It’s no surprise to see more states and school districts adopting a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) as their framework for supporting students across academics, social-emotional learning, and behavior for all students. MTSS is a collaborative, evidence-based approach to differentiating and personalizing instruction and intervention for all students.
I have the opportunity to regularly meet with schools around the country working to operationalize their MTSS. In the early stages of the meeting, many leaders and teachers share in despair that they cannot possibly manage intervening or progress monitoring at such an intense cadence for all students requiring Tier 3 intervention. The reality is that schools, just like families, are tasked with serving children’s unique and individual needs within a limited budget and resources.
So, Why Are Schools Turning To MTSS To Meet Their Students’ Needs?
Simply put, MTSS allows schools to prioritize resources matched to student needs.
Within MTSS, schools focus their attention and resources on three levels or tiers of support. The first tier of support, Tier 1, is universal support. These resources are available to all students and should impact at least 80% of the students in meeting grade-level standards.
The second tier, Tier 2, is targeted intervention. Within Tier 2, targeted resources are made available to the students that are not meeting grade-level expectations with Tier 1 resources alone.
The third tier, Tier 3, is intensive intervention. About 1%-5% of our students will require intensive intervention in addition to the universal and targeted support to meet grade-level expectations. Resources within Tier 3 are allocated and aligned to create individualized plans for students.
How do we find the resources, including staff, time, and interventions, to meet intensive individualized needs and still serve all students on our campuses?
Building Tier 3 Level Supports
As I compare the family dynamic to that of MTSS, especially when considering Tier 3, I am reminded of Stephen Covey’s “big rocks first” theory. In short, the idea is that if you fill your jar with all of the granular sand first, you won’t have enough room for the pebbles and big rocks. The reality of this vivid analogy is that both at home and in school, our children need the adults to figure out how to fit all the sand, pebbles, and big rocks into the available jar.
To define Tier 3 better, imagine this:
Big Rocks: Universal instruction and screening that is differentiated and accessible to ALL students.
Pebbles: Targeted interventions and progress monitoring provided to small groups of students demonstrating a common need.
Sand: Intensive intervention and progress monitoring that is provided at an individualized and granular level.
Water: The problem-solving that must exist at every level to identify the need, analyze data, and develop support plans.
You see, if you attempt to problem-solve at the Tier 3 level, meaning you pour in all of the sand first, you won’t have the space or resources for the big rocks, like Tier 1 or Tier 2 supports and interventions. Schools and districts that feel overwhelmed by the number of students demonstrating Tier 3 level need often miss key components of effective Tier 1 and Tier 2 support.
Tier 3 practices are built on a strong foundation of Tier 1 and Tier 2. When Tier 1 and Tier 2 are in place, schools can better organize Tier 3 level support and individual problem-solving teams.
You are building a strong foundation for Tier 3 if…
Universal screener data indicates that at least 80% of students across a campus or grade level cohort meet grade-level expectations with differentiated core instruction.
Problem-solving teams effectively support small groups by identifying common needs and providing targeted small group interventions determined by 80% of the students receiving Tier 2 support, demonstrating a positive response to progress monitoring assessments.
Your team has a strong understanding of differentiated support and intervention, and the two are seamlessly layered to support learners in accessing grade-level standards successfully.
Once you have these components of MTSS aligned, you can begin to focus on the critical features of Tier 3. In other words, you can begin to add the sand to your jar!
Though Tier 3 interventions and supports are highly individualized and student-centered, a few critical features of Tier 3 problem-solving and support must remain standardized across schools for an effective Tier 3 level of support.
Individualized and Intensified Intervention and Progress Monitoring
A practical approach to individualized problem-solving allows educators to build intensive interventions as an extension or continuum of Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports and interventions. Rather than adding something new, this tier is about further individualizing your approach. When we intensify and individualize our support, teams remain focused on processes and actions within their control to influence student outcomes.
Factors that can be considered when intensifying interventions from Tier 2 to Tier 3 include grouping arrangements, instructional methods, feedback, the dosage of instruction and intervention, and the tools and decision rules that demonstrate the student is meeting expectations.
Multi-Disciplinary Problem-Solving Teams
Bringing various experts to the table is a critical component of Tier 3. A critical feature of Tier 3 is that the experts tasked with solving the problem are well versed in the needs of the whole child, including academic, social-emotional, behavioral, personal, medical, and other special needs.
Many schools have standing members of the team that include an administrator, school psychologist, social worker, behavioral specialist, mental health professional, and the school nurse. These staff often actively provide Tier 3 support in the school setting and allow them to provide input regarding specific interventions.
Beyond the standing members, each child’s problem-solving team should include staff that is engaged with the student regularly. This includes any professionals that support the student in or out of school, and most importantly, representation from the child’s family; this may include content area teachers, staff providing Tier 2 interventions, outside healthcare professionals, and parents/guardians. This team reviews multiple data sources to better understand the students' needs from multiple expert lenses.
When problem-solving at the Tier 3 level, we’re often working with students who have complex needs. These students may be exhibiting these needs before instruction and intervention or after several unsuccessful rounds of Tier 2 interventions. Whatever the case, a critical feature of Tier 3 is that it includes wraparound problem-solving and support.
Wraparound is a team-based response to intensive student needs. The student is “wrapped” or “surrounded” by natural supports, community support, and school-based intervention that is aligned to create a highly individualized plan.
Wraparound and multi-disciplinary problem-solving go hand and hand. This approach allows professionals to offer intensive interventions and support to address one of a student's many challenges. Under one common vision, the team coordinates interventions and supports connections to the broader context and outcomes.
Outcome and Fidelity Data
Tier 3 intervention plans require close attention to outcome data and fidelity data. Within Tier 3, there are sometimes multiple data points considered. Teams must define within Tier 3 Intervention Plans the measurement tool and cadence at which student outcome data will be collected.
Teams must also ensure that each of the components of the plan is implemented with fidelity, as described in the plan. Time of day, provider, group size, and cadence are all factors that may change outcome measures. Because of this, it is important that fidelity checks are regularly implemented and discussed. The team closely monitors outcome data for any indication that changes are occurring in the delivery of supports and interventions within the Tier 3 support plan.
Addressing Challenges Through Lessons Learned in the Field
While it’s simple and true that Tier 3 is individualized problem-solving and plan development, it’s not as simple to implement Tier 3 plans. They require a high level of fidelity, collaboration, and communication.
I often write about my experiences in providing support and interventions throughout my career. I am no stranger to obstacles, but I promised myself that I would ensure I share my obstacles and thoughts, even if it helps one team in their MTSS journey.
Questions To Consider in Scheduling Tier 3 Interventions:
How and when will teams have time to collaborate to design Tier 3 intervention plans?
How and when will teams have time to evaluate plan outcome and fidelity data for Tier 3 intervention plans?
When will Tier 3 interventions be provided to students? (consider student schedules and staff schedules, and community-based provider access to campus)
“The master schedule reveals the true beliefs, attitudes, values, and priorities of the school.” (McCart, 79)
Tier 3 supports require intensive time and careful planning. While it impacts the smallest population, it’s our population with the greatest needs. We need to consider the time for planning, evaluating, and delivering the intensive intervention and progress monitoring plans we develop when building our master instructional and meeting schedule.
Questions To Consider Regarding the Depth and Diversity of Interventions at Tier 3:
How do multidisciplinary teams ensure standardized delivery of support and/or interventions to students at Tier 3?
How do multidisciplinary teams ensure that supports and interventions are readily accessible and provided to the student promptly?
Some of the biggest challenges we face within Tier 3 are the consistent, standardized delivery of intervention across students, the variability of accessibility, and not lack of Tier 1 integration and alignment. Tier 3 teams need to assign team members to complete observations of Tier 3 interventions and supports delivery.
Regular team meetings can help the team ensure the plan assists the student in accessing Tier 1 instruction. While the student needs to meet their social-emotional goals; a multidisciplinary team will ensure that those goals support the student in greater academic, social-emotional, and behavioral success globally.
Tier 3 teams should set realistic and appropriate timelines for implementing the intervention. While students should be able to access Tier 2 interventions within 72 hours, we know that sometimes we’re placed on a waiting list for some outside services.
Grow your bank of community resources, provide quick access to crisis supports for students in need immediately, and develop immediate support action teams that can mobilize resources promptly for students.
Question To Consider for Tier 3 Intervention Planning at the End of the Year:
What do teams do with students currently receiving Tier 3 Interventions?
How can teams use Tier 3 data to plan for next year?
Nearing the end of the year can be exciting, but other emotions may arise, especially for our students to whom we provided intensive support and interventions. While summer draws close, our students' needs do not stop in June. Assess your ability to provide some level of support to your students and families receiving intensive interventions.
Perhaps you have additional monetary funds or maybe an online access program you can make available to families and students. Encourage the continuation of community-based supports that are easily accessible to families.
If the students are returning to your school, plan reentry meetings at the beginning of the year to ensure the student's support and interventions will be available as early as the first week of school. Complete warm handoffs to students transitioning to middle school or high school; share details of the plan, the outcome data, plan progress, and recommend next steps.
Receiving teams may be able to anticipate any new challenges that may arise. If you are receiving students who have a history of receiving an intensive intervention, review the plan details, including progress monitoring outcome data, and plan intake meetings to ensure clear communication and plan development with the student’s new school-based team.
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.