The twelfth teacher has called in sick tomorrow, and you are out of substitutes. Now, you’re deciding whether to combine classrooms or ask an administrator to step in as a teacher for the day. Suddenly, you question whether you have enough staff to open tomorrow, with any plans for student learning or interventions suddenly pushed to the side as you go into an emergency response mode.
Whether teacher absences are due to an influx in COVID-19 cases, unfilled positions from the beginning of the year, an overly stressed staff utilizing a much-needed mental health day, or all of the above, a sudden staff shortage can be an incredibly challenging hurdle for school districts to handle.
In the age of COVID-19, these shortages can come with hard decisions. In a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Colorado, district officials were forced to transition to remote learning for five days when staff absences surpassed 20%. These difficult decisions can disrupt all aspects of a school’s operations, including fidelity to MTSS processes.
However, MTSS is more relevant in times of educational crises than ever before. MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports) is a systematic approach to education that accounts for the needs of the whole student, including support for academic and social-emotional elements of a student’s learning. Better yet, MTSS is not just limited to the students it serves; this system also delivers benefits to a school and its staff—benefits that can help alleviate the strain during times of stress.
When faced with times of crisis, it can be easy to push our MTSS practice off to the side as we go into crisis mitigation mode, but staff shortages do not need to spell an end to our MTSS process. Instead, this provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate our MTSS practice and system to ensure that we have implemented a process that can survive a “worse case scenario” dilemma.
Let’s take a look at some strategies to continue MTSS with a reduced staff.
Ah, intervention plans. They are fun, aren’t they? All that data and planning and resources, only to take a look at a student’s progress monitoring scores and realize that those stubborn scores haven’t budged at all. Why? We may scream internally, watching our tediously placed trend lines flat-line. But we worked so hard on this skill! It is a true horror story of education—well, maybe not horror, but the frustration is definitely there.
Edward Munch, “The Scream”
As the bedrock of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), intervention plans are crucial in aiding all students to master grade-level content. While universal screeners and benchmarks can help identify which students require additional support beyond core instruction, intervention plans are the vehicle that delivers that support. Let’s take a moment to review the essential components of an MTSS intervention plan, then jump into the nitty-gritty of what to do if a plan is showing no growth.
I can still hear my students groan every time I announce “pop quiz time!” My countless hours of learning about secondary education had taught me that a solid instructional strategy was rooted in tests, tests, tests. Test the kids before they learn, test the kids while they learn, and test them after they learn. And then again—test the kids the next day, too—just to make sure they remember what we did yesterday.
As a teacher, I always sought to have some form of assessment embedded throughout every lesson because that was the foundation of good teaching, right? However, I was never taught what to do with the results of all that testing. I had all this great data at my fingertips, but I was drowning in data points, multiple-choice scores, and whether or not spelling should count in a short answer. So how did that help me help my students?
A robust Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) relies on a systematic data collection process. We are told to ensure that we have a universal screener and progress monitors, but it’s just as vital that we know what to do with our assessment data after we go through the process of gathering it.
To make smart, data-driven decisions to support our MTSS process, we need to have a clear understanding of the role of each assessment in an MTSS model. That way, we aren’t all drowning in data, without any idea of where all this data is supposed to take us.
Cue—this handy, dandy assessment table and a breakdown of assessments.
Accelerated learning is currently one of the hottest keywords in education. It is hailed as the hero to address the “COVID-19 slide,” which is the concern that students may not be prepared for grade-level instruction due to a loss of instructional time over the past year due to the pandemic.
We often hear “learning loss” in relation to the COVID-19 slide—a term I have come across countless times during professional development webinars. I disagree strongly with this term. “Learning loss” implies that students have missed out on learning. As educators, we know that learning did occur last year (and as teachers, we are all tired of defending that point).
However, traditional instruction did not occur last year. So the phenomenon we are currently facing is an “instructional loss,” not a “learning loss.” While our students did learn, they did not receive traditional instruction, which would have ensured they had all the skills necessary to master grade-level content.
The solution? Accelerated learning.
For those new to the term, accelerated learning is the adaptation of instruction in which curriculum standards are prioritized based on the learning needs of students. It is an intentional, practical approach to intensive instruction to address a significant gap in skills resulting from a disruption to instruction—such as a global pandemic.
What is important to note is that acceleration is not remediation. It is not going back and attempting to fill in every student's gap in knowledge in a content area. Instead, acceleration focuses on what skills are most important for a student to master the content and scaffold those skills using interventions and learning supports in coordination with the grade-level curriculum.
Learning supports and interventions play a crucial role in successfully implementing an accelerated approach. Based upon universal screening data, learning supports provide scaffolding at the core level to address the most common skill gaps in a classroom.
Research-based interventions provide more targeted and intensive support for students who need extra help mastering grade-level content. Without the combination of data and intervention resources, it’s impossible to deliver differentiated instruction for all student's readiness levels, interests, strengths, and learning preferences required to build up necessary skill sets.
➡️ Related Resource: A Quick Review of MTSS Supports, Interventions, and Accommodations
That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t address the actual “how-to” when selecting these supports and interventions. Let’s take a moment to analyze three considerations when choosing appropriate supports for accelerated learning:
Technology has quickly become a fact of life for educators worldwide. I remember being in the classroom as a secondary teacher and witnessing the quick succession of my trusty whiteboard to an overheating-prone projector to an always-needing-an-update interactive whiteboard. Education and technology have quickly become codependent entities, and the abrupt transition to remote learning in the 2020-2021 school year only solidified this reality.
However, technology does not have to be the enemy. Technology offers the potential to streamline our processes and alleviate the workload of tasks that once consumed the evenings of teachers everywhere. When it comes to implementing MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports), technology can be the make or break between a successful system of MTSS or the dreaded next failed initiative.
Let’s take a moment to consider how technology is changing the way we implement MTSS:
A robust and continuous MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) program has been proven to lead to more positive school environments, more robust core instruction, and effective interventions. However, getting the cart rolling and everyone on board is not an easy task.
To many, hearing the words “MTSS implementation” sounds like a lot of paperwork and meetings—with a high probability of failure. As most veteran teachers can validate, new education initiatives come and go, often not lasting any longer than the time it took to put them in place.
This doesn’t have to be the case. By carefully planning for the change of instituting MTSS, districts and schools can ensure that this initiative doesn’t meet the short and sad fate of many before it.
Change methods, or change models, are evidence-based approaches to instituting change at an organizational level. When used with fidelity they provide a clear guide that allows organizations to walk through a change process while remaining equitable and cognizant of the needs of their stakeholders and staff. Change methods also enable organizations to look at instituting MTSS through systems-level processes, stepping back from individual roles to evaluate and plan for a change at an entire school or district level.
While many of these methods exist, one of the most predominant and well-researched is Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change (Kotter 1996). When placed into an education framework, Kotter’s method lays out a clear outline and plan for the district’s implementing MTSS.
Below, we’ve outlined each step of Kotter’s process as it would align with an MTSS adoption.
Starting a new initiative at the district or school level can be incredibly difficult. In Kotter’s extensive study of organizations and new initiatives, he determined that over 50% of organizations fail at this implementation stage (Kotter 1996). Organizations that lacked a clear vision and failed to demonstrate the need for a new system were unable to maintain motivation for the trajectory of their adopted system. How leadership handles the adoption of MTSS sets the tone for the rest of the entire implementation process.
When introducing MTSS, it’s imperative that leadership sets a tone of urgency. Why is MTSS necessary? What problems are schools currently facing that MTSS can help with? How is the current system failing to address the "red flags" of the education process? These questions need to be clearly communicated for all stakeholders at the very start of instituting MTSS.
By connecting MTSS to the school or district's vision and mission, there is immediate buy-in for the necessity of a new initiative. In this early stage, it’s also helpful to access resources that clearly show the value of MTSS and why adoption is essential.
➡️ Learn More: Leadership and the System-Level Work in MTSS
Once a district or school has decided to institute MTSS, the next step is to create a team to guide the adoption process. This is the MTSS team, and it should include individuals from various positions, tenure, and skillsets.
The goal of this team is to pre-address problems that might arise during the adoption of MTSS. They are the leaders of the adoption phase, tasked with preparing data, communicating with staff, and analyzing options pertinent to MTSS adoption (such as selecting an MTSS Software).
This team can also begin to handle more specific questions that will need to be addressed during implementation. They will need to communicate with district IT departments to answer data-related questions when selecting an MTSS software.
This team will also organize information on staffing requirements, necessary budget adjustments, and an implementation timeline. Remember, this team is the MTSS leaders, and each member should have a specific role and expertise in the process. An excellent resource for this team is our article on Leadership During Change and for Continuous Improvement.
From the blueprint set forth by the MTSS team, districts and school leaders can then begin to form a strategic vision that clarifies the goals and expectations of instituting MTSS. Under Kotter’s Method, this vision should be communicable, desirable, have a clear verbal picture, be flexible, feasible, imaginable, and simple.
This vision should clearly communicate how MTSS will lead to a different future than the current reality within the education sphere. Leaders can pull from the research and evidence utilized in the first stage when the rationale for MTSS adoption was created.
➡️ Related Resource: Infrastructural Alignment for MTSS
The MTSS team will begin to identify clear initiatives of targeted and coordinated activities that will make the vision a reality from the vision stage. These initiatives are pulled from the strategies and questions analyzed in the previous step, such as specific software adoption or budgeting considerations.
For 2021-2022, Branching Minds has created our MTSS Mobilization Framework for 2021-2022 to help in facilitating and identifying these initiatives. This step-by-step, year-by-year guide is an excellent resource in creating a clear vision, shared language, and aligned initiatives throughout the MTSS implementation process. Schools and districts can also access our MTSS Buy-in and Mobilization Guide to provide further information and guidance.
Once a district or school has created a clear vision and framework in instituting MTSS, the next step is to bring on an army of volunteers to move the initiative forward. Kotter’s Method shows that change can only occur when a substantial portion of an organization is brought in to facilitate the process of change adoption. Kotter’s model argues that between 15-50% of a district or school will need to be included at this stage to continue the momentum with positive acceptance (Kotter 1996).
This larger group of individuals should include teachers, counselors, administrators, school psychologists, MTSS coordinators, and special education professionals. The role of this group is to combat the initiative fatigue of the education staff by actively communicating action steps and the rationale for MTSS adoption.
By including many stakeholders in the MTSS adoption, school and district leadership allow for consistent and open feedback. This is essential when instituting MTSS, as all staff members will be important in facilitating an MTSS program. At this stage, it’s also important to clearly communicate how MTSS will benefit the school, community, and staff members. This is not just another addition to the already full plate of a teacher.
If adopting an MTSS software to aid in instituting MTSS, proper training and professional development for your volunteer army will need to occur. Branching Minds offer a variety of professional development training for our partner schools to help in this process.
As MTSS adoption moves forward, it’s vital that leadership takes a moment to identify potential barriers that could be met in the final stages. This includes analyzing how past initiatives have failed and receiving feedback from current staff about the current implementation process. It may be helpful to incorporate an anonymous survey for school staff members, so the MTSS leaders can target issues before they derail the process.
When considering how past initiatives have failed, it’s important to complete a root cause analysis. What is the problem? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
Our Guide to Solving the Top Four MTSS Challenges can be a valuable resource in identifying these potential barriers and creating proactive steps to utilize during the change process. If the school or district utilizes an MTSS Software, such as Branching Minds, it’s also important to consider which data rostering method will support the MTSS practice.
As MTSS implementation moves forward, collecting, categorizing, and communicating wins with all stakeholders is essential. The Kotter Method defines wins as relevant, meaningful, tangible, and replicable.
At this stage, more staff will need to be brought into the process and trained in MTSS. This maintains momentum and includes more stakeholders, which validates the continuous feedback process, which is vital to implementation success. Small wins to celebrate may include hitting particular milestones in staff onboarding or in reaching a certain percentage of satisfaction ratings in staff feedback forms.
➡️ Related Resource: Benefits of and Strategies for Teacher Collaboration In & Outside of MTSS
When moving forward, schools and districts will need to maintain momentum as they fully onboard all staff members in MTSS, including professional development training necessary in mastering an MTSS software.
During these final stages, it’s imperative communication and feedback remain consistent. As more staff members are brought on board, there may be more friction and resistance to instituting MTSS. Maintaining and communicating a clear vision can help ease resistance and frustration that is naturally present during change.
By focusing on the positives gained from MTSS adoption, staff members may be more receptive to the additional workload required during initial implementation. Communication should stress that MTSS is not just something extra being added to an already hectic year—but an avenue to efficiency and fidelity in delivering the best instructional and intervention practices to all of our students.
➡️ Related Resource: MTSS Requires Capacity Building
At the final stage of the Kotter Method, a school or district will take the last steps to institute MTSS fully. School teams should be given specific goals and schedules to maintain trajectory and track goals as the rollout begins. These teams include the local MTSS teams at each school level and department and content teams tracking individual student progress.
The focus should be on bringing MTSS fully into the culture of a school, where it does not exist as an external part but as an integrated path to student success and instructional fidelity. A plan should be developed to address training of new staff hires and ongoing professional development opportunities, so MTSS continues to be naturally integrated in the years to come.
When considering the Kotter Method as an avenue for instituting MTSS, it's important to remember that each stage is important. While it may be tempting to skip over a step or combine steps, Kotter’s research on accelerating change shows that skipping over steps is a primary driver which leads to initiatives failing (Kotter 2012).
At the start, schools and districts can utilize the staff and resources they already have in place to help evaluate their current system and organize the change necessary to address problems plaguing their process.
By taking the time to carefully consider each step of Kotter’s Method and accounting for an open feedback system throughout this process, educational leaders can ensure successful MTSS implementation—leading to a stronger school environment that benefits staff, students, and our communities.
Planning and implementing MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) can appear as a monumental task, especially in today’s world, where our teachers’ tasks are exponentially growing. It’s widely accepted that vast numbers of students will struggle this year, and they will need more support than ever before.
Accelerated learning pushes teachers to incorporate grade-level content with students who have spent over a year in an abnormal learning environment. To accomplish this feat, core instruction requires a strong platform built upon support and interventions. The burden of locating these supports and interventions lies on the already burdened shoulders of our teachers.
The Branching Minds team and platform seek to alleviate that burden, making the road to MTSS smoother and less rocky—so we can all have a bit more time for self-care without compromising student success. The Branching Minds support library comprises thousands of research-based supports and interventions, cutting down the time teachers need to find their own effective resources.
Terminology can be a pesky obstacle, leading to added frustrations when we can’t find what we need. Between “learning supports,” “interventions,” and “accommodations,” it’s easy to get confused as to what resource is needed during the MTSS cycle.
It’s important to note that regardless of the term, these resources all have the same goal— helping all students to achieve academic success. Generally speaking, the use of differentiated support can be applied more broadly to the work you are doing to help a student, such as during Tier 1 core instruction for all students. This fills in learning gaps and facilitates accelerated learning.
Supports become interventions when used in an intensive setting to meet grade-level expectations. Supports become accommodations when they remove a particular barrier a student may have to learn/demonstrate content.
Below, we’ve outlined these definitions more in-depth, as well as when/how they’re typically used. Keep in mind that these definitions are fluid, and many educational resources do not fit into one definition.
When it comes to categorizing a resource, you must also account for how and why it is being utilized. The same resource can often be used as a learning support and an intervention, depending on its application and the student’s needs.
A few months ago, Branching Minds did a deep dive into our 5 Most Common MTSS Reading Programs Used in 2020. Many of these programs have associated writing supports embedded into their platforms, but these primarily target reading intervention.
When creating a comprehensive MTSS support or intervention plan, it’s important to note that literacy interventions need to incorporate both reading and writing. Reading skills help develop a student’s ability to comprehend ideas communicated by another writer, while the act of writing allows a student to develop and communicate his/her own thoughts. While these are two very different skills they each impact the growth of the other, and intervention plans will need to account for both reading and writing support.