Districts across the country are using a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework to create systems of care that ensure students get what they need, academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally.
MTSS, an acronym for “multi-tiered system of supports,” is an organizational framework used in education settings to ensure that all students’ needs are met through increasingly targeted interventions across three levels of support. As educators build intervention plans, they use data to help them make well-informed decisions that will produce the best outcomes for each student.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take a deeper look at what makes up an MTSS, how it works, and some examples of schools and districts using the framework to support students and educators.
Table of Contents:
- MTSS: A Framework for Every Student
- The Key Components of MTSS
- Bringing MTSS to Life: All About Implementation
- Using MTSS to Support the Whole Child
- MTSS in Action: What Districts Are Doing
- Next Steps for Strengthening Your District’s MTSS
MTSS: A Framework for Every Student
A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) provides a guiding, comprehensive framework for educators, school, and district leaders. This framework allows K-12 educators to:
- Remove barriers to learning at the systems level.
- Use evidence-based practices to ensure all students are learning at grade-level.
- Make data-based decisions for targeted and intensive interventions.
An MTSS framework helps unify practices across a district, so students are getting the same access to support no matter what school or classroom they are in. Classroom educators, counselors, and administrators are all working towards a common goal: creating a positive learning environment that serves the needs of all students across all areas of development. By using data as a guide to inform initiatives, they can ensure that their choices are grounded in actual student need, not just educator perception. Looking at data consistently also allows educators to take preventative steps to intervene before larger challenges arise.
Equity is deeply embedded in MTSS. Educational equity means that each student gets what they need to succeed. The MTSS framework allows educators to see each student holistically and ensure access to necessary support. An MTSS that advances equity gives all students access to a great education in the most inclusive environment possible.
Did you know? The MTSS framework has been highlighted as a critical lever of improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which calls for the use of evidence-based interventions and data-driven progress monitoring for students.
MTSS and RTI: What’s the difference?
The MTSS framework is closely related to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model, though not entirely the same.
RTI emerged from the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004 as a process for determining the effect of tiered interventions on student academic learning. In an RTI model, educators identify students who may need extra academic or behavioral support. Students are then provided with interventions at increasing levels of intensity, usually through a special education department or program
The MTSS framework incorporates aspects of RTI. A multi-tiered system of supports is a holistic system ultimately designed to remove academic, behavioral, and social-emotional barriers, and to meet the needs of all learners to become college and career ready. Whereas RTI focuses on identifying individual student needs, MTSS focuses on creating systemic conditions of support, ensuring that the educational environment allows students to succeed.
Recommended Resource: Intro to MTSS Certificate Course
The Key Components of MTSS
Without a solid framework or guiding plan, it’s difficult to implement practices consistently and sustainably. Systems can vary a lot from school to school within a district, or even classroom to classroom. This can lead to inconsistency and can mean that students aren’t getting access to the support that they need.
Every district’s MTSS is unique depending on individual context, but there are a few essential components that make up an MTSS:
In this section, you’ll learn more about these components and how they work together to make up the MTSS framework.
Getting to Know the MTSS Framework
The multi-tiered system of supports framework consists of three tiers of support. Students are given access to the support they need across academics, attendance, behavior, and social-emotional learning. This access is provided using universal screening and progress monitoring data to start a student in the least intensive support environment, and adding or removing that support as needed.
An example of the MTSS pyramid
Traditionally, the MTSS framework is visualized as a three-tiered pyramid, though visual aids may vary from district to district. For example, some school districts, like Portland Public Schools (OR), are shifting towards an “inverted” MTSS pyramid to convey the importance of Tier 1 universal supports.
Example: Portland Public Schools (OR) Inverted MTSS Pyramid of Student Supports
The MTSS framework is not only for students. Many Student Services teams, such as the team at San Bernardino City Unified School District (CA), are applying the tiered supports model for staff as well as students.
Example: San Bernardino City Unified School District (CA) MTSS Pyramid of Student and Staff Supports
Some districts choose to use other visual models entirely. The New Mexico Public Education Department created a graphic composed of different circles encompassed by rings as a model for their multi-layered system of supports (MLSS) framework. This image incorporates the three layers, as well as guiding themes and key drivers.
Example: A model of the MLSS framework from the MLSS Implementation Guide from the New Mexico Public Education Department.
While the supports within each tier may look different from district to district, there are certain commonalities for every MTSS pyramid. Let’s take a closer look at what goes on at each tier.
Educators often refer to Tier 1 supports as “universal” because they are provided to every student. Strong Tier 1 practices are essential for strengthening school climate, relationships, and classroom instruction. Examples of Tier 1 supports include:
- High-quality core instruction.
- Embedding social-emotional learning into curriculum and assessment.
- Cultivating a positive and inclusive school climate.
Many school districts create Tier 1 school climate teams or embed Tier 1 supports into school improvement planning.
Pro Tip: Emphasizing a strong Tier 1 through a positive and inclusive school climate also drives equity. Check that your Tier 1 is truly equitable and inclusive by investigating the following questions:
Tier 2 supports are targeted, additional interventions delivered to students who are not responding to Tier 1 supports. Typically, around 15 to 20% of students will receive Tier 2 support, which are often given in small group settings.
Schools often convene Student Support Teams (SST), Student Intervention Teams (SIT), or Child Study Teams (CST) to identify at-risk students who need Tier 2 support and use data from multiple domains to determine appropriate interventions. Many schools establish data "cut points” across academics, behavior, attendance, and social-emotional learning to determine when a student needs to receive Tier 2 interventions.
Tier 3 supports refer to intensive services that 1 to 5% of students receive if they continue to struggle and require even more support. It is also for students who are undergoing more of an acute crisis, such as the death of a parent.
Pro Tip: Ensuring educators have access to a library of strong, evidence-based interventions is crucial for supporting students. Districts and schools that partner with Panorama have access to Playbook, a professional learning library for K-12 educators. Playbook includes 500+ MTSS interventions in SEL, academics, and behavior that support students at every tier and every developmental stage.
Recommended Resource: 42 MTSS Interventions for Your Student Support Team
The Power of Data-Based Decision-Making
Once you have a tiered intervention structure, data plays a crucial role in determining when and how to deploy resources and intervention strategies.
Schools and districts following an MTSS structure use universal screening processes and assessment systems to identify which students need targeted supports. MTSS interventionists then use data across academic performance, behavior, attendance, and social-emotional learning to source the right intervention strategy from a whole-child perspective.
The practice of data-based decision-making and documentation of MTSS interventions can also support the reduction of bias in schools. By interrogating data, educators can uncover disparities in interventions provided based on race, ethnicity, or other student group identifiers that could lead to over-referrals for discipline or special education.
More and more districts are adopting system-wide MTSS data systems like Panorama for Student Success to drive continuous improvement and monitor student outcomes. A central system can support educators and administrators by:
- Triangulating student data to better understand root causes of present challenges.
- Enabling collaboration around interventions to support student needs.
- Monitoring the progress of individual and group intervention plans over time.
- Providing year-over-year student data as students move from elementary school to middle school to high school, preventing them from slipping through the cracks during key transitions.
Panorama’s data dashboards allow teachers to track student growth and identify areas in need of intervention. (Please note that demo data is pictured.)
According to LaTonya Robinson, Chief of Student Services at Oxford School District (MS), having a whole-child MTSS platform can make a world of difference: “For the first time ever, we’ve been able to unify our academic and behavior intervention programs, collaborate on intervention plans in one place, and work directly with SEL data to support our children and teachers.”
Recommended Resource: 3 Questions Every Data-Driven MTSS Support Team Must Ask Weekly [Download]
Track Success With Intervention Planning and Progress Monitoring
Looking at data can help educators identify areas of support for individuals or groups of students. When educators notice a need for more targeted interventions, they will work to create an intervention plan. This is an action plan for getting the student additional support in a certain area, usually at Tier 2 or Tier 3.
Pro Tip: Remember, just because a student may need Tier 2 support in one area does not mean they have moved into “Tier 2.” In MTSS, a student may receive interventions in multiple tiers at once; they could have plans for a Tier 2 support in math, a Tier 3 in literacy, and Tier 1 for social-emotional learning.
Educators can look at student data such as grades, attendance records, and feedback survey responses to get a full picture of the student and what may be contributing to the challenge. Educators can consider how the student is performing in academics, attendance, behavior, and social-emotional learning to help them identify the best course of action for the plan.
Student intervention plans generally include:
- Information about where a student needs support
- Proposed intervention strategies for providing that support
- A timeline for the intervention
- A goal for student progress by the end of the timeline
- A method for monitoring progress
Example of an intervention plan template (download here)
Progress monitoring is a critical piece of intervention planning, as it helps ensure that the intervention is being implemented consistently and with fidelity. It also provides the educator with data on how well the intervention is working. If a student isn’t progressing, educators can create a new intervention plan instead of spending time and resources on a strategy that isn’t helping.
While intervention planning and progress monitoring are often used for individual students, administrators can apply the same principles to interventions for groups of students and for school- and district-wide initiatives. For example, some districts may want to create plans for addressing learning recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and monitor the progress of those interventions over time.
Recommended Resource: Interventions and Progress Monitoring Toolkit
Bringing MTSS to Life: All About Implementation
Implementing a district-wide framework can feel overwhelming. An MTSS is a large and complex system, touching all aspects of school life. But there are certain elements that will set your district up for success:
- Having a dedicated MTSS team
- Building community collaboration and buy-in
- Planning for continuous improvement
In this section, we’ll take a closer look at how each of these elements contributes to a strong and sustainable MTSS.
Recommended Resource: Creating an MTSS Implementation Plan: 6 Keys for Success
A Dedicated MTSS Team
Because MTSS is, by definition, a system-wide practice, school district leaders support effective MTSS practices through communicating a unified vision. Support for MTSS must begin at the district level and should include long-term planning, program evaluation, resource allocation to schools, and professional development.
Kimberly Lawson, Director of Special Education at Special School District in Mehlville, MO, shared powerful insights on her district’s approach to building buy-in for MTSS:
“MTSS work needs to start at the central office in order to be implemented district-wide, and building-level teams need extra support during the first few years… Ensuring our buildings were supported was one of the best decisions that we made as a team. Any way that districts can figure out how to coach and how to support, they should.”
Having a dedicated MTSS team signals that MTSS is a priority in your district, and helps clarify roles and responsibilities when it comes to implementation. Teams can also evaluate the fidelity of implementation and intervention efficacy. Here are some examples of who may be involved in an MTSS team, depending on whether they work at a district or school level:
- District-Level Team Members:
- A Director of MTSS leads the development of a data-based, district-wide MTSS. Directors are responsible for collaborating closely with building administrators, educators, support staff, families, and students.
- An MTSS Coordinator works closely with the Director of MTSS and is responsible for communicating with schools in the district, developing meeting schedules, documenting processes, monitoring progress, and providing professional development resources.
- School-Based Team Members:
- MTSS teams are made up of individual adults in the school and look at data, develop interventions, and create support plans for students who need them. Ideally, a team should include a school administrator, a teacher from each grade level, and a mental health professional.
- School-based teams are led by an MTSS Coach. This person works with individual schools and works with administrators, teachers, and counselors to coordinate tiered interventions. They also work closely with other school MTSS coaches to form a strong network within the district.
Recommended Resource: MTSS Job Descriptions to Build Out Your Team
A Community of Collaboration
Implementing a system as complex and far-reaching as an MTSS framework requires collaboration and cooperation with every member of the school community. This extends not only to the educators and staff members within your district, but also to students and their families. A system works best when everyone works together. Here are some ways you can invite members of your district community to participate in MTSS implementation:
- Provide opportunities for professional development on MTSS topics for educators.
- Identify and elevate members of your district community who are passionate about MTSS.
- Share resources, new research, and news through school newsletter.
- Elevate student, educator, and family voices through feedback surveys.
- Engage families and caregivers in all aspects of their children’s education.
- Provide community members with visibility into your MTSS processes, particularly around data collection, usage, and privacy.
Recommended Resource: 360° Climate Surveys Starter Pack
A Cycle of Continuous Improvement
MTSS implementation is ever-evolving. As a school community's needs change, your MTSS will need to evolve to reflect those changes. A commitment to continuous improvement can help an MTSS progress.
One of the best ways to understand what’s working (and what isn’t) within your district is to conduct surveys with different groups in your community. Gathering feedback from students, families, teachers, and staff will give you insight into what their experiences are like in your district, and ways that you could potentially improve those experiences. Understanding community needs can be especially helpful when planning district and school-wide Tier 1 supports.
If you want a deeper understanding of your district’s MTSS, consider using an MTSS self-assessment tool to get feedback from the educators in your district so you can take action to build a better MTSS.
Recommended Resource: MTSS Self-Assessment
Using MTSS To Support the Whole Child
Because MTSS is designed to support the whole child, it also strongly aligns with other initiatives and systems. MTSS works together with:
MTSS and PBIS
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and MTSS are different, but they are related and work well together. It may be easiest to think of PBIS as the behavior component of a larger MTSS that encompasses behavior, academics, and social-emotional learning.
Did you know? PBIS was popularized by the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It was initially established to provide behavioral interventions for individual students. PBIS has since shifted to emphasize school-wide practices and expectations that help all students to develop prosocial behavior.
PBIS, like MTSS, uses a tiered model of intervention support. Tier 1 PBIS interventions are used for all students to create positive environments for learning. If individuals or groups of students need more support, more targeted interventions are used at Tiers 2 and 3. These tiers often involve support from counselors and other specialists.
PBIS also relies on collecting and analyzing Big 5 data to inform decisions and guide interventions. Different schools will have different approaches to positive behavioral interventions. Examples of positive behavior interventions include token reward systems and using behavior-specific praise to encourage desired behaviors.
Recommended Resource: PBIS Team Toolkit
MTSS and SEL
An important priority for many districts is supporting the whole child through social-emotional learning (SEL). The MTSS framework encompasses this work with its focus on whole child supports across social-emotional well-being, academics, and behavior.
SEL helps students acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve goals, have supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) uses five core competencies as a guide for social-emotional growth:
- Social Awareness
- Relationship Skills
- Responsible Decision-Making
Work on the core competencies of SEL also supports work in academics and behavior. SEL activities are often used as interventions within a PBIS or MTSS. SEL works particularly well to support behavior, as it teaches many of the skills required for positive behavioral growth.
Recommended Resource: 15 SEL Intervention Ideas for School and District Teams
MTSS and Special Education Services
MTSS can help get students the support they need without having to refer them to special education services, and can help identify which students should be assessed for disability and special education services.
While targeted interventions, particularly at Tiers 2 and 3, can align with special education services, MTSS is designed to serve all students, which is inclusive of students receiving special education services. Because MTSS allows students to receive support at multiple tiers at once, a student receiving special education services may be getting Tier 1 interventions in some areas and Tier 2 or 3 in others.
When looking at MTSS data, it’s important to understand the impacts your system and practices are having on students receiving special education services to ensure that they are receiving an equitable education.
Recommended Resource: MTSS and Special Education: Nurturing Effective Alignment and Collaboration
MTSS in Action: What Districts Are Doing
Schools and districts across the country are prioritizing tiered frameworks to ensure that educators are delivering the right interventions to students at the right time. This work includes setting up data systems, mobilizing human resources, and aligning staff around goals and expectations for MTSS.
While each district is at a different stage in this journey, there's a lot to learn from the processes, strategies, and tools being used today to implement MTSS.
Below, take a look at how innovative schools and districts across the country are paving the way forward for MTSS and changing what it means to prepare students for bright futures. Explore how education leaders are serving students' academic, social, and emotional needs within a structured system of supports that works for their school or district.
1. MTSS and Special Education: How District Leaders in Mehlville (MO) Partner With Panorama to Support Students at Every Tier
Adam Smith, Executive Director of Student Services at Mehlville School District, and Kimberly Lawson, Director of Special Education in Mehlville through SSD, speak to the importance of a united approach to MTSS and how they are using data to support students and educators in their schools.
“We don't want MTSS to just be used as a system for referral for special education services, and we’re working to ensure that we're not over- or under-identifying students that might need that extra support," said Smith. "We want to use our resources to serve all students in a better way, and Panorama is helping us facilitate that work.”
2. How Utah's Jordan School District Is Bringing a "Restorative MTSS" to Life With Panorama
Jordan School District (UT) educators Travis Hamblin, Director of Student Services, Stacee Worthen, Secondary Counselor Specialist, and Julie Scherzinger, High School Assistant Principal, share how their relationship-first approach to MTSS impacts student well-being.
"Relationships don’t support the learning, relationships are the learning," said Hamblin. "That’s why we focus on restorative MTSS, social-emotional learning, and why we use a tool like Panorama to determine how to best help kids.”
3. How Gadsden ISD Uses Student Voice to Adopt New Mexico’s MLSS Framework
Jed Duggan, Director of Student Success at Gadsden Independent School District (NM), shares how his district is using data-based decision-making to implement the New Mexico’s Multi-Layered Systems of Support framework.
“In the past, educators have relied primarily on our professional judgment when it comes to decision-making," said Duggan. "We do our best, but we don’t have any results that can tell us definitively whether or not our initiatives are working. With Panorama, we’re able to use data from students, teachers, and families to inform and justify the choices we’re making in our districts and schools.”
Next Steps for Strengthening Your District’s MTSS
Figuring out how to best support students is a complex endeavor. We know, because we partner with 2,000 districts to navigate these challenges.
Whether you need support structuring an MTSS framework, consulting on a roll-out plan, or professional development, our team will be your partner and guide. We support thousands of schools and districts with their MTSS through feedback surveys and robust data platforms for attendance, academics, behavior, and SEL.
Ready to learn how your district can partner with Panorama?
Schedule a meeting with us!