.
DEVELOP a Clear MTSS Problem-Solving Protocol That Makes Sense for Secondary Teachers
Secondary teams often have less time to meet as a team, depending on the structure of a middle school or high school. Students also have more teachers, which might require more teachers to be involved in making plans for students. This requires intentional leadership to prioritize and protect the time needed for this process. To determine the procedures for identifying and making plans for interventions and responsibilities of staff, a response protocol (one of MTSS’s guiding principles) is needed.
Problem Analysis: “Why do we think the problem is occurring?”
Plan Implementation: “What can we do about it?”
Plan Evaluation: “Was our support successful?”
Sharing this protocol with the MTSS team and the whole staff can also eliminate confusion around who and what MTSS is at the school. For example, according to Dr. Mark Shinn, a universal screener can be helpful for those students who are in need of support. Though he admits that it may not always be feasible to screen all students. (Shinn 2021)
TRAIN Staff in the MTSS Process and Intervention Strategies
One of the many advantages of MTSS is the benefits, which reach far beyond all the students and teachers. MTSS gives teachers confidence in knowing how to support their students. However, there has to be a plan to equip and lead those teachers in training and professional learning for the MTSS implementation.
Often, secondary teachers, trained as content experts, may need more coaching with specific instructional strategies and interventions. The training available will benefit not only those students that need more support but also the core instruction. Part of the training and informing the staff is ensuring they understand how the framework influences the everyday practices within the school, such as behavior consequences and the social-emotional practices implemented.
Branching Minds offers a variety of Professional Learning Workshops ➡️ Learn more here.
START Small; Shoot for Some and Most
Not all teachers will embrace what MTSS offers right away, and often at first, they may think it may not affect their classroom, but the biggest advocates can be those that start to see results from working to have evidence-based solid supports within their classrooms. However, I believe that teachers want their students to be successful. As the effects of MTSS take place, more teachers will see the possibilities of success that it can offer their students.
Leaders should start small, with one team of teachers, encouraging the examination of core instruction, examining those early warning indicators, and letting other teachers slowly get on board. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be successful; it can begin like a snowball building to an avalanche of transformation. Any change that involves a framework would not be implemented to the fullest overnight.
MTSS Can Make a Difference for ALL
When I look back, I cringe to think that I took on all the responsibility for all the support for each student in my 7th grade ELA classroom. MTSS can be a solution for teachers with far too much on their plate or leaders at a loss for how to help students. MTSS offers an opportunity to help and support not only students but teachers as well. When students are more successful, teachers and staff are more successful, too. At any level, elementary or secondary, it starts with leaders who want to empower staff to make a difference for their students.
Key takeaways from this article:
Many secondary teachers are trained in content first and do not have strong training in interventions or instructional strategies for struggling students.
There are challenges to implementing MTSS at the secondary level, but it can help success for all.
Leaders make a difference in the success of an MTSS program.
Communication and training are key components of a successful MTSS program.
Branching Minds Strengthens MTSS in Secondary Schools
A strong MTSS at the secondary level develops a positive school culture, strengthens data-driven instruction, achieves equity of student support, and ensures a pathway to graduation and greater success in life.
Branching Minds helps by addressing the specific needs of the secondary educator to:
See the whole student picture (academics, behavior, SEL, and more) with one click
Ensure the use of accurate and reliable sources of data to make meaningful changes to instruction at every tier
Reliably identify students in need of academic, attendance, and engagement support, including those at risk of dropping out
Save time accessing curated research-based secondary resources to support differentiation
Save effort finding students with shared needs, designing group and individual support plans, and making decisions about student progress
Seamlessly collaborate and share data across teams, across years
Easily log interventions, supports, student progress, meetings, and plans
Sansosti, Frank J., Cathy Telzrow, and Amity Noltemeyer. 2010. “Barriers and facilitators to implementing response to intervention in secondary schools: Qualitative perspectives of school psychologists.” School Pyschology Forum 4, no. 1 (January): 1-21.
Shinn, Mark R. 2021. “Secondary MTSS That Makes Sense.” BranchingMinds.com. https://www.branchingminds.com/mtss-summit-2021slides.
Shinn, M. R., H. S. Windram, and K. A. Bollman. 2016. “Implementing RtI in Secondary Schools.” In Handbook of Response to Intervention: The Science and Practice of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, edited by Shane R. Jimerson, Amanda M. VanDerHeyden, and Matthew K. Burns, 563-586. N.p.: Springer US.
Larissa Napolitan is the Content Copywriter for Branching Minds. As a former middle school English teacher and instructional coach, she has over 13 years of experience building systems for improvement, training and coaching teachers in new technology and instructional methods, and leading efforts to build curriculum and literacy initiatives. She holds Masters's degrees in both Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Emporia State University. Not only is she passionate about using her experience and academic knowledge, but loves to use her writing to make a broader impact on education, teachers, and students.