August 11, 2022

By Dr. Gregory A. Fabiano

Many educators consider a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) to be a framework that’s only applicable to a general education setting, while Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are reserved for special education settings.

But is this actually the case? Do MTSS and special education go together? Is there an important connection between them?

In this blog, I’ll discuss how MTSS fits into both general and special education settings. I’ll also explain how MTSS can and should be used by all students—even/especially those with learning disabilities.

boy with special needs in wheelchair

How are MTSS programs used in schools?

MTSS is a structure with multiple tiers that use assessment data to give educators the academic and behavioral information necessary to provide the appropriate instructional resources to meet students’ needs.

Here’s how the three tiers of MTSS work:

Tier 1 is for everyone. People sometimes refer to Tier 1 as general education, but it’s actually for students of all populations, including special education. Tier 1 should include support for all students through high-quality classroom-wide instruction.

Next, we have Tier 2. Tier 2 instruction is implemented when students aren’t mastering all of the skills as they are taught in Tier 1. When students have gaps in their skill sets, educators can use Tier 2 to provide targeted support. Examples of Tier 2 instruction include:

  • Increasing the amount of instructional time
  • Providing a more intense level of instruction
  • Mentoring
  • Self-management
  • Social skills groups

When Tier 2 interventions aren’t working, it’s time to move to Tier 3. With Tier 3, even more intensive instruction is provided more often, usually in smaller groups. This helps students who are struggling to get the individual help and attention they need, without holding back the rest of the class. Examples of Tier 3 instruction include:

  • Small group instruction
  • Tutoring
  • Individual counseling (for behavior-based issues)

Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 instruction can be helpful for all students—both those who are in special education programs and those who aren’t. And because students who have been identified as having a learning disability spend at least part of their school day in a general education setting, MTSS is the perfect framework to provide targeted support.

MTSS is about:

  • Thoughtfully assessing students
  • Using resources effectively
  • Relying on data to continue to monitor and improve instructional effectiveness

Clearly, these are things all students need.

3 little girls hugging

Why should MTSS be used in a special education setting?

Special education law requires students to be placed in the least restrictive environment. This essentially means that many students with IEPs—particularly those with high incidence disabilities—spend most or all of their day in a general education setting, where they can benefit from well-implemented MTSS.

The reason for this is that students in special education can and should benefit from the resources and other instructional help that multi-tiered supports can offer—resources that are both appropriate and impactful for all learners.

Assessments can help measure proficiency and identify needs, and MTSS will help educators tailor those resources to the specific needs of students who have IEPs.

Resources for data-driven MTSS

Discover Renaissance solutions to support students in all MTSS tiers.

Teacher working with girl

Understanding the MTSS and special education connection: 4 ways MTSS is beneficial

To truly understand how MTSS and special education work together, we need to examine how specific MTSS components can help students with disabilities.

#1: MTSS supports students’ educational needs with a whole-child approach

Academics and behavior go hand-in-hand, and MTSS provides support to students in both of these areas.

An integrated multi-tiered system of support (one that includes both academics and behavior) considers both qualitative and quantitative data when deciding on what type of instructional support a student may need for social-emotional skills as well as academic skills, like those in reading and math.

#2: The progress monitoring involved in MTSS can help educators determine a specific learning disability

Most students who have been identified as having a learning disability spend at least part of their school day in a general education setting, as noted earlier. MTSS is an effective way for educators to narrow down and identify skill gaps for these students in a general education classroom.

MTSS should be aimed at assessing early and providing support quickly. When this assessment happens early on, and when progress monitoring takes place regularly, educators can differentiate between students who’ve experienced gaps in their education and those who truly need special education services.

And when those special education needs are identified, there will be plenty of documentation available because of the progress monitoring to help develop impactful and effective IEPs.

Little girl on tablet

#3: Progress monitoring can help determine if and when a student should be exiting from an IEP

Identifying a student who may need special education services can be challenging—especially in our current era, given the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, building closures, and increased staff shortages and turnover. But it can be equally challenging to know when a student is ready to exit a special education program.

This is where progress monitoring comes back into play. After effective instruction, students may no longer demonstrate a learning disability and should be reevaluated and declassified.

Progress monitoring is a key tool in assessing a student’s special education needs. It is also helpful in determining when they are ready to exit from an IEP, with confidence that the student will continue to progress and succeed.

#4: MTSS can help students on IEPs move from Tier 3 into Tier 1 or Tier 2 instruction

MTSS and progress monitoring are designed to help students on IEPs meet their goals and move from Tier 3 into Tier 1 or 2.

The goal of all special education resources is to provide a way for students to begin testing within standard educational ranges. When students show that kind of progress, they move from Tier 3 services to those that are less restrictive.

Boy testing on a computer

The benefits of collaborative teaching in MTSS and special education

Schools are a beacon of support for all students, regardless of whether they are classified as general or special education students. When educators and administrators utilize a consistent and effective approach, this benefits all students in the following ways:

  • Improved academic performance
  • Fewer behavior problems
  • Fewer erroneous special education referrals
  • Higher graduation rates

Additionally, collaborative teaching delivers improved outcomes both for students on IEPs and those who are not, as I explain in the next section.

What is collaborative teaching?

Collaborative teaching, which is also called co-teaching, is an effective model that uses the MTSS approach and collaboration, allowing multiple teachers (special and general educators) to work together to serve their students and meet their needs. When two or more teachers work well together to provide instruction to a group of students, all students benefit—not just those on IEPs.

When co-teaching is done well, those outside of the classroom may have difficulty distinguishing the special educator from the general educator. It is also often difficult to identify students who have IEPs and those who do not.

In a classroom with co-teachers, all students—those in general education and those with special education classification—receive specifically designed instruction and benefit from the experience and partnership of the co-teachers.

Co-teachers can seamlessly incorporate IEP skill instruction along with Tier 1 standards-based teaching to create an integrated educational experience for all the students in the classroom.

Why Tier 3 support is not synonymous with special education

Just because a student is receiving Tier 3 support doesn’t mean the student has a learning disability or requires special education services. Some students with disabilities may not need Tier 3 support at all, while other students without disabilities may benefit from intensive Tier 3 services.

MTSS works best for all students when a committed, creative, and consistent multi-disciplinary team is overseeing it, making sure that it is implemented appropriately, but also that it is used flexibly enough to address the varied strengths and needs of the students within the school.

Boy with special needs on tablet

How Renaissance helps educators sustain an MTSS that promotes progress for all students

Renaissance combines assessment, MTSS collaboration and management, and other digital resources to give educators what they need to tailor their instruction to meet the needs of their students in all three MTSS tiers.

Learn more

Connect with an expert today to schedule a personalized demo of Renaissance solutions for your school or district.

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