No–I know what you’re thinking–but, no, MTSS does not stand for Mark Twain’s Steam Ship. I know; I know–I thought the same thing at first. Everyone does–well, either that or a “Metaplasmically Tmetic Scazon of Spondees.”

What Does MTSS Stand for in Education?

So what is MTSS? More specifically, what is MTSS in education? And what is MTSS in schools? In the education world, MTSS stands for “Multi-tiered Systems of Support.” Pretty self-explanatory, right? I mean, right away we know the acronym indicates that there’s, well, a lot of systems, and they’re all organized in tiers, and it’s all about providing support. MTSS: It should stand for “Man,That’s So Simple!” One of the things I loved most about my 10+ years as a teacher was all the wonderful acronyms we got to learn. It felt like there was a new one every month. It was… wonderful. 

Speaking of wonder, you may be wondering what kinds of systems are indicated by “Multi-tiered Systems of Support.” You may also be wondering how the tiers are organized, and what kinds of support. Then again, you may simply be wondering–as I would have back when I was teaching–how much more work MTSS will require you to pack into your already overpacked daily round. Or you may be wondering whether the school or district has time to implement this program before a completely new and improved acronymic upgrade comes out next year. All good questions. MTSS is full of wonder! 

Actually, fortunately, MTSS has had some staying power. MTSS has been in schools since 2009-ish, over a decade–so that’s something. And apparently the term’s endurance speaks to an impressive record of success. So maybe the fadism factor isn’t too much of a concern on this one. And the popularity is a promising sign. 

Defining MTSS 

As for the specific meaning of MTSS, there are actually many definitions (that figures), but they all have one thing in common: They’re all delivered in that distinctly plodding, bureaucratically nominal prose that always makes educational mandates such engaging and enjoyable reading material. Take this one, for example, from the book Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support by Kent McIntosh and Steve Goodman. They describe MTSS as the “integration of a number of multiple-tiered systems into one coherent, strategically combined system meant to address multiple domains or content areas in education (e.g., literacy and social-emotional competence).” Now that explains everything! MTSS: Man, That’s So Simple! Any questions? 

What Does MTSS Do in Schools? 

Good question! Basically, MTSS provides support for students in need of help, and it provides teachers tools to provide that help.

What Kind of Help Does MTSS Provide? 

Another good question! MTSS provides help in core educational “domains”: Academic Skills, Social-Emotional Learning, and Behavior. (I capitalized those terms because they’re domains, and domains just seem to merit capitalization. I may be making up some of my own capitalization rules here, but it’s my blog, and, well, that’s the way it’s gonna be.)

MTSS: An Acronym Built from Acronyms

MTSS actually combines 2 previous, widely successful–and popular–systems of support:

  • RTI: Response to Intervention: RTI is basically the Academic side of MTSS. It employs universal screening to: 
    • Provide support early on in a student’s development 
    • Determine which students need help in specific Academic areas 
    • Determine the necessary level or “tier” of help they need
  • PBIS: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: PBIS is the Social-Emotional and Behavioral side of MTSS, the part that focuses on determining whether and at what level a student may need support and intervention in Social-Emotional and Behavior dimensions of their development. We even made a video about it! 

MTSS: Man,That’s So Simple!

So, to recap, MTSS combines 2 widely adopted, successful, and just all-around popular systems of support into one, single system (one system to rule them all!). In other words, MTSS is basically the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Educational support: 2 great things that are even better together. (Obviously RTI is the chocolate, and PBIS is the peanut butter in this analogy.) MTSS: Man,That’s So Simple!

But What about Those “Tiers”? 

What are the “tiers” in MTSS? Another good question! Both RTI and PBIS organize different levels of student need and support into tiers or levels, and MTSS draws on this model. MTSS organizes student needs and corresponding forms of support into 3 basic levels–er tiers:

Tier 1: Core instruction and support for all students
Tier 2: Targeted, higher-level, small-group interventions for at-risk students 
Tier 3: Targeted, intensive and individualized intervention for high-risk students

MTSS: Vague Acronym, Promising Pedagogy 

Once you get past the lethargic prose typically attached to the term, there’s a lot to like about MTSS. Schools that employ MTSS have reported increases in Academic performance, coupled with decreases in Behavioral challenges. MTSS programs are also designed to identify student needs early on, when interventions can have the most impact. What makes MTSS unique, however, is the way it enables educators to understand and respond to all domains of student development within a single, unified program of support. MTSS is premised on the idea that a student’s Academic progress must be considered in combination with their Social-Emotional and Behavioral needs–and vice versa. To invoke another set of tiered pyramids popular in the education world, you can’t move through the Bloom’s, without also attending to the Maslow’s.

I have shared my own experiences–as a student, teacher, and parent–with what I see as the “feedback loops” that bind Academic, Social-Emotional, and Behavioral challenges. Research has shown that students with Academic challenges are more likely to encounter social problems, including feelings of rejection from both peers and teachers. They are also more likely to become targets of bullying. These challenges work both ways: While students who struggle with Academics are also more likely to struggle with Social and Emotional challenges, students who experience Social-Emotional challenges are more likely to struggle Academically. And all these factors impact student Behavior, which in turn feeds back to impact Academic progress and Social-Emotional welfare, and so on. 

In other words, a student’s Academic, Social-Emotional, and Behavioral development are not simply interconnected, but interdependent, each mutually influencing and dependent on one another. The research here is overwhelming. Consider the relationship between a student’s performance in reading and their vulnerability to feelings of social isolation. A study conducted in 2012 found that, when compared to students with higher reading scores, students who struggle with reading in third grade were twice as likely to report feeling socially rejected and lonely by the time they reach fifth grade. Another study conducted in 2006  found that students with learning differences were twice as likely to experience bullying. And while a student’s reading ability impacts their Social-Emotional welfare, the influence also works in the opposite direction. A study conducted in 2013 found that, for students with learning disabilities, the added vulnerability to bullying only further undermines their ability to develop as readers. And it should come as no surprise that—as confirmed in a 2014 study—students would find it difficult to focus on Academic instruction while struggling to recover from the emotional trauma and anxiety of getting bullied in the hallway or cafeteria. In fact, another study the same year found that various forms of harassment on campus were the strongest social factors for predicting lower achievement in both literacy and math. 

Given the ties binding each student’s Academic, Social-Emotional, and Behavioral development, it makes sense that strategies for intervention and support follow a framework that comprehends all of these domains–not as isolated challenges, but as integral parts of each student’s entire learning journey. Research continues to expand this big-picture understanding of student learning, one that considers the many non-academic factors that impact academics–everything from a student’s sense of belonging in class and access to social support, to their cognitive processing, to their sleeping habits and time spent online. Shmoop’s Heartbeat builds on this more expansive understanding of learning, enabling both students and teachers to reflect on and gain insight into the many non-academic dimensions that affect academic development, as well as their unique relevance to each learner’s individual needs, experiences, and interests. The impact and growing adoption of MTSS marks just one front in the emergence of policies and practices committed to more fully comprehending the broad range of factors that impact each student’s capacity to flourish, both in school and beyond. 


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