A quick introduction to Multi-Tiered Systems of Support in pre-K

08/21/2013  |  Rebecca Holland

Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is a model of educational practice in which students’ responsiveness to the instruction they receive informs ongoing decision-making about the intensity of instruction they need. MTSS is a term used to refer to a combination of practices relating to academics response to intervention (RTI) and social-behavioral learning from the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports( PBIS) model. MTSS is comprised of six key features common to both RTI and PBIS, according to Sugai and Horner’s (2009) review:

Scientific research supports the instruction and intervention.

Tiers defined by increasing levels of intensity organize instruction and intervention. Intervention increases in intensity when frequency, duration, and specialization of the interventionist increase, and when group size decreases. The least intense instruction is generally the core curriculum and is called Tier 1, while Tiers 2 and 3 — or secondary and tertiary intervention — are composed of interventions that focus with increasing intensity on specific elements of the core curriculum.

A problem-solving process uses assessment data systematically to make instruction and intervention adjustments.

Explicit data-based decision rules inform students’ movement through tiers of instructional support and intervention adjustments within tier.

Ongoing, formative assessment and attention to integrity to the MTSS model’s problem-solving process and data-based decision-making rules comprise and organize collaborative (e.g., multiple teachers, specialists, and administrators) use of data.

Universal screening three or four times per year provides early identification of students who are not responding to core instruction according to grade-level expectations.

My Role in RTI Implementation

For the last two years, I have worked with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on the Missouri RTI Development Site Project. In 2011, I capitalized on an opportunity to bring some Pre-K RTI assessment and instruction tools into pre-K classrooms in the Development Site districts. I developed a relationship with colleagues at the Center on RTI in Early Childhood (CRTIEC; www.crtiec.org) and agreed to pilot some of their early literacy assessment tools and intervention instruction in two of our Development Site districts.

The pre-K classrooms in the two districts were pretty similar to each other. Both had separate Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) and Title 1 programs. In one district, I worked in, but in the other I worked only in Title 1. Both districts had half-day programs with only about 2.5 hours of instructional time per class. Both districts used similar child-centered curricula. All classrooms had a certified teacher and a paraprofessional teaching assistant. In one district, the pre-K program was located in the primary school. In the other, the pre-K program was located in a standalone building. Both districts had strong K-3 RTI and social-behavior programming in place.

Tips for Implementing MTSS In Pre-K

I had several successes and missteps in my initial and second year of pre-K implementation. I will share my lessons learned and provide tips for avoiding my mistakes in the hopes that your road to pre-K MTSS implementation will be smoother! My implementation was focused on early literacy, but my advice is relevant to MTSS because it applies to the larger model rather than academics or behavior specifically.

Lesson 1

Pre-K teachers were not familiar with the assessment the tiered instruction practices inherent to MTSS. Few teachers were receptive to the universal screening assessments, and most teachers gave the intervention little thought and were indifferent to it.

Tip 1: Do not assume that pre-K teachers are familiar with the MTSS model, even if they are in the same building or district where implementation is happening. Take the time to assess knowledge and receptivity, and plan accordingly. Capitalize on experienced kindergarten and first grade implementers to bridge knowledge gaps, and use collaboration to develop a pre-K MTSS plan that fits well with kindergarten to first grade efforts. This collaboration should provide teachers with longitudinal data in common areas that enhance transition planning and decision-making.

Ensure that the pre-K teachers have the readiness to understand the what, why, and how of the MTSS model and its assessment, instruction, and data-based decision-making elements before beginning classroom implementation. I believe that my pre-K teachers’ were unimpressed with the tools and practices I brought them because they saw little value in them in relation to their goals. If I had my project to do over again, I would have spent at least the first year on these activities.

Lesson 2

Teachers in half-day programs do not have enough time to do additional assessment.

Tip 2: If you add any assessments or instructional elements, make sure you take something away so that teachers do not get overwhelmed. This is especially true in half-day programs, since teachers’ time with students is so very limited. Identify exactly what you are taking away for every element that you add. If you add an assessment, identify a current assessment that can be eliminated; if you add an instructional element, identify an instructional element that takes the same amount of time to eliminate.

Lesson 3

Paraprofessionals will do a superb and thorough job of implementing scripted intervention, including both instruction and assessment, and they enjoyed having the opportunity to take some initiative in the classroom.

Tip 3: Capitalize on paraprofessionals to administer assessments and provide instruction, as appropriate. In general, intervention of increasing intensity requires increasing teacher specialization. However, in my state, all pre-K is already essentially intervention, since all students were at risk (Title 1) or had an ECSE-qualifying diagnosis.

Since time is limited and small-group instruction is already a part of the day, why not give paraprofessionals responsibility for intervention instruction? Provide them with clear responsibilities, give them training and feedback, and provide them with tools including scripts and checklists to make fidelity monitoring easy.

I gave paraprofessionals responsibility for a “listening center” intervention that was essentially automated in that they played the audio on an MP3 player while students listened with headphones and followed along with the story. The paraprofessionals got the target students to the center, kept them on-task, modeled responses, monitored attendance and fidelity using checklists, and conducted pre-post progress monitoring assessments.

Lesson 4

A tight, well-designed intervention complete with implementation support tools can be implemented with fidelity and have the predicted and desired effect on student learning.

Tip 4: Select intervention instruction that is evidence-based and that has a detailed scope and sequence that teachers and paraprofessionals can follow with fidelity. Ensure that the intervention instruction is accompanied by checklists and other implementation supports. I used a highly scripted — automated, really — listening center intervention and got student results that were similar to those obtained by researchers.

I have seen RTI implementation in K-3 go poorly due to fidelity problems with core curriculum and intervention instruction. In many cases, intervention instruction is left to teachers to design using varied resources. This results in instruction that mashes together several types of practices and tends to be implemented differently by each teacher. In contrast, a precisely detailed scope and sequence can serve as a set of “training wheels” to ensure that the key features of the intervention, i.e., those that are known to impact student outcomes, are implemented fully. Second, without initial implementation with fidelity, it is very difficult to move forward in refining practices later. If it is clear that something is not effective or that there is a need for change, implementation with documented fidelity allows us to rule out faulty implementation and efficiently select new or modified practices to address the problem.

Lesson 5

Excellent results had little bearing on teachers’ willingness to continue in the face of other demands on their limited time with students.

Tip 5: Celebrate successes with teachers along the way, and make a cultural commitment to sustained practices with ongoing evaluation and refinement. To celebrate success, showcase pre-K’s efforts in the school building and district. Identify individual teachers’ strengths — assessment, data-based decision-making, instruction — and give them responsibility in those areas so that they build ownership. Require teachers to use data to plan future instruction, and to justify their plans with analysis and results of previous implementation. Additionally, provide the support necessary to turn data around quickly, which involves having data management set up for speedy data entry and application of clear data-based decision-rules. This ensures that teachers have the data they need to make decisions according to the time line specified, which contributes to the integrity of RTI implementation and ultimately improves outcomes for students.

Finally, take the time to build a culture that is committed to using data efficiently to make decisions about discarding, adopting, and refining practices. MTSS implementation with fidelity will take years to accomplish fully, so do not look to “check it off your list.” The MTSS model continuously uses data to make decisions at the student, teacher, classroom, school, curriculum, and district levels. MTSS requires a balance between implementation of assessment, instruction, and data-based decision-making with fidelity and flexible problem-solving that truly meets student needs.

Dr. Rebecca Holland is an independent consultant specializing in child development and related programs, including child care, Head Start, Pre-K and preschool, early childhood special education, and K-5 education.
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