A multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) is a phrase you may hear about at school or from other parents. You may hear it called the MTSS framework, the MTSS process or the MTSS model.

No matter what it’s called, MTSS has a very important goal. It’s designed to help schools identify struggling students early and to intervene quickly.

What is MTSS?

MTSS is a framework that many schools use to provide targeted support to struggling students. It focuses on the “whole child.” MTSS supports academic growth and achievement, but it also supports many other areas. This includes behavior, social and emotional needs, and absenteeism.

The multi-tiered supports are a huge part of MTSS. These tiers of support increase in intensity from one level to the next. For example, some kids receiving small-group interventions may need to “move up” to one-on-one help.

The MTSS model can help general education students receive interventions sooner. It can also help identify sooner which students need special education.

How MTSS Works

MTSS isn’t a particular “curriculum.” It’s a proactive approach that has several key elements:

  • Universal screening for all students early in each school year
  • Increasing levels of targeted support for those who are struggling
  • Integrated plans that address students’ academic, behavioral, social and emotional needs
  • The use of evidence-based strategies
  • A school-wide approach to student support. Teachers, counselors, psychologists and other specialists work as a team when they assess students and plan interventions.
  • Professional development so staff can deliver interventions and monitor progress effectively
  • Family involvement so parents can understand the interventions and provide support at home
  • Frequent monitoring of students’ progress so educators can use this data to help decide if more interventions are needed

Some school districts use a system with four tiers of support. But it’s more common for districts to use three tiers. Here is a basic outline of how a three-tiered system works.

  • Tier 1: The Whole Class. All students are taught with methods that research has shown to be effective. All students are screened to see who is and isn’t responding to these strategies. Kids may be broken into small groups that address different strengths and areas of need.
  • Tier 2: Small Group Interventions. Some students receive more targeted support in small groups. The scheduling of these interventions is important. The goal is to keep students from missing any core instruction or other Tier 1 activities that might make it harder to catch up.
  • Tier 3: Intensive, Individualized Support. A few students who move up to this most intensive level of support continue with Tier 1 activities. Their break-out groups are smaller than in Tier 2. And these sessions last longer and are more narrowly focused.

Examples of MTSS

MTSS is an “umbrella” term. It includes some multi-tier systems of support you may know already:

  • Response to Intervention (RTI) focuses on academics. It identifies kids who are struggling. And it provides increasing levels of support to help them catch up. Tier 1 is class-wide instruction and support. Ideally Tier 2 interventions are scheduled so students won’t miss any core instruction. The same is true for Tier 3.
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a school-wide system. All students are taught how they are expected to behave. And these expectations are described in a positive way. (“Be respectful” instead of “Don’t talk back.”)

There may be incentives or rewards for good behavior. And a tiered system supports struggling students. The focus overall is not on punishing kids. It’s on helping them meet expectations and contribute to a positive learning environment.

MTSS and Special Education

special education evaluation is usually the next step if students don’t make enough progress in Tier 3. But they reach this point with lots of documentation. And data from the MTSS process can be helpful when developing an  .

The goal of MTSS is to screen early and to deliver targeted support quickly. It can also help schools tell the difference between kids who have not had good instruction in the past and those who truly need special education.

But parents don’t have to wait for their child to go through all phases of MTSS before they request an evaluation for special education. They can ask for an evaluation at any point.

The school can refuse to conduct an evaluation. But it must notify the parent in writing. And the parent could then file a complaint or seek due process. MTSS can’t be used to delay or deny evaluations of students suspected of having a disability.


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mentions MTSS by name. It’s cited as a way to increase student achievement and teacher effectiveness. ESSA provides states with funding that can be used for professional development to help teachers use MTSS.

You can learn more about systems of supports by getting answers to common questions about RTI. And if you think your child needs more individualized support, learn how to request an evaluation for special education.

Key Takeaways

  • Teachers, specialists and other school staff work as a team when they assess students and plan MTSS interventions.
  • Progress is monitored frequently to determine if interventions are working.
  • Students who do not respond to Tier 3 interventions are often referred for special education. But parents don’t need to wait—they can request an evaluation at any time.

*Author Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.