As more and more schools implement a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, a common question I hear in my work as an educational consultant among teachers, administrators, and instructional leaders is, “How are Tier 1 and Tier 2 Different?” They want to know what it means to differentiate at the Tier 1 level, and how this is different than a Tier 2 intervention. It is a valid inquiry that resonates with frustrated teachers experiencing initiative fatigue. The bottom line teachers want to make sense of is…how will their daily instruction be expected to change?
For many teachers, MTSS sounds like something new, when in reality, implementing MTSS will help align all the initiatives and strategies already operating in their schools. So, let us clarify the overlap and the distinction between these layers of instruction to help schools know how to best organize support for their students.
The three tiers are also known as levels or layers of support that educators provide to students. There are various resources, strategies, and tools within each level that support students’ various needs. And the good news is, MTSS works! I have seen teachers marvel at how a suggested support or instructional strategy—when implemented with fidelity—worked to solve a problem they faced in addressing a student’s need.
A solid MTSS implementation requires that the essentials for each tier of instruction are in place and functioning properly. The key to an effective and efficient intervention program is solid Tier 1 core instruction with differentiation embedded into daily lesson structure. As schools hone in on Tier 1 instruction and strive to create rich learning experiences that meet the needs of all students, they will be able to effectively determine which students are in need of additional Tier 2 targeted support.
Let’s take a closer look at these first two tier levels to delineate how they differ.
Tier 1 - Core Instruction
Within MTSS, emphasis is placed on Tier 1 or core instruction that is universal (for all students). Tier 1 provides the foundation for targeted instruction and interventions and is the day-to-day instruction that all students receive. As such, teachers should intentionally plan to differentiate based on the multiple learning needs of students in their class. No single strategy or combination of strategies will be effective for every student in every class and school. Therefore, teachers must approach instruction using various tools to differentiate lesson activities so all students can access curriculum materials.
Instructional strategies change as lesson activities change and as students change. Along with rich curricular materials that provide rigorous, reflective, and relevant activities, teachers should have a robust collection of tools that help students access core materials and encourage them to think critically. The goal is for universal instruction to be as effective as possible for all students. However, there is one question I often hear from teachers when I highlight robust, high-quality universal instruction for their students, “How do you do all of this?”.
A wide body of research has demonstrated that these critical practices can impact student achievement across different content areas (Ball & Forzani, 2011, p.19). Teachers must desire to reach all students and have an internal belief that every student can achieve. Teachers must also have a standards-based curriculum implemented consistently, and that offers differentiated tasks and ways for students to access the content and demonstrate mastery of it.
A critical part of this effective instruction is making the learning process engaging for students based on areas of strength, need, and learning preferences. Approaching instruction in this way ensures that students make connections to content and find relevance in the lessons being taught. For example, a teacher can provide printed text along with an audiobook of a story when teaching reading comprehension skills.
Teachers can scaffold lessons by discussing with the class how to arrive at an answer, instead of using rote questions that elicit one-word answers. Teachers can build student discourse by encouraging students to debate instead of calling on student after student until someone provides the desired answer.
Students need the opportunity to be set up for success and to win—to work through something cognitively challenging and arrive with a correct answer and a deeper understanding. Asking students to prove or justify their answers lessens students’ tendency to speedily provide a solution without giving others time to think it through deeply. If only correct answers are highlighted and celebrated, students lose interest and will not engage because they aren’t confident that they have the “right” answer.
Regular collaboration with peers and drawing from one another’s expertise supports a deep understanding of MTSS processes. There may be classroom strategies that a colleague is using that can be utilized to bridge a learning gap. This type of collective strategizing is a powerful tool to strengthen Tier 1 core instruction and empower student learning because they are supported and provided multiple opportunities to engage and experience success.
Just as collaborative learning develops higher-level thinking in students, collaboration is at the core of an MTSS and helps teachers when they are looking at student data and making decisions about how to best support their varied needs. The exchange of ideas can make teacher practice more efficient. There is research to support the positive effect of teacher collaboration on student achievement (Vincent-Lancrin et al., 2017).
Using Collaboration To Meet the Needs of ALL Students in Tier 1
The goal of Tier 1 core instruction is to meet the learning needs of all students. Taking time to dissect what is happening instructionally at Tier 1 ensures that students have equitable access to high-leverage practices and instruction. (Vincent-Lancrin et al., 2017 )
Teachers can learn how to address the needs of students who may otherwise be labeled as slow learners or in need of special services. When there is a student misconception or when students are struggling, formative assessments and check-ins allow teachers the opportunity to address students’ needs and fine-tune their instruction.
A misconception or need for reinforcement is not always indicative that a student needs Tier 2 or Tier 3 support. Much like benchmark data is used to understand students’ growth and ability level, formative assessments help to tailor instruction so that deficits and misconceptions are addressed throughout the instructional cycle. Having the right data can help a teacher make the right instructional choices.
Focus on Tier 1 instruction is even more important now as teachers face significant numbers of students in need of support. And with current teacher shortages, It’s likely that schools will need to be creative and collaborative in meeting the needs of students that have fallen behind.
Tier 2 intervention is targeted to support a specific skill gap and is typically delivered as small group intervention to students with a common need in academics or SEBL (Social Emotional Behavior Learning). Tier 2 instructional support builds on the foundational core instruction of Tier 1.
By determining and grouping students who need specialized support, teachers are able to address the specific area of deficit efficiently as well as to determine which students may need more intensive, individualized Tier 3 support. Tier 2 instruction provides research-based interventions to address specific areas without compromising the additional support that all students receive at Tier 1 with differentiated instruction.
Tier 2 interventions can include:
Academic interventions that provide students with explicit instruction on missing academic skills with multiple examples.
Behavioral interventions that provide structure, encouragement, and feedback, such as Check In-Check Out.
Structured mentorship (often from outside the school) to provide a positive role model and promote engagement in academic and leadership activities.
Programs in which students participate in campus or community jobs that build relationships and may also tie in with academic learning.
Setting-based interventions that provide structure to modify undesirable behaviors and eliminate distractions that may impede engagement in the instruction of lesson content.
Tier 2 interventions are delivered in short spurts of time and are monitored to track student progress. By developing a specific student support plan to address identified needs, teachers can track the utility of an intervention based on student progress toward a goal. A plan for providing Tier 2 support should include a targeted focus, specific and measurable goals, a progress monitoring plan, and an end date to check for progress.
Tier 1 instruction is standards-driven, focusing on students' broad skills and generalizing to a learning target. In contrast, Tier 2 intervention targets a specific skill deficit that has been identified through assessment. Instruction and intervention targets this specific skill. Educators develop a support plan to address the targeted skill with intervention tools that address the need and monitor growth on that specific skill with a normed progress monitoring tool.
Ongoing progress monitoring of Tier 2 interventions helps teachers identify if students are improving and responding to the intervention. If students make progress and achieve Tier 2 intervention plan goals, the students' learning gap has been addressed, and they can continue with Tier 1 core instruction without the additional targeted support.
A key difference between Tier 1 instruction and Tier 2 intervention is the focus on targeted skills.
When teachers delineate Tier 1 and Tier 2 processes, they bring cohesion to their efforts around supporting student learning. Students are supported at a deeper level during core instruction. Teachers gain a clearer understanding of students that actually do need additional targeted instructional support. Data is used to inform instruction and intervention, and teachers strengthen their practice by being more efficient and effective.
Lisa has 20+ years of experience in education starting as a primary classroom teacher of students in an economically challenged suburb of Chicago. Lisa is a licensed general education administrator. Instead of leading a school organization, Lisa has utilized her skill and expertise as an education researcher, professional development coordinator, technical assistance consultant, and as district coordinator where she is currently developing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports in a large urban district in Northwest Indiana. Having worked in small, rural and large urban districts across the nation, Lisa has dedicated herself to broadening teacher knowledge and stretching teachers’ capacity to provide high-quality educational experiences to students through rich academic exposure and a fulfilling classroom atmosphere that embraces the whole child. In her free time, Lisa enjoys cooking with her husband and giving lots of love to her five dogs.