Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)


While a high-quality universal education helps the majority of students to achieve the curriculum goals, it does not address the needs of other students who need different levels of supports to achieve target competencies and learning outcomes (LOs). To address the needs of struggling students, many schools used to move these students into interventions outside the regular classroom, within or outside the school. For example, students having academic struggles are moved to the Response to Intervention (RTI) framework, whereas those with behavioral issues receive Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) (PBIS, 2022).

Despite providing essential support to struggling students, various concerns have been raised about these interventions. For example, students receive supports after learning and behavior issues had already escalated. On the other hand, struggling students are demoralized by the special-ed stigma, as they feel inferior and different. Moreover, these interventions unintentionally contradict inclusion. In addition, classrooms do not benefit from the positive interactions among mixed-ability students. A capable student, for example, can apply and transfer learning when helping a peer (Shawer, 2017). Fortunately, inclusive models, such as the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), can address these concerns (Rosen, 2022). Instead of categorizing students into separate programs, MTSS allows teachers to cater for the needs of all students within an inclusive education program in the regular classroom (Nova Scotia, 2022). Most important, the proactive nature of MTSS requires teachers to intervene early so that students can catch up with their peers (Rosen, 2022). In this article, I discuss these points:

  • Understanding MTSS
  • MTSS tiers
  • How can MTSS be implemented?
  • MTSS capacity building

Understanding MTSS

MTSS is a framework where teachers screen all students before universal instruction to provide timely and multi-level academic and behavioral supports. As such, MTSS integrates interventions, such as RTI and PBIS (PBIS, 2022; Rosen, 2022). RTI is a three-tier intervention for providing academic and behavioral supports in both general and special education. In tier 1, all students receive high-quality classroom instruction. Following screening to identify students at risk, struggling students receive intervention within the regular classroom for a maximum of 8 weeks. Students who show progress continue learning in their regular classroom. As for those making little progress, they are moved to tier 2, where they receive small group-based supports, alongside their general curriculum instruction. Based on tier 2 performance, students making little progress are moved to tier 3, where they receive intensive long-term supports (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2020).

On the other hand, PBIS describes the methods used to identify and support desired behaviors rather than punishing misbehavior in the school setting. PBIS encourage positive behavior in a three-tier intervention as well. A universal or primary prevention is provided to the whole class in tier 1. Based on tier 1 assessments, about 80% of students benefit from tier 1 supports, whereas between 10% and 15% of students need secondary prevention (tier 2), which they receive in small groups. Finally, about 5% of students are moved to a tertiary prevention (tier 3) in the form of personalized supports to individual students (PBIS, 2022).

In contrast to the RTI and PBIS interventions, Fig 1 shows MTSS supports start with a universal whole classroom instruction, where students receive both academic and wellbeing instruction at three levels or tiers. Academic instruction provides what all students need to demonstrate the required competencies (e.g., knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors), whereas wellbeing supports help students to “learn and adopt healthy lifestyles that support their physical and mental growth and development” (Nova Scotia, 2022).

While RTI and PBIS target students with learning or behavioral issues, MTSS provides inclusive and equitable learning experiences to all students at every level. Most important, MTSS is a proactive approach that identifies and provides early support to students with academic or behavioral needs rather than waiting for struggles to intervene. This means the MTSS early supports help students catch up with their peers before it is too late. Moreover, the MTSS flexibility allows students to move from tier to tier as needed, without the timelines prescribed by other interventions (PBIS, 2022).

Fig 1. Multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS)

    Fig 1 also shows ongoing formative assessments are built into the system. Based on initial assessment information, tier 1 universal instruction is provided. Fig 1 further shows tier 2 learning can still occur within tier 1, but with focus on struggling students. Moreover, tier 3 learning continues to occur within tier 2 with subdividing struggling students into smaller groups. Although these students spend most of their day in general education, they may receive additional support in a resource center. On the other hand, students who make little progress move to tier 3 to receive support in small groups or as individuals. On rare occasions, some students might be transferred to special education programs (PBIS, 2022; Rosen, 2022). Here is a summary of the MTSS key features:

  • Universal screening for all students is done early before universal instruction (tier 1).
  • Levels of targeted support gradually increase for struggling students as needed.
  • Support designs integrate both academics and wellbeing.
  • Schoolwide professional communities (e.g., teachers, counselors, psychologists, and other specialists) collaborate to screen students, assess tier supports, and plan interventions.
  • Ongoing capacity-building takes place through training to equip staff with the necessary skills (e.g., to assess students, develop and deliver supports, and monitor progress effectively).
  • Parents, family and community members inform interventions.
  • Ongoing monitoring of progress is necessary for adjusting supports in real time.
  • Evidence-based strategies are used at every tier of support.

MTSS tiers

In this section, I discuss how to implement MTSS as follows:

  • Universal instruction: Tier 1
  • Focused supports: Tier 2
  • Intensive supports: Tier 3

Universal instruction: Tier 1

Tier 1 instruction is a UDL (universal design for learning) based learning (Nova Scotia, 2022). First, teachers screen all students (e.g., needs, interests, and learning styles) and design instruction accordingly. They use multiple ways to engage students with learning. They also use multiple ways of content representation (e.g., text, graph, audio and video), as well as multiple learning activities to enable every student to achieve the same LOs. For example, teachers could use learning stations or fishbowl activities where each group or pair group carries out a different or the same task. Learning stations could then be rotated. Solo activities could also be used through task cards, silent reading, and independent practice. Moreover, teachers could also use guided practice, where the teacher models target skills first, then students practice with teacher as a group, and finally ending up with every student feeling comfortable to practice target skills alone (Shawer, 2022a).

This should not mean that tier 1 provides focused or intensive support as a start. It does, however, mean learning is designed to provide personalized instruction in an inclusive environment. Nor does it mean that tier 1 instruction and support is focused solely on academics either. Instruction is designed and delivered to address academic learning and student wellbeing in terms of social, emotional, and behavioral support. On the other hand, tier 1 instruction is based on culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) to enhance both student learning and wellbeing. CRP requires teachers to make sure language and cultural barriers do not hinder student learning. For example, an immigrant student who has struggles with English should receive English language support to be able to process learning tasks. English is a barrier when a student is not able to complete a task or function properly in the classroom not because of mental ability, but due to language problems. Moreover, teachers must design culturally unbiased learning. Again, a student might not be able to learn because of the inability to understand culturally-mediated meanings (Nova Scotia, 2022; PBIS, 2022). The issue of including the culture of all students into learning is highly controversial. However, the bottom line has at least to be a culturally-unbiased learning.

On the other hand, student wellbeing is also integrated into tier 1 instruction. For example, a student who has family problems is unlikely to keep up with other students. School counsellors and other specialists should be involved well ahead to remove that barrier. Other students do not benefit from classroom learning because they miss key social skills to learn and interact properly with teachers and peers. To remove this barrier, teachers should help students develop social skills. For example, students should learn not to ask for help before the time set for that, try different ways and multiple times, use peer help first, use quiet voice, signal rather than speak, continue working while waiting for help, check task instructions, not to insist on help, and keep seated while waiting for help (Gould, 2021). These social skills are necessary for student well-being and academic success. For example, your students should know they are not allowed to ask for help before 5 minutes, even when they have a snag. This encourages them to try multiple solutions during that time and to think deeper. This also helps the teacher to provide help more effectively to multiple students. Moreover, the class will be managed effectively as students would be able to focus on tasks in a quiet setting.

It is important that classroom instruction is constantly designed and adjusted based on ongoing assessments. With ongoing classroom assessments, preventive interventions can be designed and implemented to keep student learning on track and prevent further deteriorations. Ongoing assessments also provide teachers with critical information to share with the teaching support team (TST), school staff, specialists, and families to coordinate and collaborate on further supports and interventions. In particular, initial and informal assessments are essential for designing Early Intervention Supports. Through collecting information, teachers can identify, design, try, and revise learning supports for tier 1 learning (Nova Scotia, 2022; PBIS, 2022). In summary, tier 1 learning involves:

  • Universal design for learning instruction.
  • Integration of academic and wellbeing support.
  • Barrier-free instruction (e.g., language and culture).
  • Collaboration and coordination (e.g., among teachers, families, school staff, and specialists).
  • Formative and immediate feedback on performance is constantly provided.
  • Formative assessments and learning adjustments are constantly conducted.

Focused supports: Tier 2

Based on student performance during universal instruction (tier 1), teachers identify students who are still unable to achieve all competencies and LOs. Tier 2 instruction is deliberate and focused. This means teachers have a list of the students who have struggles, as well as a list of the knowledge, skills and behavior issues of each student. Equipped with such information, teachers consult with the TST to design a focused version of support to help these students address their struggles. Although tier 2 support is provided in the context of the universal learning classroom (tier 1), teachers group students who share the same struggles together to receive a focused support of target learning issues. These small groups receive support from their teacher as well as teaching assistants while learning in their regular classroom (Nova Scotia, 2022; PBIS, 2022).

The crucial role of formative feedback in MTSS is out of question. Without collecting information on how interventions impact student performance, teachers cannot adjust learning in real time. Formative feedback provides key information to understand where students struggle so that teachers customize learning accordingly (Shawer, 2022b; Walton & Ryerse, 2021). For this purpose, classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are excellent tools to help teachers generate immediate feedback on struggle areas. Teachers can use two types of CATs: knowledge checkers and performance. For example, application cards, concept maps, punctuated lecture, self-assessment, muddiest point, and minute paper can be used to check understanding of main concepts and points. On the other hand, performance CATs, including fishbowl, snowball, presentations, classroom-based case studies, and jigsaw enable teachers to assess performance on actual tasks (Shawer, 2022c). Once an intervention is designed, teachers can use Check-In/Check-Out (CICO) to encourage students to work toward achieving target goals and catch up with their peers (PBIS, 2022). Here is a summary of tier 2 learning:

  • Same tier 1 learning instruction continues to apply.
  • Small-group focused supports are provided to target students.
  • Tier 2 supports are provided within tier 1 (universal classroom learning).
  • Formative and immediate feedback on performance is constantly provided.
  • Formative assessments and learning adjustments are constantly conducted.

Intensive supports: Tier 3

Based on student performance during focused instruction (tier 2), teachers might identify other students who still have learning issues despite receiving universal learning in addition to focused supports. Based on student performance, each teacher should further have a list of struggling students and their learning issues. Tier 3 instruction is intensive, where teachers provide long-term supports to individual students within focused learning (tier 2), universal instruction (tier 1) in addition to a resource center. As shown in Fig 1, on rare occasions, it might be necessary to transfer some students to special education programs (Nova Scotia, 2022; PBIS, 2022). It should be noted that all learning supports and interventions, which teachers designed, tried, and worked well in their classrooms form their High Leverage Teaching Practices (HLTP). Because they are evidence-based, teachers use them to improve student learning, achievement, and wellbeing (Nova Scotia, 2022). Here is a summary of tier 3 learning:

  • Same tier 1 and tier 2 learning supports continue to apply.
  • Tier 3 supports provided to individual students either in small groups or individually.
  • Tier 3 supports could be provided within tier 1 (universal classroom) and tier 2 only.
  • Tier 3 supports could be provided within tier 1 (universal classroom), tier 2, and a resource center.
  • Tier 3 supports might be provided in a special education program (tier 4).
  • Formative and immediate feedback on performance is constantly provided.
  • Formative assessments and learning adjustments are constantly conducted.

How MTSS can be implemented?

The Nova Scotia inclusive education program uses an iterative four-phase cycle to implement the MTSS three tiers, a process similar to the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate) model of instructional design. In phase 1, teachers screen their students to understand their abilities, interests, weaknesses, strengths, learning styles as well as other relevant information required to inform their universal instruction design. The evidence to be gathered must reflect both student academics and wellbeing so that teachers can design universal instruction (tier 1). Moreover, the data gathering process should involve multiple tools and sources. For example, teachers would use informal and formal assessments to gather data from students, parents, families, guardians, and relevant community members (Nova Scotia, 2022).

Based on phase 1 screening, teachers develop instructional practices and learning supports in phase 2. Then, teachers move to implement their instructional designs in phase 3. In phase 4, teachers review the impact of implementing phase 3 interventions. The results of phase 4 would in turn decide the instruction and supports to be provided. It should be stressed this four-phase cycle applies to each of the MTSS three tiers. In other words, teachers assess performance (phase 1), use assessment results to design and develop learning (phase 2), implement their instructional design, whether universal instruction, focused supports, or intensive supports, (phase 3), and finally assess the impact of their intervention (phase 4). A key and integral part of every phase is the formative assessments teachers conduct about student performance in each phase. Moreover, to improve and adjust learning, teachers gather information from multiple sources, including students, TST, parents, specialists, alongside many others. In addition, while the four-phase cycle is iterative, its four phases are also interdependent (Nova Scotia, 2022).

MTSS capacity-building

Effective MTSS implementation depends on schools to put MTSS into practice. Since teachers need training and support on how to use active learning strategies, student screening, personalizing instruction, and creative and flexible assessments, schools need to provide that support. Moreover, schools need to establish professional teams who can help teachers to assess, design, develop, implement, and assess various levels of supports and interventions (Shawer, 2022a).

Schools need, for example, to establish Teaching Support Teams (TST) at different levels, such as grade and subject. Building essential professional communities, such as TST, requires school leadership to formally establish these professional entities and regulate their work. For example, schools need to schedule regular and emergency meetings for teachers and other staff and specialists to share expertise and experiences. The benefit of having these different teams is that schools would have the capacity to form emergency teams in order to respond to learning emergencies (Nova Scotia, 2022).

Indeed, schools that establish and encourage Collaborative Learning Teams and Professional Learning Communities are building the capacity to implement 21st century and inclusive education models, such as MTSS, UDL and competency-based education (CBE). Through engaging with such professional communities who have the same interest, teachers share evidence-based experiences (high leverage teaching practices). For example, teachers learn strategies to support student well-being and achievement through consultations and sharing experiences with TST members. Through regular meetings, teachers have the opportunity to share how current interventions work, deal with immediate issues, and identify the resources required to support students. For example, professionals, such as School Psychologist, Speech Language Pathologist, consultants, coordinators and directors are vital sources to inform teacher assessments and instructional designs (Nova Scotia, 2022).


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