Many educators are familiar with social and emotional learning (SEL) and a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), but integrating these two frameworks can be challenging. Not only does it require a complete understanding of both SEL and MTSS, but there also needs to be cohesion and collaboration across different leadership teams, classroom teachers, as well as academic, social-emotional, and behavioral specialists.
Below, we outline four common problems that educators run into when merging these systems and our recommendations for resolving these issues to ultimately strengthen SEL implementation within MTSS.
Problem: Understanding the Connections Between Student Behavior and SEL in MTSS
With the increased focus on SEL, educators may be left wondering where behavior-based initiatives such as PBIS fit in. In reality, a comprehensive MTSS model should include both SEL and student behavior. The problem is that when many schools talk about student behavior, they are only referring to negative or problematic behaviors.
As a result, there can be an over-reliance on using behavior incident data or discipline referrals to guide decision-making in MTSS. Behavior incidents are still important to keep track of, but research shows that they can be a biased and unreliable predictor of student well-being and outcomes. Therefore, it’s not recommended to only use this type of discipline data when screening students and making decisions in MTSS.
Nevertheless, behavior does not have to be a bad word in education. Students’ social-emotional skills are often measured by observing their behaviors in the classroom and school contexts. For example, cooperation with peers is an indicator of relationship skills, seeking out challenging tasks is an indicator of goal direction, and being able to describe how you are feeling is an indicator of self-awareness.
Student behaviors also play an important role in short-term progress monitoring and can be used to identify whether or not they are responding positively to a given intervention or support. The key components of using student behavior effectively are monitoring, assessing, and promoting positive behaviors related to social-emotional competencies and skills.
Problem: More Than 20% of Students are Identified to Need Social-Emotional Support
One sign of an effective MTSS framework is that the core curriculum is meeting the needs of at least 80% of the student population. In other words, 80% of students should be meeting the academic and social-emotional standards for Tier 1 level of support. However, sometimes screener tools and other measures of student performance reveal that more than 20% of students need support.
This can also be the case when identifying students who need social-emotional support. Districts and schools recognize that they don’t have the capacity to provide the level of support needed for a large proportion of their students. This is also known as the inverted or flipped pyramid problem in MTSS.
When this is the case, schools should take a deeper look into the Tier 1 SEL support being provided for all students. Are all students receiving an evidence-based universal SEL program or set of ongoing practices? Are teachers getting the appropriate training to properly deliver the program or practices?
If a high-quality SEL program is already in place, administrators and school leaders should look into the quality and quantity of program implementation and whether or not the skills, strategies, and practices being addressed in the SEL curriculum are also being integrated into academic learning. Getting feedback on the program from classroom teachers and students can be a great way to gain insight into any challenges with implementation and where additional support is needed.
Along with investigating the quantity and quality of Tier 1 SEL instruction, students who do require additional support can be triaged based on the level of need. For example, students who are scoring in the lowest 10th or 5th percentile on a social-emotional screener could be provided with a targeted intervention plan, while students scoring higher but still identified as needing additional instruction can be flagged and supported through Tier 1 until there are enough resources to provide them with more individualized support, if it’s still required.
Another option is to look for other opportunities to provide students with more targeted support. If students are also struggling academically, and receiving Tier 2 or 3 support in another subject area, teachers could work with academic specialists and interventionists to embed social-emotional strategies within the academic support time.
Problem: Schools Do Not Have a Tier 2 Curriculum to Address the Needs of Students Identified as Needing SEL Support
For academic topic areas, schools often use specific intervention programs to address the needs of students identified as needing Tier 2 or 3 support. When it comes to SEL, a separate curriculum for Tier 2 is not always needed.
Depending on the area of need, classroom teachers can implement ongoing strategies to help promote social-emotional skills in their students. For example, suppose a student is struggling with their self-management skills. In that case, teachers can provide organizational and classroom management practices to help them stay on task, complete their assignments, and transition from one activity to another.
For students who are struggling socially, a friendship skills group that meets up once or twice a week at lunchtime or during another classroom period can be a great opportunity to help students develop relationships and learn how to problem-solve in a supported environment.
Many Tier 1 SEL programs have extension lessons and activities that can be implemented with specific students in a small group or one-on-one setting. This can be a simple but effective way to reinforce the skills being taught with all students as part of the core curriculum. It also provides an opportunity for students to practice these skills and discuss in more detail how they can use them on an ongoing basis. Click here to read more information about tips for improving social-emotional learning.
Problem: Implementing SEL Programs and Practices at the High School Level
Many high schools, and even middle schools, struggle to implement Tier 1 social-emotional support for students. Effectively implementing SEL programming at the secondary level sometimes requires changes to school scheduling and structure. This might seem like a big task for administrators, especially those working in large high schools, but it is often one of the most critical components to promoting SEL school-wide.
In high schools successfully implementing SEL strategies, explicit lessons that address social and emotional topics and issues are covered as part of the core curriculum, as well as integrated across academic courses. Some SEL curriculum can be easily integrated into the regular academic content.
For example, the program Facing History & Ourselves can be used within a History, Civics, or Social Studies course. Another option is using student-driven supports and programs, meaning that students take an active role in identifying their own social-emotional strengths and needs and developing strategies and approaches they will use to strengthen all areas. Finally, more individualized or targeted support can be integrated into contexts where academic support is usually provided, such as flex time or an advisory period. Read more about MTSS in secondary schools.
It’s important to remember that no matter which approach is decided upon, there need to be systems to support SEL implementation for both teachers and students and processes to streamline how social-emotional data is collected, reviewed, and used in the MTSS decision-making process.
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Interested in Learning How to Support the Whole Child with Branching Minds?
Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably.
Our platform supports teachers with Behavior and SEL in the following ways:
✅ Assessing SEL Needs with the DESSA ✅ Understand Students Perception of their Own SEL Competence with the SECA ✅ Leveraging SEL Screeners for Tiering ✅ More effective problem-solving ✅ Finding the Right Evidence-based Interventions & Accommodations for Each Learner ✅ Creating Intervention Plans and Monitoring Daily & Weekly Progress in Behavior/SEL ✅ Logging & Monitoring Behavior Incidents ✅ Pattern Matching Behavior Incidents Across Groups
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.