About two years ago, I was a district administrator for school climate improvement. In this role, I was asked to support a group of administrators that were handling intense behaviors on their campus. The campus had maxed out its intensive support resources, and determined that they had no other option than to create a new tier of support—what they referred to as “Tier 4.”
I have noticed this trend quite often. I hear different variations of this new level of need: “Tier 4,” “deep red,” or even “too many red students.”
What does this mean?
A Multi-Tiered System of Supports is based on the three-tiered public health model. This means that we must identify the root cause(s) within our current system and identify why it’s not serving our student population. By creating an additional tier, we ignore a problem that is perforating our entire system.
There is no Tier 4. However, there is a Tier 2. And this tier is often overlooked in how powerful of an intervention tool it can be.
About six years into my career as a special educator, I attended a child’s study meeting. In this meeting, my 9th-grade student's mother encouraged the team to focus on the student's executive functioning.
Executive functioning? I remember thinking. What is that? I didn’t even know if we taught executive functioning, let alone how to begin supporting it.
As schools and districts make the shift to include social-emotional learning (SEL) within their overarching MTSS practice, we often get questions about where student behavior fits into this framework. Many educators still view SEL and Behavioral Health as separate areas, but what’s more problematic is when these two areas are not aligned.
I have wanted to be an educator for as long as I can remember. My FAVORITE season is back to school; the pencils, new bulletin boards, clean desks with utility crates in the center filled with markers, scissors, and dictionaries. I doubt that among readers, I am alone in this sentiment.
From my early days as a Special Education teacher to my most recent days as a District-level administrator, I have seen first-hand the impact of "good" communication, lack of communication, miscommunication, and misunderstanding that can occur when meeting with families, and specifically, when discussing Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Communicating can be tricky! Are we saying too much? Too little? Are we even on the same page?
I have spent the better part of the last decade providing targeted support to schools, educators, and students requesting advice on improving engagement at their Tier 1 level. Through this experience, I have re-engaged students who are re-entering school after hiatus, coached teachers who faced chronic absenteeism, and helped schools develop infrastructures to support better staff, community, and student engagement.
As we round the corner to almost two years of school disruption due to COVID-19, we continue to see the growing impact on our school-wide population; staff, students, and communities. The far-reaching consequences have yet to be seen; inequities in access to resources, quality instructional materials, and current technology have been magnified.
It’s no secret that these are challenging times for all educators and our students. Our most vulnerable populations have fallen the furthest behind due to school disruptions (NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps, n.d.). We have an opportunity to make a difference right NOW in all of our students' lives by addressing and resolving disproportionality within our systems, becoming stewards of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.
My co-author and I are both former school leaders and Branching Minds consultants. We support system-wide equity initiatives and tackle challenges related to disproportionality and disparities within our schools. We work hard to help schools support the mantra that ALL truly means ALL students receive support through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). So, let’s begin—grab your data and get ready to bring disproportionality to the light of day. We’ll provide critical examples of leveraging your MTSS problem-solving to address disproportionality and create equity.
Teachers spend an average of 68 hours in professional development each year (source). This statistic is undoubtedly shocking to many, and on the surface, 68 hours sounds like a lot of time. However, as a school leader, I always felt like I was struggling to support and train my team on everything we needed with the time that we had. I imagine this feeling resonates wherever you are on your school’s MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) implementation journey.
Your summer MTSS professional learning sessions are long in the rearview mirror, and you’re now left wondering where to go next with your team regarding their ongoing learning and development. You’re also probably looking at a school calendar with minimal time for professional development. Between school closings, staffing challenges, and all of the customary competing priorities of the school year, figuring out the time—and more importantly, what to prioritize—for improving your MTSS system can feel like a huge challenge.
With all this in mind, there is a path forward. These questions/considerations can guide you:
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.
We can all agree that effective educators continuously build their practice and pedagogy by collaborating and gathering new knowledge. As Albert Einstein said, “If you’re not learning, you’re dying.” It has become standard practice in schools across the country to allocate ~five full school days and several half days for Professional Learning and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) dedicated to honing our craft. This dedicated time is sacred for educators, needing to step away from the flurry of plans, decisions, and discussions that define their daily work. Professional learning allows us to reflect, learn, and grow with the ultimate goal of helping students, families, and communities achieve and live the most positive school experience.
Educators can easily get lost in day-to-day operations and mistakenly de-prioritize professional learning planning. Suddenly, we notice that a “Professional Development (PD) day” creeps up, and someone has to scrape together a last-minute plan. It may even feel like one group of teachers can be forgotten and assigned to “work in your rooms.” While all educators can appreciate the time to catch up and breathe, professional learning becomes fragmented, and time can be lost for schools working to meet strategic goals.
When it comes to Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) initiatives, this notion could not ring more true given the complexity of providing academic and social-emotional support to every student at whatever ability level they may fall. Moreover, MTSS requires educators to work much more collaboratively to support all students, which can often be challenging at first given the intricacies of school-based scheduling and the different potential levels of understanding of what MTSS means in daily practice.
What is essential to quality professional learning, specifically for an MTSS implementation, is a thoughtful plan that purposefully considers the intricacies mentioned above, level setting the understanding of MTSS, and the school’s annual goals. To accomplish these goals, every stakeholder’s contribution must be valued.
This article will outline the critical components of a thoughtful professional learning plan within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework. We hope that this guidance supports you for the next year as you begin to consider your school year goals and plan for district improvement with purpose and intention.