From my early days as a Special Education teacher to my most recent days as a District-level administrator, I have seen first-hand the impact of "good" communication, lack of communication, miscommunication, and misunderstanding that can occur when meeting with families, and specifically, when discussing Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Communicating can be tricky! Are we saying too much? Too little? Are we even on the same page?
MTSS, and all the jargon that goes with it, is very specialized. Over the years, I have heard from families that they feel discouraged or left out of meetings because they are unclear what is happening to their child or what their child needs. To ensure that all parties understand our process, it’s essential to communicate what MTSS is with our parents/guardians (families) and communities regarding their child.
Are we using words that both the sender and the receiver understand? Words mean different things due to culture, geographic location, specialized training, and history. My goal is to help you, no matter what your role at the MTSS table, communicate with your families and communities about their child and MTSS.
During the implementation of MTSS, creating a plan to share information with families and community members about the school's approach to MTSS in a clear and accessible format is essential. Define key terms needed to level-set understanding of MTSS. Visuals such as graphs, flowcharts, and easy-to-understand flyers are great tools to get the word out on why MTSS is necessary, how MTSS will impact students, and the schedule of expected timelines/communications. We can help families understand that MTSS encourages schools to plan and allocate resources so that ALL students receive the instruction they need.
What Is a Multi-Tiered System of Supports? What Exactly Does the Acronym “MTSS” Mean?
Throughout any processes related to your MTSS framework, include "two-way" communication with families about their child. Two-way communication engages problem solvers in reciprocal communication where all parties feel encouraged to receive and send information. Schools should inform families and communities about students' intervention plans, progress on learning plans, changes to intervention or tier level, and nonacademic concerns that could negatively impact a student's chance of success.
It’s also great to include positive communication about our student's performance, abilities, social interactions. Positive phone calls or emails establish better relationships, especially in the beginning. Ensure that community members understand that MTSS provides proactive support to ALL students.
Sharing Student's Tiered Needs With Families and Communities
Communicating the needs of our students can be tricky. We want to stay focused on our students' strengths, but we also want to clearly define their needs so parents understand why we provide additional support. You can frame your communication so families know that there is a system that supports our learners' diverse needs!
The tiers of instruction and intervention do not define students, yet they represent the student's level of need. For example, use the sentence frame, "Your child is demonstrating a need for additional, targeted Tier 2 support", instead of, "Your child is a Tier 2 student."
The tiers are not a "placement," as they are not a specific location or classroom on campus. Try to refrain from using phrases such as, "Your child has been placed in Tier 2." Instead, clearly define what the child needs and explain the delivery of the intervention. Extend your communication by letting the family know how often they expect to hear about progress!
Families provide the groundwork for students' learning as their first teachers. Including them at the table during problem-solving can incorporate a significant portion of the student's life into their intervention plan.
MTSS wraps around our students from the first moments they enter the school doors. Communicating a culture of MTSS means that we ensure our families and communities are partners in proactive, two-way communication about our curriculum, data, and resources beginning at Tier 1.
Communicating About Curriculum and Academics
Our families and communities want to know what their children are learning! Historically, I have found that parents/guardians are more likely to engage in positive and proactive two-way communication when they receive information about the curriculum, standards, and learning activities.
Allow families and communities to have the opportunity to ask questions regarding curriculum content and activities, so they can provide feedback and support you and the students. Transparent and open communication builds trust and strengthens family and school relationships.
Discussing Curriculum and Academics With Families
Strong family and community communication regarding academics and curriculum reduces implicit bias and perceptions and encourages high expectations for all students (Smith, et al. 2021). Think about communicating curriculum and academics as a proactive, collaborative conversation with ALL families and community members.
Quite frankly, there is SO much to say, yet, we should create an environment that does not overwhelm our educators, families, and communities. Sharing information about the high-quality curriculum materials used during instruction and the research behind any interventions provided is a great place to start. Speaking to evidence-based strategies and research lets families and communities know we carefully select our materials and tools to meet our students' needs.
In addition, sharing information about how the student’s learning will be assessed (and sharing reminders before any assessments) with examples of what families can do to prepare their students to encourage family engagement. Finally, it’s important to share any feedback with families regarding assessment performance.
Communicating About Data
Our schools collect an enormous amount of data on our students. We can track almost anything in today's world, from attendance records, grades, clinic visits, discipline events, and assessments. While it’s stunning to have this information at our fingertips, without explanation, this data has very little meaning or impact on student learning without analysis and inspection.
Ensure there is clarity about what the student is learning, where they are going, and what it means when they arrive. Ask yourself, "Do my students and their families know when they are not doing well and how to ask for help?" We have to provide clearly stated goals and expectations about how we arrive at our data, what it means, and most importantly, how we’ll use it to impact our students' learning equitably to our families and communities.
Discussing Data With Families and Communities
Our families and community members want to know the "numbers" and understand how it impacts their students. Share screener data, progress monitoring data, or any other relevant information that shows families their student's progress, progress compared to peers, and progress compared to normed assessments. Easy-to-read visuals, such as charts and graphs, help parents understand their child's performance.
Extra Tip: Avoid using charts or graphs that aren’t clearly labeled, and always be sure to provide the key to interpret the data. While data, numbers, and colors may make sense to the content experts, a family or community member may not be comfortable interpreting this information or asking questions.
In addition, sharing information about how the student’s learning will be assessed (and share reminders before any assessments) with examples of what families can do to prepare their students to encourage family engagement. Finally, it is important to share any feedback with families regarding assessment performance.
Communicating About Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Support for the Whole Child
With all that’s happening around the globe, schools have taken on an enormous task of providing academically based social-emotional learning support to all students. As a result, social-emotional learning (SEL) within our classrooms and school campuses has been a "hot topic" of discussion in education.
Here at Branching Minds, we define SEL as curriculum or strategies explicitly taught designed to develop the skillset for understanding and managing emotions, building resilience, problem-solving, and developing healthy relationships (2021). Students learn from explicit instruction and the actions and behaviors they observe from others. As educators, we know it’s impossible to teach academics without first meeting our student's social and emotional needs (Huitt, 2007). The best way to remove the stigma from SEL at your school is to open the lines of communication.
Communicating SEL With Families and Communities
Communicating about social-emotional learning begins with defining important terminology for families and communities. Find out what your community already knows, allow opportunities for question and answer, and provide resources to families and community members.
Ensure that families and community members understand how your school will identify students needing additional SEL supports and how often they should expect to hear from you regarding their student's social-emotional learning. Remember that it may raise some concerns with families about the intimacy of the information you will learn, so be sure to share boundaries and best practices that staff will follow so families can continue to have autonomy.
How you communicate with families and community members is just as important as what you communicate. There is no single method for communicating that will work best for everyone. Websites, phone calls, e-mails, text messages, photo sharing apps, learning portals are all ways to diversify our information platforms for families and community members.
Ensure that you are sharing information in multiple ways to increase access. Furthermore, invite families and community members to town halls, EdCamps, open school nights, and provide opportunities for learning and questions.
➡️ Related resource: Communication Planning for MTSS
Speak about your students, their learning, and the data from a strengths-based, solution-focused approach. Deficit-based approaches focus on the perceived weaknesses of individuals or groups, such that the individuals or groups become viewed as "the problem." Instead, focus on the student's strengths.
For example, you may want to highlight the fabulous books or reading activities a student has completed and accomplished in light of discussing a potential reading struggle. You can leverage this strength to begin problem-solving how you can support their student to achieve better learning outcomes. Sharing the high times' highlight reels shows that you care about the student's success and helps the parent celebrate those victories and feel proud and hopeful.
Be sure to define any unclear jargon or language. In addition, be sure that communication goes out to families and community members in their home language. Have ways that families and community members can engage in two-way communication regardless of language differences. Provide explicit instructions for how-to-access new or presumably unfamiliar tools and resources. Remember, what may be second nature to us, may be unfamiliar to others. Try not to assume that the student should explain everything once they arrive home.
Let your families and community know how they can reach out to you or your school. For example, through email or phone, during conferences, or after school. Be sure to share what method you’re best at responding to quickly, but provide an alternative.
Provide a consistent cadence for how often and by what means you will provide updates. Once you define your communication plan, stick to it! Provide consistent information on what’s happening within your classroom or school socially and academically. Be mindful of all of the communication families and communities receive so that families engage when it is most important.
Positive intent means always starting from the idea that a person meant well or was doing their best. Express gratitude for the collaboration and provide ideas on how families and communities can become more involved in student learning.
Families and communities can engage in various school activities, such as educational sessions, resource adoptions, service-learning class projects, at-home learning activities, and school-parent advocacy committees. Our partnerships and involvement foster a strong sense of community within our students and demonstrate the adults' commitment to youths' education. Collaboration provides a pathway so that families, communities, and schools can help students achieve goals and positive outcomes.
Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. RetrievedFebruary 14, 2022 from, http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/regsys/maslow.html
Smith, D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2021). Removing Labels, Grades K-12: 40 Techniques to Disrupt Negative Expectations About Students and Schools. Sage Publications.
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Brittany Shurley is a Branching Minds Educational Consultant. Brittany has served students, educators, and leaders in various roles throughout her career including as a classroom teacher, learning disabilities specialist, school-based leader, and district level administrator. Brittany has extensive experience in facilitating the implementation of an MTSS at the district and school levels. She is passionate about ensuring teachers have the tools to promote safe, healthy, and engaging learning environments where students are experiencing success.