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    MTSS Practice Instituting MTSS

    We can all agree that effective educators continuously build their practice and pedagogy by collaborating and gathering new knowledge. As Albert Einstein said, “If you’re not learning, you’re dying.” It has become standard practice in schools across the country to allocate ~five full school days and several half days for Professional Learning and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) dedicated to honing our craft. This dedicated time is sacred for educators, needing to step away from the flurry of plans, decisions, and discussions that define their daily work. Professional learning allows us to reflect, learn, and grow with the ultimate goal of helping students, families, and communities achieve and live the most positive school experience. 

    Educators can easily get lost in day-to-day operations and mistakenly de-prioritize professional learning planning. Suddenly, we notice that a “Professional Development (PD) day” creeps up, and someone has to scrape together a last-minute plan. It may even feel like one group of teachers can be forgotten and assigned to “work in your rooms.” While all educators can appreciate the time to catch up and breathe, professional learning becomes fragmented, and time can be lost for schools working to meet strategic goals. 

    When it comes to Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) initiatives, this notion could not ring more true given the complexity of providing academic and social-emotional support to every student at whatever ability level they may fall. Moreover, MTSS requires educators to work much more collaboratively to support all students, which can often be challenging at first given the intricacies of school-based scheduling and the different potential levels of understanding of what MTSS means in daily practice.

    What is essential to quality professional learning, specifically for an MTSS implementation, is a thoughtful plan that purposefully considers the intricacies mentioned above, level setting the understanding of MTSS, and the school’s annual goals. To accomplish these goals, every stakeholder’s contribution must be valued. 

    This article will outline the critical components of a thoughtful professional learning plan within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework. We hope that this guidance supports you for the next year as you begin to consider your school year goals and plan for district improvement with purpose and intention. 

    What Do Our People Know, and What Do We Need to Know? 

    Typically, administrators begin planning for the next school year in the first quarter of the calendar year. This is a time to reflect upon the status of current initiatives and consider new plans. For example, it has been said that you cannot know where you want to go with any initiative until you know where you are. When teachers write student progress goals, we ask that they assess a student’s present level of performance. We encourage them to make data-based decisions using valid and reliable assessment measures that objectively reflect academic or social-emotional strengths and areas of need.

    We suggest administrators create SMART school/district goals with easily obtainable objectives. Once those goals are set, breaking an implementation plan into smaller, more manageable steps becomes more accessible. To generate an appropriate, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) school-level goal, we need to know where we're starting.

    No matter what initiative one is trying to begin—a period of data gathering, including climate or skill-based surveys to gather quantitative information, interviews with students, parents, and teachers to gather qualitative information, and research in scholarly journals, national organizations, and professional interest groups determine current best practice—these initiatives must take place to have the clearest understanding of the current landscape. This may include looking at school and district universal screening data to identify global academic or social-emotional needs. As it relates to MTSS, we encourage districts to assess their current MTSS practices using this tool. Similar rubrics exist for other school-based initiatives and help orient a district leader to additional professional development. 

    Set Goals and Create a Realistic Timeline for Implementation 

    The importance of smaller steps

    When our consultants conduct training around the Branching Minds platform, we always begin our session by asking educators to set three or four goals for their implementation. We do this because we have seen districts struggle with effective MTSS implementation when they have not selected a clear path. We know schools are highly complex, multi-faceted institutions with many moving parts. MTSS implementation often involves many separate but interrelated components that cannot be addressed all at once. For example, suppose leaders do not have a clear plan for initiating change. In that case, we know that the initiatives run the risk of falling flat because many people are moving in different directions or have other priorities. This may lead to feelings of confusion and overwhelm, which can potentially impact the school climate if it continues over time.

    When we set goals and consider the changes that need to occur, it’s essential to consider whether the purposes are technical or adaptive. According to Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009):

    • Technical challenges can be diagnosed and solved, generally within a short time frame, by applying established know-how and procedures. Technical problems are amenable to authoritative expertise and management of routine processes.
    • Adaptive challenges are the gaps between the values people stand for and the reality they face (their current lack of capacity to realize those values in their environment). These challenges usually ask people to disrupt comfortable routines and consider new educational practices.

    It’s essential to set technical and adaptive goals when considering a new initiative. For example, suppose a school addresses a technical goal by, for example, purchasing a new EdTech platform. In that case, the implementation may fall flat if the users do not have the foundational pedagogical knowledge to use it. Conversely, if sufficient pedagogical training on a concept is taught, educators begin to wonder what the processes are in place or what tools they can use to optimize their practice. 

    Technical and adaptive change need to go together. It’s essential, of course, to be thoughtful, creative, and intentional in the goals you set. We encourage you to break down your training sessions throughout the year to align with the specific goal set for your district (MTSS or otherwise). 

    Using the Example Stakeholder Planning Template

    We encourage you to “begin with the end in mind” and try to plan your professional development sessions over the summer, when you may have a bit more time for planning. Doing the work in advance decreases the likelihood of forgetting stakeholders or running out of time for scheduling critical learning opportunities. You may consider taking it one step further and breaking down your professional development days by stakeholder groups so that all participants are actively working towards specific goals and you have the necessary facilitators prepared in advance. 

    Remember that building staff capacity is better done in small, digestible chunks, so we don’t risk being overwhelmed or failing to generalize learning into practice. Once you have outlined specific goals, you may consider what knowledge is necessary to accomplish those goals.

    It can often be difficult to factor in all the various educators within a building and the amount of participation they must have related to an initiative. After creating a year-long plan, administrators must do the detailed work of creating half-day or day-long agendas that accommodate all stakeholders. Allowing as much time in advance as possible, create a timeline with a column for each stakeholder group and rows for the time frames. Then as the coordination begins with outside professional development providers and internal presenters, it becomes easy to fill in each “slot” and make sure time is best utilized. We recommend you lean on your professional development providers for guidance about structuring training to meet specific implementation goals. 

    For specific suggestions on training sessions for MTSS that would be helpful for each stakeholder, please see the chart below. In this chart, you will find key MTSS professional learning concepts that we believe to be critical components of any MTSS Professional Learning plan. They are briefly introduced below:

    • Generating SMART (district or student) Goals: It is necessary when planning goal-directed actions that the goals be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Students' SMART goals should be visited regularly to determine a team's progress towards meeting it and make necessary adjustments as appropriate. 
    • Determining Common MTSS Language: In the alphabet soup of school-based acronyms, it's almost impossible to keep track of all the existing terminology. To facilitate effective communication and collaboration, teams must agree upon their definitions of and/or have a common understanding of key MTSS terms (e.g., intervention vs. support, team meeting vs. data review, assessment vs. screener, differentiation vs. core instruction). Clarity of concepts will ultimately lead to efficiency in the process. This guide is a great starting point.
    • Change Management: Administrators all come to their roles with different areas of strength and diverse backgrounds and experiences. Often, graduate training programs only briefly touch upon the difficult nature of effectively implementing initiatives across a district. We talk about this often in our national webinars, and we always urge leaders to think about the steps needed for proper change management before beginning any initiative.

    ➡️ Watch on-demand webinar: Organizing for Change to Institute MTSS

    ➡️ Related resource: MTSS From Buy-in to Implementation: 8 Steps for Change

    • Communication Strategies: Education systems have multiple stakeholders getting information from various sources. Many initiatives are met with resistance because information trickled down the gossip mill, and the original intent was inadvertently misconstrued. Leaders must be mindful about how they communicate and intentional about where, when, and how information is disseminated. For more guidance, see this reference on planning communications

    • MTSS Foundations: Throughout this article, we discuss the necessary vocabulary and processes to implement MTSS effectively. Critical components of MTSS include universal screening, progress monitoring, high-quality intervention plans, and well-organized meeting structures. Each component requires a deep understanding that requires training.

    • Data Analysis Skills to Assess Student, Grade, and School-Level Progress: We help ensure teachers have a foundational knowledge of national norms, standards scores, rate of improvement, and averages. Changing our analysis from qualitative observations to quantitative comparisons makes it easier to make objective, data-based decisions. We want to empower educators to discuss changes in data when a student starts an intervention and when they finish and analyze universal screening data scores to determine what changes to be made in the core curriculum. These discussions often require a shift from how educators traditionally discussed their students to ultimately empower stakeholders with significant action and growth.

      ➡️ Watch on-demand webinar: Best Practices on Interpreting Assessment Data

      ➡️ Related resource: Best Practices on Interpreting Student Assessment Data in MTSS
    • Establishing Group Norms: At the beginning of the school year, all teachers spend the first few weeks establishing classroom norms, expectations, and procedures. This sets the foundation for a calm and functional classroom and means educators can proactively work to prevent confusion. It’s similarly essential to establish the same community norms in their grade, content, or school-level meetings. Professional learning plans should include time for teams to (re)establish norms each year.

    • Technical Training: We often adopt new interventions or curriculums and forget to provide the time for teachers and paraprofessionals to learn and be sure they are implementing them with fidelity. Once a clear menu of interventions and curriculum is established (based on school-wide data indicating a need), teachers must allocate time to learn the new materials.

    • Parent(s)/Guardian(s) and Community: Parents/guardians are often overlooked stakeholders in MTSS planning. Additionally, a strong MTSS relies on community organizations, including tutors, counseling services, and mentors who provide critical support to students before, during, and after school. Not only do we need to remember these stakeholders, but we must also factor in professional learning for them, so they are most empowered to work within a school system and be advocates for all of our learners. Professional learning should include a foundational knowledge of MTSS concepts and a simple understanding of data (including what types of data are collected at school and how to interpret the information that comes home). It’s also essential to provide parents/guardians with a clear understanding of how MTSS meetings work and each participant's expectations. Parents and/or community members may appreciate the time dedicated to learning and asking any additional questions, and this guide will help facilitate that process.

    Example Stakeholder Planning Template

    Stakeholder

    How

    What

    When

    Objective*

    Professional Learning Concepts

    Central Office Support Staff

    (Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Directors, Coordinators)

    (Curriculum & Instruction, English Language, Technology), 

    Live half to full-day training 

    Determine district needs around MTSS Best Practices through the eyes of central office support staff

    After district leadership has determined more support is needed to support MTSS in their district

    Reflect on district technical and adaptive strengths and weaknesses related to MTSS. 

    Consider time and resources needed to effect change. 

    Designate one individual to spearhead change (if this was not already done). 

    - Generating SMART district goals 
    - Gain understanding/ arrive at the common language around MTSS

    MTSS Director

    MTSS Coaching

    Best practice in MTSS district-wide implementation

    After district leadership has determined more support is needed to support MTSS in their district

    Ensure that prerequisite vision, MTSS knowledge and leadership skills are present to spearhead the initiative.

    - Goal setting
    - Change Management 
    - Communication Strategies
    - MTSS Foundations

    • Screening
    • Progress Monitoring
    • Interventions
    • Meeting Structures

    - Data-analysis skills to assess student, grade, and school-level progress

     Principals and 

      Assistant

      Principals

    Half-day session for all district school leaders

    Determine school-level MTSS functioning and consider performance relative to other schools within the district

    After district leadership has generated a strategic MTSS plan

    Reflect on school and staff specific technical and adaptive needs related to MTSS current practices.

    Ensure that prerequisite MTSS knowledge and language are established. 



    - Goal setting
    - Change Management 
    - Communication Strategies
    - MTSS Foundations
    • Screening
    • Progress Monitoring
    • Interventions
    • Meeting Structures
    - Data-analysis skills to assess student, grade, and school-level progress

    School Level MTSS Teams

    (academic interventionists, general education teachers & mental health/English language/gifted specialists) 

    Full-day session with no more than 10-15 staff per school

    Begin the process of school-level MTSS implementation using a representative subgroup of staff

    After clarity around objectives is communicated by principals to school staff. This includes specific expectations for implementation, timelines, and resources the district will allocate to ensure success

    Ensure that a representative sample of staff has clear vocabulary and pedagogical knowledge around MTSS.  

    Generate team goals that will align with, uphold and reinforce district implementation goals. 

    Develop school-specific protocols related to technical and procedural implementation. 

    - Establishing Group Norms
    - MTSS Foundations
    • Screening
    • Progress Monitoring
    • Interventions
    • Meeting Structures
    - Any technical training in software that is necessary to implement MTSS practicably.
    - Data-analysis skills to assess student, grade, and school-level progress

    Classroom Teacher         

    2 hours of (a)synchronous learning

    Provide technical and procedural skills needed to ensure school-wide consistent implementation

    After the MTSS team feels some comfort in the adaptive/technical changes and has the confidence to champion the initiative school-wide

    Understand the necessary MTSS principles to ensure best practice at Tier 1/Tier 2. 

    Develop the technical understanding needed to implement effective MTSS documentation. 

    Any technical training in software that is necessary to implement MTSS practicably.

    Support Staff (paraprofessionals, tutors)

    2 hours of (a)synchronous learning

    To teach the technical skills needed to support classroom teachers and specialists in effective academic/SEL interventions 

    During or after classroom teacher training

    Help support staff understand their role in supporting MTSS implementation.

    Provide staff adequate training to be able to effectively support MTSS implementation. 

    Technical training in providing interventions with fidelity or collecting and/or recording assessment data. 

    Parent(s)/ Guardian(s), and Community Members

    In-person events

    Newsletters

    Transparency related to district goals and implementation planning around MTSS

    Should occur regularly throughout the school year in small increments

    To help parent(s)/guardian(s) understand the level of support their student and all students receive in school. 

    - Understanding key MTSS terminology
    - How to support at home if a student receives supplemental support
    - What to expect if asked to come to a meeting
    - What data is collected at school and how to interpret it

    👉 Download Editable Template 👈

    👉 Download Printable Template 👈

    Year Two/Three Considerations

    Change in school (or in any setting) can be complex and it's a process that should not be rushed. Initiatives in a district take far beyond just the first year. Whenever possible, leaders should create a solid two-three year professional learning plan that considers the following factors: 

    • As turnover can be a factor in all school systems, getting new teachers up to speed is always challenging. Leaders should plan training to help new teachers gain familiarity with programs and processes, assign mentors to new teachers, and check in with new teachers frequently. 
    • When it comes to educational technology software, product updates are constantly occurring. Therefore, administrators can build a small amount of time into their schedule dedicated to revisiting information related to platforms and processes from prior professional learning sessions to stay current with changes.
    • Based on end-of-the-year goal reflections, teams may determine that there continue to be areas where implementation is lagging. As new goals are established, professional learning opportunities need to be put in place to continue to move an initiative forward. Many educators may also end up in different places concerning adoption. It’s vital to continue to remind people about an initiative until it becomes more ensconced in school-wide practice. 

    Wrapping Up

    Change in any arena can be challenging. There is a level of vulnerability for any professional who must learn to do things in a new or different way. The practice of changing a system is long and hard work but so necessary at this point in the trajectory of the US education system. We must adopt 21st-century learning practices and all the technology and new research that comes with them. 

    To move a district forward is to move its people forward by building a culture of care and collaboration. This can be accomplished by setting clear goals and communicating a detailed plan. We wish you luck in your efforts. Know that the Professional Learning team at Branching Minds is always here, eager to support and coach you in your steps towards making the world of education the best it can be and has to be for our children! 

     

    Citations

    Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard University Press.

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    Branching Minds offers a variety of professional learning opportunities for states, districts, and schools to ensure instructional leaders, specialists, coaches, and teachers are able to implement RTI/MTSS as well as the BRM platform with fidelity and maximizes educators’ efforts to accelerate learning for all students.

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    February 1, 2022

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