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Unlocking Student Success: Understanding the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) in Education

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

What is the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) in education?

The Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a framework that addresses the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of all students. It consists of three tiers of support, each with increasing levels of intensity and individualization.

MTSS identifies and addresses student needs early on before they escalate into larger problems. Educators continuously gather data about students during the MTSS process to evaluate them for targeted and personalized interventions.

The MTSS umbrella framework encompasses the RTI and PBIS frameworks.

Similar frameworks are the Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral

Interventions and Supports (PBIS) models. RTI focuses on academics, while PBIS focuses on positive student behavior.

MTSS includes RTI and PBIS and serves as the comprehensive umbrella framework that helps "the whole child" achieve academic, behavioral, and social-emotional goals.

Why is MTSS important for student success?

One of the key benefits of MTSS is its focus on early intervention. By identifying students at risk of academic or behavioral difficulties, educators can intervene early and provide the necessary supports to address their needs. This proactive approach helps prevent larger problems and enables students to stay on track academically and socially.

Additionally, MTSS promotes collaboration and communication among educators, families, and community partners. By working together, these stakeholders can share information, resources, and strategies to support student success.

Besides ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process, MTSS provides students with consistent and coordinated support both inside and outside the classroom.

What are the differences between "supports," "interventions," and "accommodations"?

In the MTSS model, the frequently-used terms "supports," "interventions," and "accommodations" may confuse people unfamiliar with the specific meanings behind these words.

"Support" in MTSS should not be confused with the general English term "support." "Supports" in MTSS refers to a broad range of resources and services available to students to promote their overall well-being and success. Each resource or service is a "support." Some common examples of "supports" in a K-12 context include:

  • Guidance Counseling

  • English as a Second Language (ESL)

  • Mental Health Services

"Interventions" are targeted strategies that help students overcome challenges or close gaps in their learning, particularly in math and reading. Examples of interventions include:

  • small group instruction

  • individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students

  • remediation programs for students that are behind

  • enrichment programs for students that particularly excel

"Accommodations" are changes that remove barriers for students with disabilities to enable them to access the same education as other students. Accommodations do not change what students are tested on or what students learn but do change how these students with disabilities access the test or curriculum. Examples of accommodations as listed by the University of Washington include:

  • sign language interpreters for students that are deaf

  • text-to-speech software for students with Dyslexia

  • extended time to take tests for students with learning disabilities

The three tiers of MTSS

MTSS consists of three tiers of support designed to meet the unique needs of all students:

  1. Tier 1: Universal Supports: Tier 1 supports the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of all learners. Classroom teachers are responsible for providing universal supports. These may include differentiated instruction and social-emotional learning activities.

  2. Tier 2: Targeted Supports: Students who require additional support beyond Tier 1 receive targeted interventions at this tier. Tier 2 interventions may be provided in small group settings and are taught by specialized staff, such as reading or math specialists. They are designed to help students make progress toward meeting grade-level expectations and move to Tier 1.

  3. Tier 3: Intensive Supports: Students who continue to struggle despite Tier 2 interventions may require more intensive supports at Tier 3. These individualized interventions may involve one-on-one instruction or small group settings. Specialized professionals, such as special education teachers or school psychologists, typically provide Tier 3 interventions.

Tiers in the MTSS Framework

Implementing MTSS in schools

Implementing MTSS in schools requires a systematic and collaborative approach. It involves the following key steps:

  1. Leadership and buy-in: School leaders provide the resources and support to ensure all stakeholders are committed to the process. Building a shared vision and understanding of MTSS among staff, families, and community partners is essential for successful implementation.

  2. Data-driven decision-making: Like other forms of data-driven instruction, MTSS collects and analyzes multiple data points to identify student needs and guide decision-making. Monitor the progress of interventions by assessing for changes at regular intervals. If progress monitoring shows improvement, continue the intervention until the student is on track to meet academic, behavioral, or social-emotional goals. If there is no improvement in the student, then pivot to other interventions.

  3. Professional development and capacity building: Schools should provide ongoing professional development (PD) and training to support educators. PD may include workshops, coaching, and collaborative learning opportunities.

  4. Family and community engagement: Schools should involve families in decision-making, provide them with resources and information about MTSS, and seek their input and feedback. Building strong partnerships with families and community partners can enhance the effectiveness of interventions and supports provided to students.

Benefits of using MTSS in education

MTSS offers several benefits for students, educators, and schools:

  1. Improved student outcomes: MTSS ensures that every student receives the support they need to succeed, leading to improved academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes for all students.

  2. Early intervention and prevention: MTSS emphasizes early intervention and prevention, allowing educators to address student needs before they escalate into larger problems. By identifying and addressing issues early on, schools can prevent academic and behavioral difficulties and promote positive learning experiences for all students.

  3. Inclusive and equitable education: MTSS promotes an inclusive and culturally responsive education system by addressing the diverse needs of all students. This helps to close achievement gaps and create more equitable learning.

  4. Collaborative and coordinated support: Educators can share information, resources, and strategies to support student success. A collaborative approach ensures that everyone is involved in the decision-making process and that students receive consistent and coordinated support.

A case study of how MTSS is used effectively

Researchers did a case study of third graders at a school in Idaho and found the MTSS model to help improve academic and behavioral outcomes.

The researchers gave a pseudonym, Hermione, to one of the subjects and studied how the school put her in Tier 2 interventions to improve her math test scores.

A screening done in the fall semester identified Hermione as "at risk for not meeting grade-level performance standards in math." After considering Hermione's past math scores on state tests and her teacher's classroom observations, the school decided to place Hermione in Tier 2 small group instruction to receive additional support for math.

Most of Hermione's instruction is still in Tier 1 with her classroom teacher and regular peers. However, the school also put her into a small group taught by a math intervention specialist for 30 minutes four times a week.

Progress monitoring revealed that Hermione showed consistent improvement across three data points: (1) her math test scores, (2) her classroom teacher observations, and (3) her math intervention specialist observations. After 12 weeks, the school determined that the small group instruction had successfully brought Hermione back on track to meet grade-level math standards. The school ended this Tier 2 intervention for Hermione and moved her back to full-time Tier 1 regular classroom instruction.

This Idaho school's collaborative teaming approach and data-driven decision-making were key factors in its success in keeping students on track to meet academic and behavioral standards.


MTSS is a comprehensive framework that promotes student success by addressing their academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs. It provides a proactive, preventative, and data-driven approach to education, ensuring that every student receives the appropriate instruction, interventions, and supports. By implementing MTSS, schools can create a positive and inclusive learning environment where all students can thrive.

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