Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Reality or Just Another American Dream?
Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) are school and system-wide frameworks used to prevent and remediate academic and behavioral difficulties (Fletcher and Vaughn, 2009). In these multi-tiered models, services are layered and increase in intensity as instruction responds to student need. All students (Tier One- roughly 80%) are supported and screened for academic or behavioral challenges, at risk students receive preventative support (Tier Two- 15%), and a small percentage (Tier Three- <5%) receive intensive intervention. The ultimate goal of MTSS and RTI is to both prevent and respond to increasing levels of student need. The goal is ambitious, but one that many professionals believe can be realized even in the most challenging environments. To optimally implement these systems- specifically behavioral MTSS, schools must have at least 80% buy-in from staff members (Sugai, et al., 2016), and to do so requires effective leadership that can galvanize school employees toward a collective vision.
Sugai & Horner highlighted a four-element approach for effective school-wide positive behavior supports (SWPBS) to ensure their long-term efficacy and sustainability. First, school leaders, mental health professionals, counselors, and other key staff members must conduct a detailed analysis of problematic behaviors and their contexts to effectively monitor program progress. Second, a school should establish objectives based on existing behavioral data and create priorities that relate specifically to their environment. Third, precise approaches or interventions should be implemented that have been found suitable for the students’ environment; finally, organizational supports for staff and stakeholders implementing the intervention or approach should be institutionalized to support the maintenance of a range of strategies, including collecting and scrutinizing data to ensure the sustenance of any prescribed plan.
Effective SWPBS provides proactive, preventative support for at-risk students, and Behavior Matrixes lend themselves nicely to maximize Tier One measures. Like MTSS, the Matrixes consist of multiple levels of behavioral intensities that have an already prescribed response from staff members, depending on the behavior. While most behaviors can be supported by effective teachers, many require additional support from staff or administration from outside the classroom. And like MTSS, 80% buy-in to the prescribed response is necessary for its success.
However, despite a clear evidence-based framework for developing SWPBS, multiple issues exist in schools. We are, after all, working with children from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of experiences! If you were to ask ten staff members or leaders about their greatest concerns, there is a strong possibility that countless answers would emerge; behavior, staff retention, state assessments, online bullying, tech issues, paperwork, time constraints, social media issues… the list goes on. The old adage that modern schools exist to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic is at least one full generation past its use-by date, and many of our schools are stuck in a perpetual cat-and-mouse chase trying to keep up with the latest social trends, unpredictable fluctuations in finances, and – now more than ever – teacher shortages. The burden that now weighs upon our 200-year-old public education system is shaking its foundations, and three questions rarely articulated, but if answered, might provide long-term solutions are:
- In a rapidly changing society, how do we create flexible systems that provide all students with the support they need to thrive?
- What do those systems look like, when optimized?
- How can we make Teaching a sustainable career choice?
MTSS flirts with answering these questions, however, systemic inconsistencies for supporting students with problematic emotional and behavioral challenges continue to affect all aspects of society. Despite our greatest efforts that include innumerous laws and countless policies, these systemic challenges exist at all levels of federal, state, and local education. For decades, both researchers and burgeoning state and federal departments of education have promoted the RTI framework as best practice in dealing with challenging behavioral and academic issues in schools (in Britain, RTI is referred to as the “Three Waves” of teaching – made popular by the 2009 Rose Report on dyslexia and literacy difficulties). While the language our departments of education use is immersed in evidence (e.g. RTI, Multi-tiered systems of support- MTSS, Three Waves, etc.), funding streams to school districts responsible for their implementation are often inconsistent and require skillful maneuvering by administrators.
At the school level, there has been a small shift in the language and practice surrounding MTSS, and there is at least some awareness of its existence. Unfortunately, our understanding of MTSS (which includes SWPBS) can look and feel very different from district to district, school to school, or even within a school! Many school staff have different experiences, ideas, and opinions around using a prescribed framework or methodology despite the evidence that underpins their use. Inconsistencies in (1) our collective understanding, and (2) our ability to fluently apply these approaches will make it challenging for us to realize the benefits of RTI and MTSS without serious self-reflection of what each of our schools – and the systems we operate in – value most.
Is MTSS the answer to the questions posed above? Maybe. Few other solutions with a strong evidence-base have made their way into mainstream ed-speak. However, I am afraid that until our values align with the research, a system that supports all students, and makes teaching a sustainable career choice will remain but a dream.
Fletcher, Jack; Vaughn, Sharon. (2009). Response to Intervention: Preventing and Remediating Academic Difficulties. Child development perspectives. 3. 30-37. 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2008.00072.x.
Rose, J., 2009. Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties. [Nottingham]: DCSF.
Sugai, G., Horner, R. (2009). Responsiveness-to-intervention and school-wide positive behavior supports: Integration of multi-tiered system approaches. Exceptionality, 17, 223-237.
Sugai, G., LaSalle, T., Freeman, J., Simonsen, B., & Chafouleas, S. (2016). School climate: Academic achievement and social behavior competence.