Multi-Tiered System of Supports
One school’s journey to implement a holistic approach to supporting student learning, behaviour, and emotional needs.
With the rise of anxiety and stress in our current educational context, more students require individualized attention and holistic care for their learning. What can Christian schools do to better serve our students? Is there any one approach that can be used to support all of the diverse needs?
At Vancouver Christian School, a K–12 school with approximately 850 students, we often found ourselves stretched for resources and scrambling to provide temporary solutions for behavioural, learning, and mental health issues. Three years ago, in the hopes of finding a researched-based, proactive, and long-term solution for student support, the high school began looking into the multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework to think about and evaluate the student supports that we can offer. Step by step, we began using the MTSS to deal with the complexity of student problems in our elementary and middle school as well.
The Goal of the MTSS Model
“How can we make learning better for our students?” and “How can we improve student learning?” have been the general guiding questions for us. The MTSS allowed us to better identify a variety of different learning issues and promote immediate intervention as soon as students’ problems were revealed. Through the MTSS lens, we have been able to see how we can better improve education for all students. It has also helped us minimize the “wait to fail” situations that prevented at-risk students from receiving intervention sooner versus later.
We were first intrigued that the MTSS model could be tailored to different school contexts and there was no one “right” way for implementation. I was appointed the K–12 administrator to strategically implement MTSS. One of the first things I had to consider was a communication plan for all of the stakeholders so everyone would understand the function of the MTSS and how it supports the work we do with students.
Here are the steps we took to implement MTSS at Vancouver Christian School.
We began by identifying and ensuring three levels (or tiers) in our intervention system, and used these tiers to define the amount of support that any given student may need. These tiers of supports increase in intensity from one tier to the next. We decided on three tiers:
Tier 1: The Whole Class (Universal)
This level applied to all students and included high quality teaching and support for all students in the school.
We have put the most professional development resources into this tier. We focused on research-based strategies on inclusive teaching practices and assessment. We began conversations around assessment and had to monitor student progress so educators could use this data to help decide what interventions were needed. We ensured that every teacher had an individualized professional action plan that focused on a research-based teaching practice.
We integrated three resource teachers to 360° support the class teacher, and the academic needs of the whole class (a humanities resource teacher, a math and science specialist, and a life skills resource teacher).
Tier 2: Small Group (Targeted)
This level applied to some students and included additional interventions for students who needed help with specific skills. We had to think strategically about where these targeted support times would fit within our high school schedule. We began to look at lunch and after school times. The goal was to avoid having students miss out during the whole class instructional time.
This year, in hopes of being more inclusive in our practice, we scheduled a flexible Wednesday where all students could get additional small group supports throughout the day. Moving forward, we want to continue looking at integrating resource teachers to work with small groups of students.
We are also looking at creating a K–12 social-emotional support program that takes into account the spiritual formation of students at different grade levels. We plan to have the school counselling team provide a few psycho-
educational groups throughout the school year to help support the social-emotional growth of our students.
Tier 3: Individualized Support (Intensive)
This level applied to few students and included interventions designed to address the unique needs of the individual student.
Our educational support services coordinator, educational assistants, and resource teachers form a school-based team to support the learning of students who need more focused assistance. In addition, our counselling team provides Christian-based counselling services to support students who need social-emotional and mental health support. Our principal and vice-principal also provide targeted support for the behavioural needs of students.
An Integrated Plan
After determining the three tiers of support, we made an integrated plan addressing the academic, behavioural, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of all students.
The Plan for Behavioural Issues
For behavioural support, we began by implementing the Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework. PBIS helped us improve student behaviour significantly. We use the PBIS with our high school students across all environments in our school (classroom, washroom, gym, outside, playground, learning commons, lobby, and hallways) creating a safe and effective learning environment.
When implementing the PBIS, it was important that everyone knew what the behavioural expectations were so that they could all play a role in improving school safety and promoting positive behaviour. The vice-principal and I worked together to integrate the PBIS into all aspects of the school and we used the same language about behavioural expectations to teach and support positive behaviour. Teachers and staff nominated students who demonstrated positive behaviour and positive behavioural letters were sent home to encourage students and families.
The Plan for Academic and Learning Issues
For academic and learning support, we utilized the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. We focused on being “prevention oriented.” Through our monthly school-based team meetings, teachers communicated with administrators, the educational support services team, and the counselling team, and identified which students needed additional support. With this team approach, we were better able to implement evidence-based interventions for all students and we were able to tailor interventions based on specific students’ needs.
The Plan for Social, Emotional, and Spiritual Issues
We use a combination of counsellor and pastoral supports to provide social, emotional, and spiritual support to students. We consider counselling as both an intervention and a prevention service.
In the past, our school counsellors worked part-time and worked with specific students. This casual working relationship made it difficult for thorough collaboration with our school-based team. Hence, we moved to offering counsellors the same contract as teachers so that they could be part of our school-based team. With this adjustment, counsellors have enhanced our students’ educational achievement through goal setting, assisting with the development of individualized education plans, and helping to promote effective work and study habits. Our counsellors also lead a monthly parent education evening where parents can learn more about research-based strategies that have to do with current trends, mental health issues, and parenting support.
Moving forward, we envision our school counsellors playing a vital role in nurturing the spiritual formation of the students. Our counsellors can integrate Christ-centred counselling practices so students can experience more spiritual wholeness and intimacy with God.
Barriers to Implementation
In implementing the MTSS into the culture of our school, we were challenged by coordinating practices and expectations, and providing effective universal support. It was important for us to have a clear MTSS plan and then stick to it, helping us guard against bias when it comes to decision making in supporting students. We need to facilitate ongoing professional development around the basics of the MTSS to ensure that new and seasoned staff are on the same page with the MTSS process.
The MTSS pyramid needs a consistent large base at Tier 1 so as many students are served as possible. Hence, it is vital for us to explore and build out our Tier 1 universal supports. We are seeking to strengthen differentiation, increase high-quality classroom instruction, improve assessment practices, and create transparent expectations for social-emotional learning. Critical to this process, we are embedding more time where staff teams can engage in problem solving, discuss appropriate interventions, and monitor student progress.
With the rise of a variety of different and complex behavioural and learning issues in the current educational context, the MTSS approach may also work for your school. Implementing the MTSS is a journey of school improvement involving all major stakeholders.
The MTSS framework helped our k–12 school think about and evaluate the way we support our students. It is helping us have the good and much needed conversations around how we can create a school community where every student can learn.
Secondary Principal, Clinical Counsellor
Vancouver Christian School