Before becoming a professional development consultant with Branching Minds, I spent 34 years in the roles of teacher, interventionist, and instructional specialist; and I’m currently supporting a school district as they continue to improve their MTSS system. My roles allow me to spend time with teachers and administrators from all over the country. And while fall has everyone drinking, eating, and smelling all things pumpkin...for those in education, this season also ushers in a time of data and stress.
With the arrival of fall comes the arrival of student scores from the Beginning of Year administration of Universal Screeners. Universal Screeners are the assessment tool for targeting students who struggle to learn when provided a scientific, evidence-based general education core curriculum (Jenkins, Hudson, & Johnson, 2007). Typically these assessments are administered three times per year during the beginning, middle, and end of year to all students.
After administering the universal screener to students, we as educators would expect/hope to see 80% of students in Tier 1, indicating that students are meeting grade-level expectations; 10% to 15% in Tier 2, indicating student performance below grade-level expectations; and 5% to 10% of students in Tier 3, indicating students are well below grade level expectations.
Every year I head to my doctor's appointment for my annual check-up. This year, I thought about all the screeners that the doctor used to determine my overall health, as well as the conversation we had in her office as we sat at the table reviewing my results.
School leaders and teachers have a tendency to rush to implement behavior or academic interventions plans for struggling students, without first taking the time to problem solve why students are struggling in the first place. I witnessed this firsthand in my nearly ten years as a high school assistant principal.
As a first-year high school teacher, it was almost instinctual to pull a struggling learner (often an English Language Learner or a student well below grade level) out of the classroom and work with them individually. Wasn’t this one-on-one attention precisely what this student needed? Wasn’t I helping them by teaching them at their level? They didn’t have to sit through a lesson feeling lost and frustrated, and I didn’t have to worry about them feeling lost in this environment. Instead, I could work with them individually and get them caught up.
While I intended to help, I did not realize I was causing more harm than good, which was evident by my student’s lack of progress by the end of the year. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of a strong, frequently revised Tier 1 curriculum, differentiated for all learners, and the importance of using interventions as supplemental instruction for struggling learners.
Long before the pandemic shuttered our nation’s schools in mid-March 2020, many districts across the country had been working to transition to MTSS (Multi-Tiered Student Support System). Schools started to let go of traditional models to evaluate students for special education and instead began moving towards a Whole Child approach to consider the needs of all students. Many chose to transition to MTSS because it uses a multi-tiered support foundation that wraps around a school’s entire student body and uses data-driven problem-solving to address academic and non-academic (attendance, social-emotional, etc.) needs. Schools and districts making this shift found that they improved education for all students, gained efficiencies, and prevented students from “slipping through the cracks.”
The Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework has engaged educators in using data-driven approaches to support students in gaining the skills they need to succeed in academics. More recently, with the emerging growth of social and emotional learning (SEL) coming into focus, schools and districts are aiming to incorporate SEL in the same context to prepare students for lifelong success.
All students (and adults) have strengths and weaknesses. In K-12 education, student weaknesses and areas of concern are sometimes more apparent, while strengths can fade into the background. Over the past decade, there has been a movement in education to be more explicit in addressing student strengths and encouraging the use of instructional practices to promote growth in areas that might need improvement. The MTSS framework provides an excellent opportunity for educators to shift their instruction, problem-solving, and planning to include student strengths in addition to areas of needed support. Below we outline the difference between the strengths and deficit lens, how focusing on strengths benefits all key stakeholders in education, and specific guidance on using a strengths-based approach in MTSS.
Anyone who works in education knows that teachers, administrators, and other school staff love to use acronyms. But for those new to teaching (as well as parents/guardians/community members), it can be challenging to keep up with the vast amount of different terms. This is especially true in the world of behavior and social-emotional learning, as acronyms sometimes get thrown around without much description or context. Educators need to understand what each acronym stands for and what components it should include to set up effective behavior plans within MTSS. Below, we outline the most commonly used acronyms when addressing student behavior within an MTSS framework, break down what they mean, and how to use them effectively.
“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.