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6 Reasons to Lean Into MTSS This Year

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August 27th, 2020

This year will indeed look different, and with so many things changing, it can feel like every last one of our processes needs to be rebuilt from the ground-up. As educators are doing the exhausting and exhaustive work around the clock to make this year as successful and safe as possible, the magnitude of that “differentness” can make it easy to lose sight of existing structures that are intended to help us navigate situations of change—both big and small. This blog is intended to help reground on how one such structure—your multi-tiered system of support (MTSS)—is not only well-suited but uniquely optimized to help your team navigate the year ahead.

While your team may use different terminology or only have certain pieces and parts in place, I hope this article helps share how we can lean into some of our existing structures, familiar best practices, and data-driven questions to support student needs this year. Doing so may also lead to improvements and refinements in MTSS that will better serve students and staff far beyond the coming school year.

What is MTSS?

A multi-tiered system of support or 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. 


Infographic to describe what MTSS is and how it can support students and educators in the coming year

Download our free infographic for reference throughout the year

MTSS streamlines and brings cohesion to the good work and best practices that are already happening in a district, so that those efforts are no longer happening in isolation and can instead become aligned and benefit the maximum number of students.

An MTSS framework is, by nature, flexible around the evolving needs of students. An underlying premise of it’s implementation is that students have a variety of needs (academic and non-academic) that must be met in order for that student to succeed—and, importantly, that those needs are constantly changing. Without a data-driven framework to understand and meet those needs, we have no way of moving beyond simply knowing those needs are out there. We struggle to align the right supports, to know if those supports are effective, and to determine the right next steps to take for each student. MTSS is structured to flex around the changing needs of students and to sustain your team, so that resources aren’t depleted, efforts aren’t debilitated, and staff aren’t exhausted by unsustainable practices.

With those ideas in mind, let’s unpack six specific ways that MTSS can support your team and help you meet the academic and social-emotional behavior (SEB) needs of each student this year.


1) MTSS provides a framework that supports the whole child.

Many researchers and education associations have guided educators to focus on social-emotional behavioral needs and well-being first upon returning to school. 

MTSS is indeed designed to support the “whole child." It supports student success and well-being through many interconnected, data-informed lenses. It represents a shift away from a singular focus on an academic lens, in terms of both measuring student success and pinpointing student needs. Importantly, it also provides a structure and incorporates assessment tools that are needed for that work.

2) MTSS uses high-quality data to target whole child needs.

As we restart the year, whether in a remote, onsite, or hybrid environment, we all have a few big questions on our minds:

  • Where are my students today in terms of SEB and academics?
  • How do I provide the right supports to each student to help them catch up and move forward?

In our current context, those questions can feel overwhelming. However, those are essentially the same questions that we ask every single fall, regardless of whether we’re returning from a regular summer or from school closures due to COVID. This means we already have tools to answer those key questions.

A comprehensive assessment system provides a set of tools to understand student learning and needs—both for academics and in SEB—regardless of whether we are in an onsite or remote environment. Indeed, SEB assessments make it possible to understand SEB risk levels and skill gaps, similar to how we’d assess for academic needs.  Assessment tools and practices are used alongside other whole child data, including qualitative data (notes, observations, etc.), SEL surveys, behavior, attendance, and participation or engagement data in order to understand needs and align supports responsively. 

It’s true that student data will look different this year: spring state testing did not occur; spring data may be predominantly qualitative (e.g., notes, observations); many students were not screened in the spring; many students have not yet been successfully contacted since schools closed. Now, more than ever, we can lean into our MTSS frameworks to help us make sense of the data we do have, prioritize the data to collect in the fall, and understand how to leverage data to understand universal, small group, and individual student needs.

3) It helps us ensure equity in our practices.

From food insecurity to lack of internet accessibility, in many communities, the school closures have had a greater negative impact on students who were already at-risk and already experiencing inequities. As part of a data-driven MTSS implementation, educators have a structure to ask questions such as:

  • Is our system equitable?
  • Do we look at equity in our tiers?
  • Do we employ equitable practices in how we look at data?
  • Is there equity in the timing of our resource use?

For tools and support around approaching this work, our on demand webinars Support All Students with Equity-Based MTSS and Thinking Forward with Equity-Based MTSS: Supporting All Students in a Changing World are free to your team.

4) MTSS gives us a structured way to look into the common needs of our studentsfor both SEB and academics.

A foundational component of an MTSS is the need to focus first on the needs of all students—or, the needs in the universal tier or Tier 1before analyzing Tier 2 or Tier 3 supports. 

Importantly, the needs that we see in Tier 1 will likely look different this year, and many anticipate increased needs around SEB as well as navigating trauma and repercussions of isolation. Research suggests that students may return this fall with up to 2-4 months of learning loss, with the greatest losses in K-2, a result of the spring closures due to COVID compounded by the typical “summer slide” we are used to seeing each year. We need data to understand what those new needs truly are with our unique students (as opposed to what we expect they might be or where they’ve been in the past) so that our universal academic and SEB universal supports are both targeted and effective. MTSS is intended to help with this.

5) It gives us a sustainable structure for using instructional and intervention resources.

Hand-in-hand with the item above, MTSS ensures that specialized supports are not depleted and debilitated. If this occurs, it prevents students from receiving quality supports and creates unsustainable practices for your team.

It’s possible that some of the supports that previously existed in Tier 2 and Tier 3 will need to move into Tier 1 support. But we need to use data to understand which supports those are—not just what we expect they might be. Otherwise, it’s possible that we make sweeping changes that aren’t actually aligned to what students need.

Similarly, it’s possible that our Tier 2 and Tier 3 support offerings will need to look different. For many of us, this isn’t a new process—it’s a shift that we experience each year. But the importance here is that we have a way to use data to understand what those specialized resources should really be, as opposed to investing dollars, PD hours, and implementation processes into supports that aren’t matched to what students need.

6) It gives us a structure to answer the question: Is what we’re doing working?

It’s a question that we asked long before COVID and will continue to ask for years to come. But this simple question can feel elusive, confusing, and overwhelming. MTSS provides a structure for using data to approach this question at the individual student, school, and district-level. For support, please check out our MTSS Toolkit page for an on-demand webinar and toolkit to guide your team.



Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

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

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