“We live in a time of opportunity and danger. Individuals, organizations, communities, and countries must continuously adapt to new realities to survive. Wanting more, wanting to thrive even under constantly shifting and often challenging conditions, people in all sectors are called on to lead with the courage and skill to challenge the status quo, deploy themselves with agility, and mobilize others to step into the unknown.”
- The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky, and Ronald Heifetz
When someone considers preparing a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, they can’t simply start cooking. They gather recipes, inventory their pantry, and create a timeline to tackle the multiple simultaneous efforts that will occur on preparation day. Furthermore, a novice cook will have a very different knowledge base than someone who has been cooking for their kids and grandkids for thirty years. We all come to such a project with a similar end goal; a lovely meal surrounded by happy stuffed friends and family. Much like cooking, schools come to Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) from all different places.
For many educators the acronym MTSS is new, but for most, the work of MTSS is actually quite familiar. Most educators can agree that:
These commitments have been part of almost every school district’s mission, goals, and plan in some form across the country for decades. MTSS, or multi-tiered system of support, may be a rebranding of these commitments and best practices in education, but what it comprises is in no way a new initiative.
School and district leaders are becoming increasingly dedicated to improving their social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and practices for students. But an area of SEL that sometimes gets overlooked is the social-emotional skills and well-being of staff members. We know from research and practice that efforts to promote and improve student SEL will fall short if the teachers and staff members implementing SEL curricula and strategies do not have a good handle on these skills themselves. It is also a good idea for leadership teams to start planning now for how they will support their teachers’ social-emotional needs for the upcoming school year. Here are four areas of teacher SEL to consider and work towards addressing if you plan on making SEL a priority at your school.
There is a universal truth when starting any sort of new project, vision, implementation, or system change: a disruption and reallocation of time and resources must be addressed. With the addition of a new goal, there will be a back and forth battle as finite (time, staffing, money) resources are reassigned. To minimize or alleviate the exhaustion that accompanies the tug-of-war, alignment should be the goal of every leader.
In 2001, motivated by the desire to make US education rankings more competitive in the global climate, the G.W. Bush administration pushed through an initiative called "No Child Left Behind (NCLB)." Through this initiative, schools were held accountable for student success determined by state testing. Schools that did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) on state exams could be penalized, placed under state supervision and required to make significant improvements in their programming. Alongside the birth of NCLB came Response to Intervention (RTI), a practice designed to help educators apply many teaching best practices to proactively identify and intervene on behalf of students needing additional support. Whereas state tests worked as an accountability measure to determine if students had made adequate progress for NCLB’s purpose, RTI practices pushed educators to seek out more proactive data, such as benchmark assessments (tri-annual broad outcome measures) that sampled students' mastery of grade level skills. Using adaptive measures that adjusted the level of difficulty based on previous responses, the assessments were able to identify every student's ability level and compare them to local and national samples. These data were analyzed by school teams early in the academic year to identify students who were at the highest risk to ensure they receive more and/or targeted instruction in deficit areas. Students identified as needing intervention were then briefly assessed 1x/week or 2x/month to get small samples of their growth in a specific skill area. This "progress monitoring" was designed to help educators evaluate the quality of a student's response to the intervention they received. If students showed growth, they could graduate from needing the additional support. If students struggled to progress, teachers would use tracking graphs to determine if they should change or intensify what they were doing to support the student.
We know from both research and practice that assessing and measuring social-emotional competencies is an important part of promoting social-emotional learning. For a long time, social and emotional skills were seen as something less tangible than academic skills and therefore also viewed as something that couldn’t be accurately measured. After decades of research and collaboration among educators, psychologists, psychometricians, and other practitioners, we now know that social-emotional competencies can be reliably assessed. However, there are many different approaches that schools use to get this type of social-emotional data. Below we outline some of the common approaches for measuring SEL and the pros and cons to consider when planning on implementing Social-Emotional Learning(SEL) surveys, assessments and screeners.
“Our teachers come together to meet about students’ needs regularly, at the individual student level—we just don’t have a way to come together as district leadership and meet about the system needs at the systems level. We don’t have the data or the structures to do that proactive pattern matching so that we could have bigger more positive impacts on improving student outcomes earlier. ”
The insight above was recently shared with me by a district administrator in Florida who was looking to improve their MTSS practice. Similar observations have been shared with me many times before. The most common component of MTSS that schools and districts implement is the student-level problem-solving meeting. In almost every school that employs an MTSS model, you will find a team of teachers who come together to understand why a student is struggling, what has been done to support the student, and what should be done moving forward. This collaborative problem-solving work at the student-level is critical for student success and effective MTSS, but it is all too often stymied by an absence of systems-level problem-solving that establishes the infrastructure upon which any student-level support can be provided. After all, as the name of the acronym suggests, it is the system that the model is based on and the foundation for student-level problem-solving.
Even though most teachers and school administrators agree that teacher collaboration leads to improved outcomes for both teachers and students, many schools are still not providing enough time for teachers to work together during school hours. Of course, there are many challenges in building a master schedule that gives teachers this time, but there is also a growing body of research showing the significant benefits of facilitating effective collaboration. Teacher collaboration is an important element for school improvement across the nation, and even more important when it comes to implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) approach, and certainly worth taking a deeper dive.
When discussing SEL with educators, CASEL alignment almost always gets brought up. Because so many districts, schools, programs, and assessments have aligned themselves with CASEL’s framework for SEL, educators should have a thorough understanding of what CASEL is and what an alignment with the CASEL five core competencies looks like in practice. Below, we highlight key CASEL resources, components of their SEL framework, what it really means to be “CASEL aligned”, and how that alignment fits into an MTSS model.