A few weeks ago we put out a blog post which took a critical look at commonly used Reading intervention programs in MTSS. While many educators are aware of the issues and limitations of these programs, some might find it hard to make the recommended shifts in their MTSS practice given the resources available to them. Funding, staffing, schedules, and remote learning are all factors that can affect a district and school’s ability to implement supports and interventions in line with what we know from research and best practices for MTSS.
Here are five ways to balance best practices in MTSS with common barriers in education, such as lack of time and resources:
Make sure you are developing plans for students who are in need of tier 2 or 3 support
An important component of any MTSS practice is universal screening with nationally normed assessments to accurately identify students who need support. When an appropriate screener is used, alongside evidence-based cut points for tiering, there is a better chance that students who really do need extra support will be identified. Any tier groups created using a universal screener should also be reviewed by teachers to make sure students who fall into the tier 2 and tier 3 categories of support are struggling academically or behaviorally. There might be other reasons why certain students perform poorly on a benchmark assessment and usually, classroom teachers are aware of these discrepancies. When time and resources are scarce, you want to focus on those students who in fact are in need of small group or one-on-one support, and not those whose issues can be addressed within the core curriculum. Finally, if the majority of students are being flagged as needing tier 2 or 3 support it is likely that the core curriculum needs to be strengthened to address the learning needs of more students.
Best practices for MTSS suggest that tier 2 supports should be implemented two times a week for 30 minutes per session and tier 3 supports should be implemented three times a week for 45 minutes per session. If providing this amount of tier 2 and 3 support is not realistic at your school, consider other ways you can provide differentiated support for students during regular class time. For remote learners, using tools like break out rooms while the rest of the class is completing their work can be helpful. Even if you aren’t able to meet the recommended amount of time, it is still important to be providing some amount of support for those students who are struggling. The same goes with progress monitoring. It is recommended that students receiving tier 2 support are progress monitored every other week while students receiving tier 3 support receive one every week. Progress monitoring assessments are often brief, and shouldn’t take up too much time, but if it is still not feasible to do them on a weekly or biweekly basis, consider spreading them out a bit more, rather than not using them at all.
When developing plans, it is also essential to select interventions and supports that are targeting the specific needs of the student. This means that teachers need to be aware of the underlying skill that the student is struggling with and develop a clear goal for the student that addresses this skill and how progress towards it will be determined. Although this process might seem time-consuming, it actually saves time in the long run when teachers need to decide whether or not the student is improving. It is also more likely that an intervention will be successful if it is targeting the appropriate skill.
Pair online/computer-based supports with brief one-on-one or small group strategies
One of the biggest challenges with supporting tier 2 and 3 students is having staff with appropriate training available to deliver interventions and programs. This is why many schools use online or computer-based interventions to support struggling students. For some students these programs may be effective on their own but others will likely require some kind of synchronous support where direct instruction is being provided by a teacher or interventionists. Even if it is just once a week or biweekly, teachers can meet with students one-on-one or in small groups, and in person or virtually, to teach and reinforce an evidence-based strategy. There are also several programs, such as Achieve3000, which provide lessons and content for direct instruction alongside practice activities students can complete independently online. Evidence-based strategies and tools can also be embedded into larger classroom lessons to provide differentiated learning opportunities when delivering the core curriculum.
Document all levels of implementation
Even with limited resources, intervention plans can sometimes be ambitious. Nevertheless, it is critical to document both when support is provided as well as when it is not provided. In other words, if students are absent, there is an unexpected school closure, or if the intended intervention couldn’t be implemented for some other reason, it should be documented as part of the ongoing plan. MTSS plans are not like regular to-do lists where activities missed one week can be carried over to the following week; these supports should be provided on a weekly and ongoing basis, and if they aren’t that needs to be known and documented. This information is important when evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention and determining whether or not the student has met their goals. Teachers may see the student has not shown improvement and recommend moving them from tier 2 to tier 3, or make a referral for an evaluation, when really the issue is that the support was not implemented as intended.
Be aware of the research evidence
Even if you are limited in the types of programs available at your district, it is still important to familiarize yourself with a support’s level of evidence, especially for interventions and resources being used widely. Strategies also have different levels of evidence and some extremely common reading practices have very little research evidence. This can provide some context as to why students who are being “supported” do not show improvement over time. When time and resources are scarce, efforts should be made to ensure that educators are using programs and practices that will have an impact on student growth. Using evidence-based approaches, which are grounded in the science of learning and child development, will save schools and districts time and resources in the long run. These types of shifts do not happen overnight, and require some planning and dedication by district and school leaders. But the first step towards making these changes is being aware of the limitations of certain programs and the benefits of others. To help with this decision-making process, the Colorado Department of Education recently put together a comprehensive listof evidence-based programs that have a reliance on teacher directed strategies.
At Branching Minds, we pride ourselves for having the most robust library of evidence-based K-12 interventions and accommodations of any online platform available to schools. Our library includes over 2000 evidence-based activities, strategies, tools, apps, and programscollected from the most trusted and respected hubs of evidence-based supports, including the Florida Center for Reading Research, What Works Clearinghouse, Evidence for ESSA, Intervention Central, the IRIS Center from Vanderbilt University, and Sanford Harmony. All of the supports have been reviewed by our team of learning scientists and sorted by ESSA guidelines for determining tiers of evidence. The supports include detailed descriptions to help teachers understand what each support is, why to use it, how to use it in alignment with the evidence, what the evidence is and provide them with any materials necessary to implement the support.
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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.