Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports during a Pandemic: Upgrading Your Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Interventions

Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports during a Pandemic: Upgrading Your Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Interventions. 

It’s Not Your Fault. . . .

[CLICK HERE for a Complimentary 35-Minute Webinar Overview of this Discussion ]


   The goal of every school across the country is to maximize the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral progress and proficiency of every student. Ultimately, this translates into academic independence and social, emotional, and behavioral self-management, respectively.

   All of this is accomplished through:

  • Effective and differentiated classroom instruction, complemented with
  • Positive and successful classroom management, that
  • Is delivered by highly qualified teachers who have
  • Administrators, instructional support and related services staff, and other consultants available to support classrooms, grade-level or academic departments, and other school programs and processes. 

   While an admirable goal, the reality is that not all students are successful even when educated in effective classrooms. Some of these students come to the schoolhouse door at-risk for educational failure, while others are struggling learners who are disengaged, unmotivated, unresponsive, underperforming, or consistently unsuccessful.

   But today, even more students are perceived as “unsuccessful”—academically, socially, and/or behaviorally—because of the Pandemic, the challenges with virtual or hybrid or socially-distanced instruction, and other issues related to attendance and engagement.

   Indeed, while some educators seem obsessed that our students have experienced a “COVID slide” and are “behind,” they similarly recognize that general and special education teachers have similarly struggled—professionally and personally—during the past 12 months. . . as have parents, guardians, and other support systems.

   All of this has negatively affected student instruction and the educational process.

   But here’s the deal:

   Students are only behind if we compare them to a “normal curve,” or to curricular standards connected to pacing charts that reflect a “normative” instructional scope and sequence.
   And these are not normal times.

   Thus, even though students need to be placed into specific grade levels in elementary and middle school, or they need to have some type of “academic standing” in high school, we need to focus on:

  • What students have academically learned and mastered, what they need to learn next, and how to best group and teach them;
  • Where students are socially, emotionally, and behaviorally, what they need to learn next, and how to best group and teach them;
  • How to re-write national, state, and local academic standards—with common sense and sensitivity—to reflect these unprecedented times;
  • How to modify the school and schooling process—including preschools, K-12 schools, career and technical education programs, community and technical colleges, and four-year institutions—so that students get the skills they need for the jobs that they want; and
  • How to support our teachers, support staff, and administrators, at all of the school levels above, so that they have the tools, skills, funding, resources, flexibility, encouragement, and capacity to get the job done.

   We have all experienced enough pressure over the past 12 months, and there is more short-term and long-term pressure to come. . . pressure that will extend across the current (and, perhaps, next) generation of students.

   Why are we making this worse with our “normative” data and perspectives? Why are we already beginning the “blame-game?”


   We need to have high and realistic expectations of our students—now, and as we plan the future. . . and Students, Parents/Guardians, and Educators need to realize, “This is NOT your fault.”

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Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

   Districts and schools are required by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to have multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, interventions, and systems to address all students’ academic or social, emotional, and behavioral needs—but especially, struggling learners who are disengaged, unmotivated, unresponsive, underperforming, or consistently unsuccessful.

   When the ESEA was signed into law by President Barak Obama on December 10, 2015, it transferred much of the responsibility for developing, implementing, and evaluating effective school and schooling processes to our nation’s state departments of education and school districts. It also specifically cites the need for multi-tiered systems of support for (a) students with disabilities, including those with significant cognitive disabilities; (b) English Language Learners; (c) children with developmental delays; and (d) students struggling in reading and literacy.

   Critically, in the self-determination spirit of ESEA, districts are encouraged to establish multi-tiered systems to address their students’ needs with services, supports, strategies, and interventions that are locally determined, resources, and resolved.

   Indeed, and as in the past, ESEA uses the term “multi-tiered systems of support” in lower-case words with NO acronyms (i.e., “MTSS”).

   Thus, the federal ESEA law does not require the MTSS Framework—developed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)—or any variation of this Framework passed down through a state’s Department of Education.

   This is especially important now because:

  • The federal government’s MTSS Framework has a number of psychometric and pedagogical flaws that undermine effective services to our most needy students; and
  • Schools and districts will need to adapt and upgrade their current multi-tiered system of supports to address students’ needs now as a function of the local impact of the Pandemic.

   To “prove” these points, note that the ESEA defines a multi-tiered system of supports as:

“a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision-making.”

   This very broad definition gives districts and schools the permission and latitude to evaluate their own student needs, their local resources and personnel, and the skills and expertise that they need to demonstrably improve academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students’ progress and proficiency over time.

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Multi-Tiered Flaws and Fixes

   For whatever reasons, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)—and its funded National Technical Assistance (TA) Centers—has allowed and promoted ineffective response-to-intervention and multi-tiered systems of support procedures and strategies within its Frameworks almost two decades.

   OSEP has rationalized this by periodically stating (mostly when under pressure) that (a) it cannot and does not advocate for any single program or approach; and (b) it simply is providing a “framework” of practices that individual districts and schools need to choose among.

   At the same time, OSEP has created a “monopoly of thought and implementation” through its TA Centers, by “influencing” state departments of education practices (through its annual evaluation and oversight process), and by providing “free” training—funded by taxpayer money—using only its frameworks.

   [Remember that I directed the State Improvement Grant funded by OSEP for the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years.]

   Once again, please know: This is NOT your fault.

   But, at this point, it is not about OSEP. It is about getting the most effective services, supports, strategies, and interventions to our students.

   While this has always been important, it is especially important now as a function of the Pandemic. . . and because it is unlikely that state and federal standards are going to move away from a normative perspective (see Introduction above) of student progress and proficiency.

   Given this, more districts’ and schools’ multi-tiered systems of support will be more taxed by more student referrals than ever before.

   This is an essential time for all districts and schools to review, recalibrate, and upgrade their multi-tiered systems of supports. . . moving away from existing flawed practices and toward more effective and impactful services.

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   To this end, seven common RtI/MTSS flaws include the following.

  • Flaw #1. Missing the Interdependency between Academics and Behavior.

Many multi-tiered systems do not evaluate, early on, whether a student is behaviorally acting out because of academic frustration. Thus, they miss the need to address the problem through academic assessment with resulting instructional interventions.

Conversely, many systems do not evaluate, early on, whether an academic problem is due to social, emotional, or behavioral root causes. Thus, they attempt to remediate this problem through academic interventions. . . an approach that will ultimately fail.

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  • Flaw #2. Missing the Continuum of Instruction.

Many multi-tiered systems do not have a braided instructional continuum (from preschool through high school—for both academic and social, emotional, and behavioral problems) that includes effective differentiated instruction and curriculum-based progress monitoring; assistive classroom instructional supports; data-driven remediation, accommodation, and modification; strategic and intervention supports and interventions; and compensatory decision-rules and strategies.

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  • Flaw #3. Avoiding Diagnostic or Functional Assessment until it is Too Late.

Many multi-tiered systems, unlike medical doctors and car mechanics, conduct diagnostic or functional assessment at Tier 3, rather than at Tier 1. This reinforces a “wait-to-fail” system that (a) “allows” students to fail multiple times over multiple tiers for long periods of time. These practices actually intensify some student problems resulting in high levels of student (and staff) resistance to intervention.

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  • Flaw #4. Not Linking Assessment to Intervention.

Many multi-tiered systems do not validate (beginning in Tier 1, as above) the root causes of students’ academic or social, emotional, or behavioral problems. Most assessments, instead, re-identify (albeit more specifically or normatively) the student problem. This is compounded by the failure to directly link the results of a root cause analysis to recommended interventions that address the root cause.

Many Tier 2 interventions, moreover, are based on screening or interim assessment results, rather than diagnostic or root cause analysis results. Many Tier 2 interventions are generic and given to all students (albeit in a group, and often using paraprofessionals), rather than truly targeted and individualized.

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  • Flaw #5. Focusing on Progress Monitoring rather than on Strategic Instruction or Intervention Approaches.

Many multi-tiered systems focus (relative to staff time and analysis) more on progress monitoring than on intervention. Some multi-tiered systems are grounded in the belief that progress monitoring (with its goal and trend lines) is actually an intervention, when it simply exists to evaluate the efficacy of an intervention.

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  • Flaw #6. Establishing Rigid Rules on Students’ Access to More Intensive Services.

Many multi-tiered systems are designed such that students must sequentially move from Tier 1 to Tier 2 to Tier 3—thereby creating a history of failure, and delaying needed interventions to many students.

Other multi-tiered services are not providing general education teachers with the training and supervision such that they learn to implement selected and relevant strategic or intensive interventions—thereby creating a systemic dependence on Tier 2 or Tier 3 services.

Effective multi-tiered systems are designed to provide early intervention services, and to give students, as quickly and efficiently as possible, the intensity of services, supports, strategies, and/or interventions that they need to be academically and/or behaviorally successful.

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  • Flaw #7. Setting a “Price” on Access to Multidisciplinary Consultation.

Many multi-tiered systems require general education teachers to do a specified number of interventions over a specific period of time, and to show the data that indicate that a student has not made sufficient progress and is not responding to the interventions.

This results in teachers implementing low probability of success interventions that delay services, and that may make student problems worse and more resistant to change. This is often done in the name of “punching teachers’ tickets” to give them access to multidisciplinary team attention, consultation, or student-specific consideration.

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Multi-Tiered Resources and Solutions

   Hopefully, many districts’ and schools’ multi-tiered systems of support need to only go from “good to great” or “great to greater” as they embark on the recommended self-evaluation process.

   At the same time, we understand and want to support districts and schools that need to re-design their systems so they can even get to “good.”

   To that end, we remind everyone that we are always available for a free, one-hour consultation call with your district or school Leadership or MTSS Team(s) to begin this process.

   But we also provide the following (some are brand-new) resources.

  • Resource #1 (Free E-Monograph): A Multi-Tiered Service & Support Implementation Blueprint for Schools & Districts: Revisiting the Science to Improve the Practice.

In this free 20-page electronic monograph, we describe the seven RtI/MTSS flaws discussed above in more detail, and provide ten solutions to these flaws.

[CLICK HERE for Resource]

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Resource #2 ($9.95): Planning Your Post-Pandemic Re-Opening of School: Addressing Students' Academic & Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs.

In this 144-page electronic monograph, we describe specific student, staff, school, and system steps and field-tested solutions to address many tough, pandemic-related academic and social, emotional, and behavioral pandemic-related realities and needs.

[CLICK HERE for Resource]

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  • Resource #3 ($29.95): A Multi-Tiered Service and Support Implementation Guidebook for Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap.

In this 130-page electronic monograph, we describe a practical, common-sense, field-tested multi-tiered implementation process (with flowcharts)—from the general education through special education—that “walks” school staff through the different steps, activities, and decision rules that make a multi-tiered system of supports work.

[CLICK HERE for Resource]

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  • Resource #4 (Free On-Demand Webinar). Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports: Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention.

In this free, on-demand 35-minute webinar, we expand on many of the issues in this Blog (and beyond), and introduce a new on-line MTSS course to help districts and schools go “to the next level of excellence” relative to their current multi-tiered system of supports (see #5 below).

[CLICK HERE for this 35-Minute Webinar]

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  • Resource #5 (NEW On-Line, On-Demand MTSS Course: $100-Off Pre-Launch Discount Price Now Available through February 28—$299 Single Purchase/$499 Site License Purchase):   Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports: Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention.

This course has over 16 hours of on-demand video (with an audio-only option) with handouts, electronic monographs, (self-) evaluation tools, and other resources. There are seven presentations with TWO bonus videos, along with quizzes and a 25-hour Certificate of Attendance.

ALL of the monographs above (and more) come with the course.

[CLICK HERE for More Information]

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   Ultimately, to successfully upgrade their multi-tiered systems, districts and schools need:

  • To understand the history, flaws and corrections, and current status of multi-tiered academic and social, emotional, and behavioral support systems in the field;
  • To recognize the cost savings that result with effective prevention and early intervention services, the staff time that is wasted with unnecessary referrals for special education testing, and the importance on emphasizing student equity and excellence;
  • To evaluate their own current systems’ strengths, limitations, and gaps;
  • To design—guided by a nationally field-tested science-to-practice common sense implementation blueprint—their own scaffolded multi-tiered flowchart, that integrates effective instruction with early intervention services with their 504 accommodation processes with their IDEA special education processes;
  • To conduct functional and practical data-based root cause student assessments; that link
  • To multi-tiered academic (especially in literacy and mathematics) and social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, strategies, and interventions.

   We hope that this information has been useful to you, and that it motivates you to evaluate your current multi-tiered system—both in general, and given the “pandemic possibilities” that are (or will) confront your students, staff, schools, and system.

   Please do feel free to contact me with any questions, or to set up a free, one-hour MTSS (or other) consultation with your team.