WTH is MTSS?: A Jargon Free Explanation for Parents

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WTH is MTSSIt’s ok. Many school, district, and state leaders are confused about it too. Or at least the way they communicate about the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) with parents would suggest that. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of MTSS in meetings and trainings with various school districts in the Sunshine State over the past several years and have come to the conclusion that:
MTSS, philosophically, is a very GOOD thing for our kids that, when truly understood and implemented, can reap some very positive results.


Even districts that implement MTSS effectively have difficulty articulating what it is to parents.

With that, your friendly neighborhood school psychologist will try to do what others haven’t: make MTSS make sense.

So what is MTSS?
MTSS is a way of doing things within the school that impacts every single student enrolled and is designed to make sure no one “falls through the cracks.” It is not a program. It is not a process. It is not anything that anyone can be “put in.” MTSS is a philosophy that considers all learners to make sure all students are getting the instruction needed and are making adequate growth. There are three tiers of instruction, and your child is in (at least) one of them.

Tier 1: The General Curriculum (100% of students)
No need to overcomplicate this. Every single student receives the core, or Tier 1, instruction. Schools use various curriculums (i.e., Treasures for reading, Go Math! for mathematics, etc.) as a means for presenting that core instruction. It is expected that at least 80% of our students will make adequate progress with this core instruction. Simple so far, isn’t it?

Tier 2: Students Who Struggle Get More Support (15%-20% of students)
If 80% of our kids are making adequate progress with the core instruction, that means that 20% are not gaining enough, so Tier 2 exists to support these students. Many schools provide Tier 2 support in groups of four or five students working with a teacher each day using a program in a given subject in addition to the core Tier 1 instruction. Other schools provide Tier 2 with computer programs in labs. Regardless of the method, it is expected that the majority of those students getting Tier 2 support will make adequate progress.

Tier 3: Intensive Instruction (5% of students)

When students are getting the core instruction (Tier 1), frequent instruction beyond that (Tier 2), and are still not making gains, MTSS calls for an individualized, intense level of instruction (Tier 3); there should be no more that 5% of the general student population needing this level of support. Diagnostic assessments are given to pinpoint why students are not learning and create a plan for how to intervene. This support, when provided appropriately, must be in a setting that is no larger than a one-to-three teacher to student ratio; one-to-one instruction is ideal when possible.

It is vital that in Tier 3, the teaching be specific to the student need. For instance, if a child is weak in reading and the diagnostic shows that he has excellent phonics skills but has a poor vocabulary, vocabulary should be the focus of this level of instruction.

If Tier 3 Is Not Successful: Psychoeducational Evaluations / ESE Testing

If a child is still not making adequate progress despite intensive, individualized amount support, it is likely that an evaluation is warranted to determine if there is a learning disability, intellectual disability, language impairment, or other condition that is preventing the student from making progress. If an evaluation is requested, schools should adjust the instruction further and continue with an intensive level of support while waiting for the evaluation to be completed.
There are a million nooks-and-crannies (which you can explore here) that go into what those three tiers of MTSS. School improvement, behavior management, and curriculum evaluation are part of that. They are details for the professionals you entrust your children with to sort through. But when you get down to what MTSS really is, it is just a way of doing things to make sure all children are being taught at their level so everyone can grow and have their needs met.

Is Your Child’s School Using MTSS Effectively? If So, Then…

  • They are monitoring your child’s progress in every tier. Just as the instruction gets more intense and specific, so does the progress monitoring (i.e., Tier 2 / small group progress may be monitored monthly, while students receiving Tier 3 / intensive instruction should be monitored at least weekly).
  • They are communicating with you about what tier of support your child is in and showing specific data (yay, line graphs!) that illustrates progress.
  • They are meeting regularly to make sure that the instruction at your child’s school is effective. This means looking at individual classrooms and grades to make sure most students are making gains, and when they are not, analyzing why not (i.e., Is the reading series we use not as good as we hoped? Is Mr. Jones teaching fractions correctly?).
  • Teams are providing your child with help before (and while) any type of testing or ESE services have begun. They will continue providing a high level of support regardless of the outcome of the evaluation.
  • They use the MTSS model in a similar manner to help improve behavior issues at the school as well.

And most importantly…

  • They will NOT allow your child to fall through the cracks!
Matthew Wiggins, Ed.S
Licensed School Psychologist