For years, educators have known that behavior and academics are inseparable. Until recently, we commonly addressed academic and behavioral deficits in silos, ignoring their relationship with one another. For a long time—and still, in many places—it was a response to scientifically research-based intervention (RTI) for academics and schoolwide positive behavioral supports (PBS/PBIS or SWPBS) for behavior. Recent research has shown what we’ve known anecdotally for millennia, and the combination of these methods over the last several years has led us to a new approach seen in practice, research, and legislation: the multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework.
When I searched “What is MTSS” in Google, I got over a million results in an impressive half-second. Going back to my old textbooks and talking with peers, I was introduced to several more. Many were permutations of other definitions, but one of the clearest I could find describes MTSS as “a tiered system of supports that integrates assessment and intervention within a schoolwide, multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and reduce behavioral problems.” There is undoubtedly more nuance to this, but MTSS essentially boils down to the use of data to drive decisions about which students need more support and the specific supports they need—all with a focus on prevention.
There are three “tiers” of instruction within MTSS. Core (Tier I) instruction is designed to meet the needs of all learners, most commonly in the form of everyday teaching in the classroom. Unfortunately, core instruction doesn’t meet the needs of all learners. Students needing more support are provided with targeted (Tier II) or intensive (Tier III) interventions based on need. These needs can be behavioral, academic, social-emotional, etc. To determine need, we use assessments—but the important thing is that interventions are evidence-based and decisions are informed using data. As students participate in interventions, progress is frequently monitored, and changes are made based on growth.
Why Is MTSS Important?
In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a multi-tiered system of supports is mentioned several times. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) indicates the importance lies in the fact that “MTSS is a strategy for improving outcomes for all students and for creating safe and supportive learning environments free of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.” Imagine if every district in the country was able to achieve those aspirations: safe, supportive learning environments free of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
A primary focus of MTSS is prevention. As such, early warning systems are an essential component of a district’s MTSS framework. One of the challenges with traditional methods is that the data is often stagnant or unavailable, and students who have experienced changes since the last assessment period can be overlooked for months. With a 24/7/365 early warning system, districts can be more aware of students experiencing acute or chronic issues—whether they are mental health-related, behavioral, or academic in nature. Depending on the student and the day, even something as innocuous as a poor mark can be earth-shattering. When students experience trauma (e.g., bullying, racism, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, domestic violence, etc.), it can affect their academic achievement, behavior, relationships, and so much more. With the interconnectedness of academics and behavior, prevention is even more important than we realize. Academic and behavioral difficulties often lead to negative outcomes, which can cause deep-rooted issues with personality, self-esteem, and self-worth.
While many districts have developed prevention systems focused on academics, far too few options exist for early warning of mental health or behavioral problems. Screening students three times each year is a start, but it’s also a lot like sailing across the Atlantic Ocean destined for Ireland and waiting until three, six, or nine months into the journey to check if you are on course—you’re more likely to end up in Madagascar than Ireland. Incorporating a comprehensive early warning system that combines both data and technology can help us get to our destination quickly and take action when students are at risk—before they fail, act out, harm themselves or others, or worse.