Can Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Adapt to Remote Learning?

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 16, 2020 3 min read
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At a time when thousands of children may come to school with stress and learning loss from the pandemic and related school closures, multi-tiered systems of support—which can include response to intervention and positive behavior interventions and support, or PBIS—are the most popular school frameworks to provide personalized help for students. Now, emerging research and state experimentation suggest these models could adapt well to remote learning classrooms, if school leaders and educators plan.

With both response to intervention and PBIS, educators use a leveled approach to provide increasingly intense help to students with academic or behavioral difficulties. In general, Tier 1 is a strong instructional base for all students; Tier 2 gives moderate extra help for students, often in small groups; and Tier 3 provides more intense one-on-one interventions. Prior studies have found these tiered models work best when all or most schools in a district use the model and teams of teachers work together to review students’ progress frequently.

In a new report, the Regional Educational Lab Appalachia and the Tennessee Department of Education have collected state and independent research and guidance to adapt MTSS for hybrid and distance learning during the pandemic. In some ways, distance-learning platforms such as Zoom meetings can make it easier for schools to collect data to target students quickly.

Adapting Expectations

Michigan’s MTSS Technical Assistance Center recommends its districts translate their existing Tier 1 classroom expectations into clear online rules. Being “respectful,” for example, could involve learning how to use the mute function while a teacher is talking online or using the classroom chat to ask questions instead of trying to ask out loud. The technical assistance center advised using breakout rooms to provide small-group tasks and discussions, particularly in larger online classes.

It also found brief daily check-in cards could be used by teachers to monitor student progress in live video classrooms, but parents could also be asked to fill out the check-in cards for their students when using prerecorded lectures and online assignments. As Michigan’s researchers noted, a teacher can regularly review trends in the students’ progress through a video chat as short as two minutes. The National Center on Intensive Intervention argued that administrators should not automatically collect the same data to monitor students’ progress online that they would in live classes. They should ensure any existing tool will still be a valid measure of students’ performance, easy to collect in the online environment, and that its results will be usefulSome in planning future instruction and communicating with parents.

For example, a separate April study in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review finds MTSS can help reduce chronic absenteeism when classes move online.

Students who miss more days in the first month of school have been shown to be at higher risk of missing 10 percent or more of the entire school year, so schools can use online participation trackers to start to flag students and families for intensive outreach based on both the number and percentage of remote-class periods they missed just in September.

As a higher percentage of students have missed or dropped off online lessons, the REL Appalachia called for schools to, instead of relying only on formal attendance, track each student’s and family’s “minimum daily contact” with teachers and administrators, including participating in class tasks or group discussions, turning in assignments, or asking a teacher a question about a subject in or after class. Any student who went two days without at least one of these shows of engagement would be targeted for more intensive interventions.

Restarting a multi-tiered support system after a pandemic closure “will be more than ‘flipping a switch’ to turn school back on,” noted researchers in a separate June practice guide by the Center on PBIS, adding that administrators must build time into the school’s schedule for teachers to work together online to analyze students’ data:

We must deliberately rearrange teaching and learning environments within an MTSS framework so (a) all students experience vibrant, positive, and constructive adult and peer relationships; (b) students who are at risk for academic, social, emotional, and/or behavioral difficulties proactively receive increased and targeted support; and (c) students with disabilities or other significant academic, social, emotional, and/or behavioral challenges receive intensive and individualized supports to promote positive and equitable outcomes for all students."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as What the Research Says