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How to Respond to an Upside Down MTSS Tiered Triangle

Best Practices, Universal screener, RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Progress monitoring

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. 

A Quick Review of MTSS Supports, Interventions, and Accommodations

Intervention Spotlight, RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Progress monitoring, Data Reporting and Monitoring

Planning and implementing MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) can appear as a monumental task, especially in today’s world, where our teachers’ tasks are exponentially growing. It’s widely accepted that vast numbers of students will struggle this year, and they will need more support than ever before.

Accelerated learning pushes teachers to incorporate grade-level content with students who have spent over a year in an abnormal learning environment. To accomplish this feat, core instruction requires a strong platform built upon support and interventions. The burden of locating these supports and interventions lies on the already burdened shoulders of our teachers. 

The Branching Minds team and platform seeks to alleviate that burden, making the road to MTSS smoother and less rocky—so we can all have a bit more time for self-care without compromising student success. The Branching Minds support library comprises thousands of research-based supports and interventions, cutting down the time teachers need to find their own effective resources.


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Terminology can be a pesky obstacle, leading to added frustrations when we can’t find what we need. Between “learning supports,” “interventions,” and “accommodations,” it’s easy to get confused as to what resource is needed during the MTSS cycle. 

It’s important to note that regardless of the term, these resources all have the same goal— helping all students to achieve academic success. Generally speaking, the use of differentiated support can be applied more broadly to the work you are doing to help a student, such as during Tier 1 core instruction for all students. This fills in learning gaps and facilitates accelerated learning. 

Supports become interventions when used in an intensive setting to meet grade-level expectations. Supports become accommodations when they remove a particular barrier a student may have to learn/demonstrate content. 

Below, we’ve outlined these definitions more in-depth, as well as when/how they’re typically used. Keep in mind that these definitions are fluid, and many educational resources do not fit into one definition. When it comes to categorizing a resource, you must also account for how and why it is being utilized. The same resource can often be used as a learning support and an intervention, depending on its application and the student’s needs.

Best Practices at Tier 1 For the Secondary Level

Best Practices, RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, MTSS in Secondary School

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. 

Making the Case that RTI/MTSS is NOT Just Something Extra

Best Practices, RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Starting with MTSS/RTI

As a lifelong educator, I have worked for decades with teachers and teacher candidates in pre-k through high school classrooms in both public and private schools. One constant for my teachers across the board regardless of subject matter/specialty or grades taught--all consistently have experienced the “educational pendulum” swinging throughout their careers, and some may have even experienced the pendulum swing with multiple initiatives, new policies, etc. in a single year. In just this past year alone, teachers have experienced the shift from remote instruction to hybrid learning, and then back to in-person learning. It is no surprise that experiencing many shifts in the classroom can lead to fatigue, burnout, skepticism and a feeling that whatever the change is, “it won’t last.” Research has found that teachers make more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons, and this can obviously be exhausting, especially when trying to keep up with new school initiatives (Watson, 2017). Unfortunately, due to this exhaustion, I believe that some vital processes such as MTSS/RTI run the risk of becoming miscategorized and put on the “just something else to do” list; rather than recognized as a best practice for all students, and a model for all schools. 

What is Tier 1 Enrichment and Support?

RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Starting with MTSS/RTI

Students who are meeting or exceeding standards may require enrichment beyond the core to demonstrate academic growth. It is the school’s responsibility to ensure that all students make academic progress regardless of their entry-level.  The Branching Minds Support Library contains learning activities that may be used as early as Tier 1, as teachers design differentiated instruction for individual or small groups of students. Below are some examples from the Branching Minds Support Library:

Supporting our Tier 1 Students: Best Practices of Data Analysis and Differentiated Instruction for Educational Leadership

Best Practices, RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Starting with MTSS/RTI

In these stressful times of seeing more struggling students in need of Tier 2 and Tier 3 support it is easy to glance over Tier 1 needs by thinking they are sufficient. Often times an overview of the data will lead us to believe this common thought, however skimming over Tier 1 data is causing us to miss key red flags that push our numbers of Tier 2 and Tier 3 even higher. We can address this concern with some “Best Practices” and procedures built into how we meet the needs of all our students. Utilizing data and applying differentiated practices are two critical components to success with all of our students.

Making MTSS/RTI Work More Efficient Through Groups

Leadership, RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Starting with MTSS/RTI

We know educators strive to provide the appropriate level of instructional support each student needs to achieve at least grade-level mastery. We have all experienced students arriving to our classrooms with a wide range of knowledge, skills, experience and interest. It is quickly evident we cannot just charge through the curriculum lockstep and hope that every student gets what they need. Even when utilizing varied daily instruction to accommodate for students’ different learning needs, some students still require additional support to master new skills and content or catch up on missing skills from previous years’ standards. 

Understanding Tier Patterns and Movement in MTSS

Best Practices, Tiering Students

Tiering is an integral part of any Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework. Not only does it help educators identify which students require additional support, but it also provides insight into the health of a district or school’s MTSS practice. When district and school leaders have visibility into the proportion of students at each tier level and how students are moving across tier levels, they can identify gaps in support and develop strategies to strengthen their intervention approaches. 

What do the tiers mean in Response to Intervention (RTI) / Multi Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)?

Tiering Students, Starting with MTSS/RTI

A three-tiered system of service delivery is a necessary structure to efficiently and effectively support all children, not just those who struggle in school. The three-tiered system of service delivery is crucial in the attempt to ensure all students achieve at high levels and all students achieve college and career readiness. 

What do the tiers mean in Response to Intervention (RTI) / Multi Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)?

RTI/MTSS, Tiering Students, Starting with MTSS/RTI

A three-tiered system of service delivery is a necessary structure to efficiently and effectively support all children, not just those who struggle in school. The three-tiered system of service delivery is crucial in the attempt to ensure all students achieve at high levels and all students achieve college and career readiness.