MTSS Practice Tier 1 - Core Instruction

    I have spent the better part of the last decade providing targeted support to schools, educators, and students requesting advice on improving engagement at their Tier 1 level. Through this experience, I have re-engaged students who are re-entering school after hiatus, coached teachers who faced chronic absenteeism, and helped schools develop infrastructures to support better staff, community, and student engagement. 

    Over the years, I have come across numerous interpretations of student engagement. That’s because there is no single way to describe what student engagement looks like, how it’s measured, and how to promote it. I often find that lack of student engagement is a barrier between the instruction and the students' learning, and finding a solution to improve student engagement is never easy. 

    The bottom line is that student engagement occurs in a myriad of ways. This makes tackling it so challenging. Student engagement is not one-dimensional. It is highly individualized. Any solution to improve student engagement needs to be an adaptable and collaborative effort with our students. While student feedback is important, as educators, we have more control over student engagement than we realize! Through strategies and daily practices, teachers can create an environment where students are engaged from the first day of school to the last.

    What Is Student Engagement?

    The National Center for Safe Supportive Learning Environments defines student engagement as "the psychological investment a student makes in learning," (NCSSLE, 2022). Rather than focusing on one standard definition of engagement, we can look at individual engagement domains (like behavioral engagement, cognitive engagement, and social engagement) to better understand the complexity of student engagement. By understanding and identifying different levels of engagement, we can begin to target root causes for disengagement. This effort can lead to better alignment of appropriate supports for our Tier 1 instruction.

    Behavioral Engagement

    Linked directly to participation

    Demonstrated through actions or outcomes like completing tasks, attendance

    Cognitive Engagement

    Linked to investment or interest

    Demonstrated through intellectual conversations, enjoying deep thinking, and reading to find deeper meaning

    Social Engagement

    Linked to emotions and commitment

    Demonstrated through enthusiasm, optimism, and confidence in school and related activities

    Like fostering a deep love of reading or love for science or math, school staff and communities can cultivate student engagement through strategies.

    Learn more ➡️ Student Engagement: Why it’s Important and How to Promote it

    What Is the Root Cause of Disengagement?

    Symptoms showing a lack of student engagement can include: student nonattendance, misbehavior, inattention to task completion, and poor peer interactions. Oftentimes, we attempt to isolate these symptoms, using interventions to address the symptom but not the problem. These interventions may or may not work because we are not addressing the root cause of disengagement. For example, implementing a behavior chart attached to a reward system may encourage a student to complete tasks for a week or so, but eventually, the novelty of the reward will wear off, and the symptom, lack of task completion will reappear, or a new symptom of disengagement may surface.

    I learned this firsthand in my own classroom. When I was a new special education teacher, I took an Equitable Access course which introduced me to valuable insights on student engagement:

    “Student engagement' itself might well be a misnomer, suggesting that engagement is somehow located in students, when in fact, analyses of the data we collected argued that students, like teachers and community members, are engaged in schools when schools are engaging places to be." (Vibert & Shields, 2003)

    It’s easy to point to factors outside of our control as the culprits to disengagement—such as community/home issues, lack of sleep, too many activities, or perceived student characteristics. While outside factors can play a part in how we differentiate to meet our student’s needs, this avenue of thinking to address disengagement rarely helps improve student outcomes. These outside factors may cause distractions, but students that face these scenarios have the ability to be engaged when the environment poses an opportunity for engagement that arouses their attention.

    This was my A-HA! moment. Waiting until I noticed student disengagement was too late to proactively address the problem. Also, laying blame for places or factors that I could not control would not solve the issues I had with engagement within my classroom. I could not just wait it out until a new batch of students came through my doors the next year. 

    It was my responsibility to create an environment that captured ALL students’ engagement—and what better way to learn what would make my environment more engaging than by asking my students directly? I posed a few questions to my sweet, disengaged learners like, “My dears, what would make you want to learn with me today?” and “What would make you like this class more?”

    Of course, I expected some responses like, "let me sit by my friends" and "let me play games, listen to music, etc.". But, most often, disengaged students could identify actionable changes to the instruction, environment, and curriculum that would increase their engagement. 

    My results were specific to my students and my classroom. Still, current results on school climate and engagement surveys suggest that student engagement is commonly linked with student connectedness to the learning or learning relevancy, student control over learning, intellectual challenge and expectations, classroom climate and interaction, and diversity (NCSSLE, 2022).

    Student engagement is largely within our control, but lucky for us, we don’t have to go as far as to hold rave parties in our classroom to get our students interested in learning! To save us all from resorting to dancing at the front of our classrooms, I have compiled a “Top 10 Engagement Strategies Countdown” to help you make your Tier 1 core instruction engaging for ALL students that I have used in my own classroom and supported other teachers and schools in using.

    Top Ten Countdown: Daily Practices To Engage All Students at Tier 1

    #10 and #9 - Stress and Health

    While stress and health are factors outside of the school's control, they are integral to students' participation. Stress, healthy eating, sleeping habits, screen time practices, and sickness all impact a student's (and teacher's!) ability to stay focused and engaged. 

    Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs coined the idea that our basic needs must be met before actualizing and learning (Huitt, 2007). Unfortunately, many students face food insecurity, homelessness, and other adverse childhood events. While as teachers, we are limited in our ability to provide for all of these needs, we can ensure our classroom is a place of safety.

    Try this:

    ➡️ Related Resource: Spotlighting School-Based Interventions that Support Students’ Mental Health and Well-Being

    #8 - Understanding Disabilities

    Students with disabilities have great abilities; hence, we must understand both and focus on their abilities. Undiagnosed learning disabilities or unaddressed learning disabilities impact students' ability to learn. We don’t all have to be special education teachers to learn about learning disabilities and how to support students challenged with learning disabilities within our classrooms. Inclusion (the idea of educating all children in the same classroom, to the benefit of all) plays a vital role in students' confidence levels and feelings of belonging.

    Try this:

    • Ensure you are planning and delivering data-based, differentiated core instruction. Differentiation tailors instruction for ALL students' readiness levels, interests, strengths, and learning preferences (Tomlinson & Moon, 2013). Incorporate small groups, varied learning activities, and flexible scheduling into your instruction so that differences between learners are undetectable by other students.
    #7 - Choice

    Student choice empowers learners to define and monitor their own learning goals. Choice encourages learner independence by putting the student in the driver's seat to decide what and how they will learn various standards. 

    Try this:

    • Choice can be tricky because a disengaged learner may not respond to choice without having additional support. You can start small by offering choice activities that pair with learning standards, choice groups, or even choice seats in the classroom! These are all factors that empower students to be decision-makers in their learning.

    ➡️ Related Resource: Giving Students Agency With a Seat at the MTSS Table

    #6 - Trust

    When discussing student-teacher relationships, we aren’t talking about friendships, fun, giggles, or "being cool" (though, as teachers, we are all cool). Student-teacher relationships refer to TRUST. To build TRUST with our students, we can use the old adage, "Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don't be mean when you say it." 

    Try this:

    • Greet students by name daily.
    • Honor your student's talents and interests.
    • Be a good listener; model active listening when your students want to talk to you.
    • Honor the commitments you make to students.
    • Show up and give your best self; let your students know that you genuinely believe that learning is fun and your time together is valuable.
    #5 - Opportunities To Respond (and Receive Feedback)

    Opportunities to Respond (OTR) is an effective, evidence-based teaching strategy defined by the use of teacher/peer questioning, student response, and immediate feedback. Offering opportunities to respond at an increased rate increases academic engagement. The cycle of OTR encourages engagement.

    Try this:

    • Ask questions that stimulate interest. My favorite OTR was a "whip around," where every student had an opportunity to provide a quick answer to a question related to the content we were learning. I loved asking for a "summary tweet" of our recent lessons during whip around. Ensure all students are provided OTR. 
    • Use choral response to increase overall OTR throughout a class period.
    #4 - Strengths-Based

    A strengths-based approach to teaching and learning allows us to focus on our student's strengths. It promotes an environment where students see their value and worth instead of focusing on negative characteristics. 

    Try this:

    • We focus on student strengths and development of skills through a strength-based lens, use positive language, and highlight growth areas. 

    Learn more about strength-based learning ➡️ The Power of Strength-Based Instruction

    #3 - High Expectations

    Strengths-based teaching and high expectations go hand in hand! Our perceptions of our students change the expectations we have for our students. Our expectations of student achievement account for nearly one full year of learning growth (Hattie, 2009). 

    Missing the mark on appropriate expectations can cause students to feel bored, defeated, and even hopeless. Hattie’s research also indicated that students can feel a “chilly” classroom climate, or one in which they know the teacher wants to avoid them or demonstrates certain students hold less value because the teacher has lower expectations of them (Smith, 2001).

    Try this:

    • Communicate high expectations and provide increased support to students to increase engagement, for example, proximal seating, lots of eye contact, praise.
    • Provide feedback to all students; include constructive feedback for improvement so that all students understand expectations. Rubrics help all learners understand and meet the highest level of expectations.
    • Praise all learners for their efforts.
    • Create a mindset that no matter how a student performed in the past, it’s within your ability to move them forward in their learning.
    #2 - Relevancy

    Have you ever had a student engaged in your class and disengaged in another? The student likely felt the content, delivery, or activity was more relevant, relatable, or real. Students, like anyone, are more engaged in what they find interesting and relevant to their lives. 

    Try this:

    • You may have content that is not as relevant, or it doesn’t come to life as much as you would hope. If this is the case, pair the content with a learning activity that is more relevant and real to the student, like a video game, creating text messages, tweets, or TikTok.
    • Encourage students to determine how the content is personally relevant; thus, collaboratively, you can determine activities that will enhance this connection. 
    • Afford the students opportunities to make suggestions to increase relevancy in their activities to understand new content.
    #1 - Structure

    Consistent, explicit routines and structures allow ALL learners to access their learning within the classroom. In my experience, inconsistent structure and behavioral expectations cause disengagement. 

    How we structure our classroom should never be a surprise to our students. Structure can include expectations of how they will access their materials, how they can move about the room, consistent routines for homework and assignments. Create environments where the challenges are placed on learning new content and not figuring out new procedures.

    Try this:

    • Create consistent structures. How will students enter the room? How will students participate? Can students engage with peers? Establish guidelines and communicate them with your students.
    • Make the learner experience predictable. Students should know what to expect when they enter your classroom. They should know where to find their materials and explain this to others. If you need directions to find the directions, consider addressing your predictable learner experience.
    • No surprises. If you want something specific, teach it! As a secondary teacher, I spent a lesson helping my students learn how to shake the colored pencil box, so they only took out one colored pencil at a time. Why? Because that was a pet peeve, and I wanted us to be set up for success together. Don't assume that students understand your idiosyncrasies. Also, don't assume that the older the student is, the less you need to teach them about these skills. The older a student is, the more teachers they have had contact with. Thus, it becomes even more important to be explicit about teaching YOUR structures and routines.

    While this list is lengthy, it is not exhaustive. Many strategies and practices on the Top 10 list take little to no effort and, with mindset shifts, can be easily incorporated into our daily Tier 1 instructional routine. Though student engagement has intrinsic components, there is no doubt that we as educators can create environments that promote and foster engagement. The more strategies and practices you incorporate into your Tier 1 instruction, the more likely you'll reach all of your learners!


    Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. RetrievedFebruary 14, 2022 from,

    National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE). (2022). Student engagement. Office of Safe and Supportive Schools to the American Institutes for Research (AIR), US Department of Education Contract Number 91990021A0020. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from 

    Smith, D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2021). Removing Labels, Grades K-12: 40 Techniques to Disrupt Negative Expectations About Students and Schools. Sage Publications.


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    Tagged: MTSS Practice, Tier 1 - Core Instruction

    February 22, 2022

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