Skip to main content

How MTSS Can Help Teachers and Students

Multicolored puzzle pieces fill up half of a white background.
(Image credit: Pixabay/stux)

Sometimes, there are misconceptions about what a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is. 

“MTSS as a way of thinking, it's not a program or an intervention,” says Judy Elliott, Ph.D, an education consultant at EduLead, LLC.

Elliott, the former Chief Academic Officer of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Melissa DeWalk, director of Student Services at Odyssey Online Learning, discussed ways MTSS can be used to support educators and students during a recent Tech & Learning webinar hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray and sponsored by DreamBox Learning. 

Watch the full webinar on-demand here (opens in new tab)

Key Takeaways  

Leadership Style Matters

Elliott shared research that looked at 747 interventions in schools that provide strong support for MTSS. “What they found was that having an effective principal, using collective leadership in a school, had a greater impact than 70 percent of those 747 interventions,” Elliott said. She noted that leadership explains about 25 percent of the variation in student learning across schools and that classroom factors account for more than 33 percent of the variation seen in student learning between schools. 

Intervene Early 

A good MTSS framework can allow educators to identify students who are struggling and then act before these struggles get out of control. “We shouldn't be waiting for a student to fail before we're stepping in,” DeWalk said. She noted that her virtual school has recently shifted its thinking around this and has had positive results with its renewed emphasis on intervening before a student has had significant struggles. 

Leadership Buy-in Is Essential 

Given the challenges coming out of COVID, DeWalk said education leaders need to embrace innovation in MTSS. “Let's think outside-the-box about MTSS, and let's not get so stuck in those tier one, tier two, tier three boxes and the things that we were doing prior to COVID,” she said. 

Modeling MTSS 

“When we do this work in brick-and-mortar schools there needs to be a district leadership team that's always meeting together and clearing the branches off the pathway so that the teachers and leaders can run freely down the path,” Elliott said. “Communication and collaboration mean that the leadership at the district level is really modeling communication and collaboration. The vision is really clear. The expectations are there from the boardroom to the classroom.” 

Establishing an MTSS Culture 

Creating the type of clear pathway for MTSS that Elliott referred to requires agreed-upon definitions of terms and expectations. “I always advocate that the first thing school districts need to do is create a board policy around multi-tiered systems of support and what that looks like. What's the definition? What are the non-negotiables? What does that look like for your district?” She added school leadership needs to build off of district leadership and this will ultimately lead to student success. “Student achievement is higher in schools where collective leadership is used and there are lots of interactions going on amongst and between teachers.” 

Parents Also Play a Key Role in This Process 

Educating parents on how to help navigate their students through a district's MTSS is also critical. “What I've found is that most parents really aren't equipped to fully advocate for their kids when it comes to academics,” DeWalk said. “So part of the way that we have really tried to reach in at our school is by educating the parent as much as we're educating the student about why we feel the extra resources and interventions that we're putting in place are important.” Efforts in this regard include having a student engagement specialist work with parents to coach them through the process of supporting their children's academic careers. 

Evaluate MTSS Programs 

Assessing your MTSS is, fittingly, all about collaboration. DeWalk said she liked to regularly check in with the people who are working with students to get a sense of what is working well and what can be improved. “I think it's really easy for us to make policy and procedure about what we're going to do,” she said. However, those policies and procedures might not always work as well in reality as they seem to on paper. “Regularly check in with your team to make sure that the policies and the procedures that are in place are actually supporting them and that it's not just an additional thing that they have to do in order to go through the MTSS process with a student,” she advised. 

Tech & Learning Webinars (opens in new tab)

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.