June 2, 2022


Dr. Sarah Brown

Dr. Gregory Fabiano

Kate Pechacek

One of the most common topics of conversation in schools is improving the quality of Tier 1 instruction. This is because the relationship between a teacher and a student and what’s happening at school is one of the most important components of an engaged classroom.

So, what does it mean to provide high-quality Tier 1 instruction? And how can you implement Tier 1 strategies to address, encourage, or improve your students’ behavior and learning?

First, we need to make sure that you fully understand Tier 1 and how you can best use it to your advantage in the classroom. We’ll also share nine effective Tier 1 instructional practices that can help you to engage students and build a more effective learning environment.

What is Tier 1? An explanation of the universal tier

The universal tier—or Tier 1—is the curriculum, instruction, and assessments that we provide to all students in a grade level. This is the instruction that’s guaranteed for everyone. Universal tier instruction typically focuses on grade-level standards for your state. Schools use universal screening data to identify the effectiveness of their universal tier.

There are two primary questions that schools should ask when evaluating the effectiveness of universal tier instruction:

  1. Are 80% of our students successful? Schools typically use the 80% criterion because they have resources to intervene with about 20% of students. If schools have more than 20% of students who need additional intervention in order to be successful, their resources may be strained, and they may be unable to provide help for all of those students.
  2. How much are our students growing? We want to ensure that students who begin the school year on track learn enough throughout the year to stay on track. When we look specifically at the progress of students who start the year on track, we’re (by definition) isolating the universal tier, because those students have likely only received universal tier instruction throughout the year and have not required intervention.

For the second question, we recommend using the 95% criterion—meaning that 95% of students who begin the year on track grow enough to stay on track at the end of the year.

The second indicator is the one that you may want to focus on initially. If we ask teachers what percentage of their students who start the year on track should grow enough to end the year on track, they usually say “100%.” So, when we focus on that indicator of effectiveness for the universal tier, it’s a good way to build consensus around this work.

When might universal tier improvements be needed?

When we identify that we have needs within the universal tier—most often because we have more students who need Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention than we have resources to provide it—we’re tempted to find ways to try to fit more students into the intervention process. And sometimes, we do things with the very best of intentions but don’t necessarily get the results we need.

For example, if you have more students who need intervention than you have resources to provide it, you may do something like cutting a 40-minute session into two 20-minute sessions. This makes it possible to meet with two different groups of students during that time period.

While this allows you to serve more students, it also decreases the instructional time by such a rate that we tend to not see as much student growth. So, students may not be getting as many lessons during the week, or they’re not getting enough instruction and practice during the interventions to close the learning gap.

It helps us to focus on the universal tier in this scenario, because we can isolate and start working on the universal tier so we have fewer students who need Tier 2 and Tier 3 services.

students working in a group

How can we improve at the universal tier?

To improve at the universal tier, we recommend using a whole-group intervention. This allows us to provide intervention to all students in a grade level that is specifically targeted toward skills they should have already learned. When we do this, we provide students who have smaller learning gaps with extra practice and learning. This can prevent larger learning gaps from occurring and catch the students up if they were just a little bit behind.

It also saves valuable intervention resources for students who have more significant needs.

Maximize Tier 1 instruction

Discover assessment and practice tools from Renaissance to support more effective Tier 1 instruction.

9 Tier 1 strategies to implement in your classroom

What does it mean to have high-quality Tier 1 instruction? It starts with a valid and reliable curriculum that is consistent and standards-based. It’s of the quality that you need it to be, and it’s truly addressing students’ needs.

Let’s take a look at nine additional Tier 1 instructional best practices.

#1: Prioritize instructional support

There is no replacement for a strong curriculum, but it’s also essential for educators to maintain an engaging, fun, and interactive teaching style, regardless of the subject.

It’s easy to get stuck in a routine of lecture, practice, and assess. Not only does this not lead to student engagement, but it can also cause burnout for teachers. The key to combating that burnout is through:

  1. Engaging with the passion you had as an educator when you started in the field.
  2. Using technology and digital tools to deliver instruction in new and engaging ways for your students.

#2: Give academic praise and feedback

In any kind of learning situation, the adult is usually providing corrective feedback if something’s not quite right or the student needs additional support.

In this Tier 1 strategy, the adult—in this case, the educator—should also be noticing when a student is performing admirably. Educators should balance correction with praise for learning academic content at a ratio of 3:1.

When you think about learning a new skill, it’s rare that learning happens right away. Most of the time, a new skill develops in small stages. For example, think about when you see a child start to take their first steps. You likely celebrated each little milestone: The child pulling up onto a chair, standing alone, the first few wobbly steps, and, finally, walking over to you on their own.

That excitement and attention likely made them very excited, too, and encouraged them to keep moving forward.

Continue to embed this approach in your classroom, just as your students experienced when they first learned to add, subtract, or spell. It’s important to provide feedback at the level of the class using a shaping procedure.

And don’t forget to share the praise and feedback with parents and guardians. Taking the time to talk about a student’s successes with their caregiver may go a long way in motivating them to continue supporting the child and their academic needs.

#3: Implement academic response opportunities

Educators will naturally implement academic response opportunities whenever they can to get students to:

  • Apply the material they have learned in new situations
  • Extend what they already know
  • Demonstrate what they know in a new interaction or a new assignment

Academic response opportunities in classrooms often work well because a teacher has the whole class in front of them and can walk around and check, calling on students to participate.

But if students disengage, you may need to try another strategy. To combat this, educators can have the students lead the conversation and let them do the majority of the discussion. This can also be a helpful tool in assessing whether the class truly understands the concept that is being taught.

#4: Provide major concept summaries

If you look at student achievement, there can sometimes be a step back because students aren’t getting the repetition they need throughout the school year of practicing academic concepts.

To address this gap, educators should continuously summarize the concept, skills, or key points, making sure that whoever is the furthest behind with these concepts can follow. This helps students build a scaffold of important information that they can build upon.

Looking for gaps in completed work is a way for educators to do some formative assessment to see if there’s an area of the concept that needs remediation or more discussion.

Effective formative assessment practice is a huge part of improving Tier 1 instruction. If you had to define it very simply, formative assessment is a mechanism used to inform teachers about what their students need so that they can pivot their instruction to better meet these needs.

student working on computer

#5: Enforce structure, rules, and routines

It is impossible to shield students from the stress and anxiety that has been present in our world since the COVID-19 pandemic began. What can educators do to help children cope?

First and foremost, understand that students have been influenced by a couple of years of unpredictability. Educators can make daily routines more predictable by:

  • Having a clear structure
  • Providing well-defined routines
  • Giving explicit directions for how things are to be done

Rules should be positively phrased and tailored to the activity. In turn, students should experience reduced anxiety because they know what to expect and what is expected of them. For example:

  • Implement some standard procedures at the beginning and the end of every class or lesson so students can link the two together
  • Communicate the schedule for the upcoming school year

That routine becomes predictable for students and helps them to anticipate the typical school schedule.

#6: Remember the importance of effective vs. ineffective requests

Using effective requests to guide students and their behavior is essential. The clearer and more direct the phrasing that educators give to students, the better off the students are going to be. Effective requests are also very important in written instructions.

When making requests to students to correct behavior, some ineffective requests include commands:

  • Issued when it is unclear if the student is paying attention
  • Containing multiple or vague steps
  • Given as a question or containing unclear phrasing
  • Responding to behavior that is repeated without consequence

Instead, try these effective requests to redirect behavior:

  • Wait until attention is gained before issuing commands
  • Issue commands in specific, manageable steps with clear phrasing
  • Share consequences for both compliance and noncompliance following the command

#7: Engage in “planned ignoring”

When students exhibit minor misbehaviors, planned ignoring is a strategy to consider. Planned ignoring is a case where educators choose their battles.

You shouldn’t allow a student to exhibit disrespectful behavior to you, swear in the classroom, or be aggressive. But if a student is doing something like complaining or fidgeting, ignoring those smaller behaviors could be a useful strategy.

Continue to compliment, notice, and acknowledge the good things that students are doing.

To reiterate, planned ignoring could mean:

  • Deliberately ignoring minor, inappropriate behaviors—especially if the behaviors are attention-seeking
  • Attending to and returning to appropriate behavior

#8: Utilize Premack contingencies and transitional warnings

Using Premack contingencies means putting less preferable activities before more preferable activities, as seen from the students’ point of view. For example:

  • “First clean your room, and then you can go outside.”
  • “Once you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert.”

Premack contingencies can be useful when we think about lessons we’re teaching students across different grade levels. In a classroom setting, this might look more like:

  • “When we finish these math problems, we can do a group game.”
  • “After this lecture, you can have some time to talk to your classmates.”

These examples may help students stay on task because they know there’s something fun coming after the activity. Premack contingencies put activities in the right order—placing academic activities first—and help students know about and prepare for transitions or changes in routine.

teacher helping student

#9: Utilize professional learning communities

PLCs play a major role in improving Tier 1 instruction. Teachers get to share what’s working well with students, so it’s a great place to discover and exchange ideas. You can utilize the collective strategies from the group and implement them in your own classroom to make the entire Tier 1 instructional experience stronger for all students.

How often should you use these Tier 1 instructional strategies?

There will always be times when a teacher must give corrective feedback to students. But if other consequences—like visits to the principal’s office—are being used frequently, that’s often a sign the Tier 1 instructional strategies are not working as well as they should be.

If they were working well, there wouldn’t be a reason for students to misbehave and seek attention, since they should already be receiving that attention through positive Tier 1 strategies. To reiterate, if the…

  • Praise and encouragement;
  • Rewards and celebrations; and
  • Empathy, attention, listening, encouragement, and good teaching

…strategies are implemented correctly, there should be less of a need to use:

  • Logical consequences
  • Ignore, distract, redirect
  • Clear limits, class rules, and consistent follow-through

Strategies to use liberally

To summarize, examples of Tier 1 instructional strategies to use liberally include:

  • Prioritizing instructional support
  • Giving academic praise and feedback
  • Implementing academic response opportunities
  • Providing major concept summaries
  • Enforcing structure, rules, and routines
  • Offering attention and praise when appropriate

How Renaissance supports effective Tier 1 instruction

Renaissance provides comprehensive assessment tools and whole child data to support students in reading, math, and SEB at every tier of your MTSS—and to help you identify where Tier 1 adjustments may be needed.

Connect with an expert today to learn more.

Share this post