MTSS Tiers & MTSS Interventions 101

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September 13th, 2019

This article was co-written with Lynn Ehlers

Interventions aren’t new to education—they’re a long-time component of good instructional practices. But as districts implement multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and response to intervention (RtI), interventions are being tracked, monitored, and tied to program evaluation in a way that is new to many. It’s also brought some lingering questions around best practices and how interventions fit with instruction to light.

UPDATED NOTE: Though much about the coming school year is uncertain, many educators anticipate that the COVID-19 school closures will have an even greater impact on student mastery than the “summer slide” we are used to seeing. In the fall, educators will be working quickly to pinpoint gaps in students’ standards and skills mastery so they can align the right interventions and accelerate learning for each student. In that sense, an MTSS stands to support students and teachers in the coming year perhaps more than ever before. Increasing your understanding around these processes now will ensure your team feels confident employing them in the fall.

So let’s take a look at the MTSS tiers and how interventions are typically implemented in MTSS.

What is MTSS?

Multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) is a framework with a tiered infrastructure that uses data to help match academic, social emotional, and behavioral assessment and instructional resources to each and every student’s needs.

What are the MTSS tiers?

The MTSS tiers are:

  • Tier 1 – Universal Instruction: The high-quality classroom instruction that all students receive. This tier encompasses best practices, differentiated instruction, and is constantly refined by what is working at Tier 2 and Tier 3. Typically, districts aim to see 80-90% of students in Tier 1.
  • Tier 2 – Targeted, Group Interventions: The evidence-based supports provided to students who are identified as struggling. Tier 2 interventions are typically implemented in small group settings, based on a similar need identified through assessment and for the sake of systematic efficiency. Districts typically expect to see 5-15% of students in Tier 2.
  • Tier 3 – Intensive, Individualized Interventions: The supports implemented for students not responding to Tier 2 supports. Tier 3 supports provide more frequent, intense, and individualized interventions. Usually, districts expect to see 1-5% of students in Tier 3.

Keep in mind that students can be in different tiers for different needs at the same time. For example, a student might be in a Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention for a social emotional need (such as self-management), while at the same time succeeding in Tier 1 for math.

Is this where the MTSS pyramid comes in?

Yes. Many educators have seen MTSS tiers depicted in a pyramid graphic, an example of which is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1:

What are MTSS interventions

An intervention is an additional instructional resource or support (beyond the high-quality classroom instruction that all students receive) that is aligned to a student’s needs. Good interventions are just a continuation of instruction, not a disruption.

When we intervene, we adjust our instructional actions to better support a student.

Interventions can look like a lot of different things.

An intervention might be a program the district adopts to support skill development, whether a computer-based product or a hands-on workshop. An intervention might be a change in instructional approach, such as a double-dose of explicit systematic instruction. An intervention also might be a specific instructional strategy intended to align directly to an individualized need that a student or group of students may have.

In the context of MTSS, it’s important to keep in mind that interventions aren’t only implemented for students who are struggling, or only implemented for academic needs. In MTSS, we are systematically looking at each student, to identify academic, behavioral, or social emotional areas of need. We implement interventions for students who are struggling or need more challenge.

How are students identified for an MTSS intervention?

Typically, students are identified as at-risk or below benchmark via a universal screening assessment, such as FastBridge. This is done at the beginning of the year and periodically throughout the year. Math, reading, and social emotional learning behaviors are screened.

If a student is identified as potentially at risk, the student’s specific need (e.g., calculation vs. math, self-management vs. social emotional) is identified with diagnostics.

Diagnostic assessments, or in some cases diagnostic reporting garnered through analyses of some screeners, help pinpoint the exact area of need for better intervention alignment. For example, picking an ELA intervention that focuses on fluency won’t significantly help a student if the area of need is accuracy. Quality assessment tools such as FastBridge combine the universal screening, diagnostic, and intervention recommendation in one step, rather than three.

How is an MTSS intervention selected and implemented for a student? 

Implementing an intervention generally follows the Problem Solving Cycle: Identify, Analyze, Implement, Reflect.

Figure 2:

At a high-level, this might look like:

    • Identify: Use universal screening data and diagnostics data to identify the area of need or acceleration.
    • Analyze: Based on those data, select an aligned intervention, and create a plan for implementing it. The plan should specify the need, the measurable goal, and specific information about the intervention itself (what intervention, happening how often, for what duration, in what setting, facilitated by whom, etc.)
    • Implement: Carry out the intervention to fidelity, as described in the plan. It is extremely important to collect data about the intervention itself! Record the student’s attendance in the intervention, the duration/ minute counts, intervention comments, and other fidelity metrics, etc. Frequently administer a progress monitoring measure tied to the intervention need, in order to track whether the intervention is improving student outcomes.
    • Reflect: Review the progress monitoring data and the collected intervention data to evaluate whether the student is responding to the intervention. Decide whether the continue the intervention, adjust the intervention, or fade it out.

At each step, we’re evaluating and adjusting our actions. While the goal is to improve outcomes for kids, that improvement comes from the adults of a school system changing the way they work and the actions they take.

As you can see, MTSS interventions and MTSS tiers provide an organizational structure for providing all students with what they need to succeed—and, in the context of this unique time in education, to quickly catch students up to where they need to be in their learning. And, implementing Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions ensures we provide targeted supports without exhausting or debilitating our Tier 3 resources.

Illuminate supports districts nationwide with the assessments (including universal screening, diagnostic, and progress monitoring), intervention tracking and documentation, and effectiveness evaluation reports needed for successful MTSS implementations. Reach out today to learn more.

To learn more about MTSS, download our MTSS Essentials: Data-Informed Decisions to Support Each Student eBook.

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Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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5 Comments

  1. Shannon Donovan on March 26, 2020 at 5:34 am

    Hi,
    Are you offering any temporary access during this time?
    https://www.illuminateed.com/blog/2019/09/mtss-tiers-mtss-interventions-101/

    Thank you.

    • Lynn Ehlers on March 30, 2020 at 3:33 pm

      Hi Shannon! Thank you so much for reaching out. Please contact out team at https://www.illuminateed.com/contact/ to so we can discuss options to meet your current needs.

  2. […] K. (2019). MTSS tiers & MTSS interventions 101. Illuminate […]

  3. Diana on May 21, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    What will this mean for children who will need dedicated aides, specialized attention? It is easy to create and have monthly meetings but who does these program actually help without resources attached to them. Every year more and more programs are created to help students that end up being more paper work for teachers. in the coming year the program is no longer used.

    Who decides who will receive this therapy, Who provides this intervention, and what is the teachers role in MTSS, Trying to understand.

    • Lynn Ehlers on May 27, 2020 at 3:03 pm

      Hi Diana, Thank you so much for this comment! We actually have an MTSS Toolkit page to help dig into some of the aspects of your question (e.g., how frameworks are structured to use resources in support of all students, how students with intensive needs are supported, how to make sure your data analysis teams are impactful and efficient). It also digs into how MTSS brings cohesion to the various initiatives that so many educators are juggling, just as you mention. We hope that helps, but let us know if you run into additional question along the way!

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