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    MTSS Practice Tier 1 - Core Instruction

    We have all heard the analogy that teaching is like juggling. As educators, we are responsible for keeping many balls in the air. Now, imagine you’re juggling all those balls in the air, and then new balls keep getting thrown in while you’re simultaneously sending other balls out of your cycle. In juggling, this is called passing. Who knew this was its own category in juggling?

    As I’ve collaborated with educators in alternative learning settings, it has become very clear to me that these educators are the ultimate pass jugglers. Pass juggling is just that: while keeping your own balls in the air, you’re simultaneously working with a partner (or partners!) to systematically welcome new balls into your routine, while releasing balls to your partner. The art is understanding how to effectively and gracefully add new balls to your existing juggling pattern.

    Whether you’re an educator in a short-term or long-term alternative learning setting, with voluntary or involuntary enrollment, you are the ultimate pass juggler. Your students may be with you for a few weeks, or months, or they could be with you for an entire year (or more!). No matter the time stamp, your job is the same: to provide an engaging learning environment for your students.

    The Connection Between Student Engagement & MTSS

    So, ultimate pass jugglers, how can we build engagement for students in alternative learning settings? We focus on one specific short-term victory at a time. Then, we move on to a second short-term victory. But, how do we begin to sort out what victory comes first? How do we determine what goal to use to build engagement? 

    Research on school engagement has shown that student engagement is driven by a school setting that is, in itself, engaging (Vibert & Shields, 2003). So, how can alternative learning settings build themselves up to be engaging and safe places for students? A robust Multi-Tiered System of Supports can help! MTSS can help you boost engagement by emphasizing strong Tier 1 practices and strategic student planning.

    Focus on Core Instruction

    Alternative learning educators are no strangers to a differentiated core curriculum. In fact, some of the most robust core delivery is happening in alternative learning settings across the country. Because of an increasingly mobile student population, your classroom is full of a variety of skills, knowledge, interests, and capacities for learning. Oftentimes, your students’ needs may all traditionally qualify for Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention services, but even with limited time and resources, your robust Tier 1 practices can do more than you think. A strong core curriculum and differentiated instruction are the foundation of a successful Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Strong Tier 1 instructional methods are brimming with differentiated, relevant, and student-interest-driven content. Here are a few ways to deepen your Tier 1 practice:

    1. Know Your Standards. A brilliant alternative learning educator I spoke with said, “Know your standards, and then KNOW your standards.” Alternative learning environments need to be flexible and fluid: a comprehensive, multi-grade level understanding of learning standards gives you the freedom to adapt and respond to your changing student needs. They give you a sense of the “bigger picture” and allow for flexibility in your instruction. While learning standards are the guidepost for all educational settings, in alternative learning settings, they are vital to making decisions about flexible groupings and your curriculum roadmap. 

    2. Flexible Grouping. Armed with robust knowledge of your standards, a strong flexible grouping approach allows you to plug in new students and adapt groups as necessary. The power of choice and interest in alternative learning is also a huge driver of engagement! Utilize these flexible groupings to provide project-based learning opportunities for students to create products to share with their peers, staff, and families.

      Engagement Boost: Utilize student interest surveys to inform groupings and make sure students know you are intentionally tying their interests into their learning! Keep reading for a link to a sample student interest survey below.

    3. Integrated Social-Emotional Learning. Alternative learning settings often serve students with increased social-emotional needs. Consider the impact of tying social-emotional learning skills directly into your core curriculum. Incorporating relationship skills, perspective-taking, empathy, and emotional regulation practices into your core curriculum will allow students to practice these skills in real-time. Create daily opportunities for connection with peers and adults to build trust and acknowledge all that students may carry into the alternative learning environment.

    4. Tier 1 Behavior Expectations. Clearly defined behavioral expectations are vital to alternative learning settings (Addis, Greeg, Dunlap, 2020; see also National Dropout Prevention Center, 2017). Positive behavioral expectations are school-wide agreements that contribute to a positive, safe school culture. Provide ongoing opportunities for teaching and modeling prosocial behaviors in your instruction. Try connecting social-emotional learning skills directly to these expectations. Think about: what social-emotional skill is necessary to exhibit this positive behavior? Then, teach that specific social skill alongside the behavior expectation. 

    If you feel like monitoring the success of your Tier 1 practice is an ever-moving target, you’re not alone. Branching Minds can help! The Branching Minds platform offers educators multiple comprehensive reports to help them monitor the impact of their Tier 1 practice, including schoolwide and classroom-specific universal screener trends and behavior incident reporting. Learn more >>

    💡 Related Resource: The MTSS Guide to Core Instruction

    Focus on Student Planning

    Think about your Tier 1 systems as your regular juggling skills. Once we have designed an effective core, we can consider how to pass juggle more effectively. MTSS approaches student needs holistically by connecting academic, social-emotional, behavioral health, and attendance needs into one picture. Successful alternative learning settings utilize a whole-child approach to build a deep understanding of their students’ needs and create intentional goals based on the data to support these needs. A strong student transition and planning process is invaluable to a student’s success in reaching that first short-term victory (National Dropout Prevention Center, 2014):

    1. Student and Family Interview. Engagement is built through connection, and a student and family interview is the foundational step in this process. Build trust and hope by investing in your student and their family. Get to know your student’s interests, dreams, hesitations, and educational experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask your student’s families these same questions. Ask them what they love about their child and what they believe their child is good at. By asking the right questions and focusing on the possibilities ahead, educators can gain valuable insights and build trusting relationships. 

    📎 Here are some questions to consider asking in your next family interview

    A Note about Historical Data: Consider the role of historical data in student planning very carefully. If done effectively, data serves as a launch point for reflection; however, it can also do more harm than good. Your school has the power to be a fresh start for your students. Ask yourself, “What do I truly need to know about this student to teach them?” or “Is this question I’m asking helping me build a connection with a student?.”

    Utilizing Assessments

    At this point, you can begin considering how to fold your new student into your existing core, while continuing to assess for higher-level needs:

    1. Universal Screener. Many alternative learning educators understand the benefit of strategic timing to administer a universal screener. Do it too soon, and you haven’t built trust; do it too late, and you’ve lost precious time! Trust your gut, but make an intentional choice to screen as early as it feels appropriate. Utilize historical data alongside new universal screeners to paint the most accurate picture of your student. School-wide use of a universal screener not only equitably assesses student needs but also streamlines your teaching practices and can save you time! Learn how MTSS utilizes universal screeners to equitably build student tiers

    2. Diagnostic Assessments. Next, based on the universal screener, consider what area of need you want to learn more about. What is the first barrier your student may face as they try to learn in your environment? Is it a social/emotional need? Is it a specific academic skill? Remember that your goal is to provide this student with a short-term victory–where is the right place to start with this student? Coordinate any additional diagnostic assessments to dig deeper.

      Engagement Tip: Engage your student’s support system in your data dig! Share your findings and include them in your planning process with excitement.

    3. Interest Inventory. As you are collecting your assessment data, don’t forget about the power of an interest inventory! You can use the questions you asked during your student interview, or you could ask the student to complete an additional inventory. Collect responses using a survey for secondary students and utilize daily independent work time or morning meetings to learn more about elementary students’ favorite things, interests, and future aspirations. Cross-reference your student’s interest inventory, assessment data, and your existing flexible groupings to consider if there is an overlap that would successfully engage your student. Use this sample survey designed for secondary students to get your creative juices flowing!

      Engagement Tip: If you’re struggling to get thoughtful answers, give students of all ages the option to draw, write or talk out loud to share about themselves. The best conversations I’ve had with students have been during a “walk and talk” in the hall.

    Pick Your Goal and Work Towards a Victory!

    Remember our pass juggling? While keeping the balls in the air gets all the glory, the real magic is successfully adding another ball into the mix. At this point, you have engaged in the necessary prep work to lead your student to their first short-term victory. Due to the high number of students with significant needs, you may need to create a goal that can be met predominately with your core instruction. Return to your standards, peek at your well-designed flexible groupings, and see where you can fit things in. Select a goal that builds upon this student's #1 most pressing need. Remember, focus on one goal at a time:

    1. Create a S.M.A.R.T. Goal. Even if your student does not qualify for specific additional interventions, building a S.M.A.R.T. goal creates a purpose for learning. Your goal can even be tied directly to your core instruction. Determine a goal that builds engagement, demonstrates your confidence in your student’s ability to succeed, and can be measured. Your goal should be Specific, Measurable,  Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. Need help creating a SMART goal? Read this article: Aligning SMART Goals to the Just Right MTSS Interventions

      Engagement Boost: Consult with the student about if you can share their goal. Imagine the power of a student experiencing numerous adults in their building checking in on their goals. This is the power of MTSS! 

    2. Determine how you will monitor progress. Utilize a norm-referenced progress monitor tool for academic interventions. Social-emotional and behavioral interventions can be measured through an observer- or student-reported behavior scale, like Check-In Check-Out. Select your progress monitoring tool and create a schedule: What Does Progress Monitoring Look Like in Response to Intervention?

    3. Select an intervention. Determine the intervention and plan its frequency and duration. Use your deep knowledge of your standards to consider how this intervention could fit into the bigger picture of your flexible curriculum. Consider working with your building to proactively develop a list of research-based interventions to pull from: Selecting the Right Interventions to Boost Accelerated Learning.

    Remember, given the high level of need in your alternative learning setting, it may not be feasible for you to implement Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions with fidelity for all of your students. However, beginning with specific short-term goals can lead you to the development of more robust intervention planning in the future!

    Celebrate Progress and Victory!

    You have worked so hard to add another ball into your juggling routine, and now is the time to watch the engagement magic happen. Even if a student’s goal isn’t met, your focus is to build long-term engagement with learning, so celebrate the progress and use your data to course correct, as necessary.

    Our job is to make our students feel seen and included, particularly in alternative learning settings. We show our students we believe in them by creating goals and using data to get them as close as possible to victory! By building out a strong, differentiated Tier 1 system and confidently creating short-term goals that become victories, we can build long-lasting engagement in learning.



    The Branching Minds platform is the ultimate pass-juggling tool to effectively support students transitioning in and out of different district campuses. Universal screener data, intervention plans and goals, behavior incident reports, contact logs, and specialized services are all housed in one place. The Branching Minds platform streamlines communication between district buildings to ensure students are met with educators who understand where they’ve been and where they are headed next. 

    Branching Minds_MTSS Platform_StudentProgress

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    Additional Resources

    As an alternative learning educator, you may feel the pressure to solve it all. I hear you; I want to be the ultimate juggler supreme! Just like we’re starting with short-term victories for our students, try to pick the #1 need you have as an educator to deepen your engagement practices.

    💡 Do you feel like you need to boost your Tier 1 juggling practice? Start Here:

    ➡️ The Differentiation Deal: Making a Case for Differentiation in the Classroom
    ➡️ The Power of Strengths-Based Instruction

    💡 Ready to tackle your “pass juggling” and student planning? Check These Out:

    ➡️ Aligning SMART Goals to the Just Right MTSS Intervention
    ➡️ How to Use Progress Monitoring Data to Guide Decision-Making in MTSS


    💡 Want to learn more about MTSS? Here you go!

    ➡️ What is MTSS? The Multi-Tiered System of Supports Ultimate Guide
    ➡️ MTSS Meeting Guide


    Key takeaways from this article:

    • A Multi-Tiered System of Supports can help alternative learning educators engage their students through core instruction and student planning.
    • Alternative learning educators can utilize a strong Tier 1 practice to provide engaging and relevant content while appealing to a wide variety of learning needs.
    • Effectively assessing newly enrolled students and utilizing short-term goal setting can build engagement within your alternative learning setting.


    BRM-MTSS-PlatformMake Your MTSS Easy, Efficient, and Effective With the Branching Minds Web Platform 

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    Addis, S., Dr., Greeg, K., Dr., & Dunlap, L. (2020). Effective Strategies for Alternative School Improvement (-2nd ed.). National Dropout Prevention Center. https://dropoutprevention.org/effective-strategies-for-alternative-school-improvement/

    Deeds, C., & DePaoli, J., Dr. (2017). Measuring Success: Accountability for Alternative Education. American Youth Forum. http://www.aypf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Civic_Measuring_Success_Brief_v3.pdf

    Vibert, A., & Sheilds, C. M. (2003). APPROACHES TO STUDENT ENGAGEMENT: DOES IDEOLOGY MATTER?. McGill Journal of Education / Revue Des Sciences De l’éducation De McGill, 38(002). Retrieved from https://mje.mcgill.ca/article/view/8682

    [National Dropout Prevention Center]. (2017, January 10). Alternative Education: 'Setting a Trend, Breaking a Trend' [Video]. National Dropout Prevention Center. https://dropoutprevention.org/webcast/alternative-education-setting-trend-breaking-trend/

    [National Dropout Prevention Center]. (2014, March 20). How to Create and Sustain World Class Alternative Schools [Video]. National Dropout Prevention Center. https://dropoutprevention.org/webcast/52-episode-52-how-create-and-sustain-world-class-alternative-schools/

    National Dropout Prevention Center (n.d.). Alternative Schooling. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://dropoutprevention.org/effective-strategies/alternative-schooling/#


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