Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) are two acronyms (of many) that are well known and widely accepted in education circles. The pyramidal structure of these models is one that most practicing educators are familiar with, and have used in their careers and classrooms. MTSS is the newer, updated version of the RTI model, but at the heart of the matter, both structures are designed to address similar concerns.
Both RTI and MTSS are designed to provide levels, or tiers, of support to students within the classroom. They address academic and behavioral concerns, and exist to provide gradually more intensive support to students who demonstrate need. Educators must move through each tier, exhausting the options available as “interventions” or supports, before moving on to the next, more aggressive level.
MTSS Pyramid from Chicago Public Schools
The three-tiered model of support increases as students demonstrate higher levels of need, or when students academic proficiency or behavior does not “respond” to the level of support being offered. Essentially, if a level of intervention is not effective for a student, a more targeted and comprehensive approach is taken.
In the education system, even in the graduate level courses I took regarding this subject, the focus is consistently on the students who are struggling to meet learning goals. The students who are not meeting expected proficiency levels, those whose behavior is off-target, and those who need additional help to be successful in their education. These students absolutely need our attention, our support, and the interventions offered within the MTSS model.
We often spend a lot of time and energy, rightfully so, on helping our students who show the most need for us. We focus heavily on helping them reach their potential and find success by providing them with what they need to thrive. It is easier to notice when they require this help because they demonstrate their need in ways that are more easily observable.
But I’ve become more aware of an entire ‘tier three’ on the other end of this spectrum. There’s another, incredibly needy group of children who are craving our support and attention in the classroom. Who need us to support them in their learning lives. They just exhibit this need in completely different ways and require very different, albeit still heightened, types of support.
These are the students who are continually overlooked, or slip through the cracks, because they don’t struggle to meet learning goals. They consistently go above and beyond, and demonstrate a higher level of understanding when compared to their peers. They think differently. They are often viewed as strange by their classmates, or tend to have fewer friendships because of they way they see the world or approach problems. These kids tend to struggle socially, seem out of place among their peers, and usually feel that way too.
This year, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a class my district refers to as the “Challenge” version of ELA. It’s a class that students test in to, and we work on learning targets that are a grade level higher. The material is more difficult, and we go further in depth with our writing, speaking, reading, and listening skills. We delve into the content area in different ways, and we focus our energy in that class on different skills—ones that these students desperately need.
Following the MTSS model, these students represent a small percentage of our population. They are small in number, similar to the MTSS tier 3 students that need the most intensive interventions. They require a lot of individualized and carefully constructed material, much like our students that struggle the most. And they require a lot of attention and love, again mirroring the needs of some of our students who experience difficulty meeting their learning goals. Truthfully, both groups of students have a major commonality: they learn differently and require higher levels of support to reach their potential. Our MTSS structure and a majority of the literature recognizes our striving students, but misses those on the other side of the pyramid.
This group of students is often unacknowledged because they do not necessarily demonstrate a need for academic support. Their learning struggles are wildly different and can go unrecognized because these students meet proficiency, typically do what is expected, and generally don’t bring attention to themselves. They get good grades, are often good kids, and tend to work hard. Their needs are not as obvious, and can be, quite frankly, hard to see. I only took notice of this when I was placed in front of a whole group of these kids and had to come up with ways to give them what they truly need.
Now this does not mean that I reserve my cool, fun, and exciting learning activities for my ‘gifted kids’. In fact, the majority of the lessons I teach involve the same topics, and I plan almost all of the learning experiences my students have to follow similar, best-practice models. Both my co-taught special education class and challenge class engage in authentic, high quality, standards-aligned units. Both groups use self-pacing, do literature circle units, and have tons of opportunity for voice and choice. Neither group is afforded better opportunities than the other. But, both classes demonstrate high levels of need and require a lot of support. And, to be honest, they both run in similar ways.
The glaring difference is how I support the kids.
My group of students in challenge ELA require a lot of instruction and practice with recognizing different perspectives and engaging in respectful discussion or debate. We spend a lot of time going further on our learning standards due to the progression-style they follow from one grade level to another. We focus on nuances in literature and in our writing that other students may not yet notice or be ready to explore. For example, rather than just learning about credible sources in research, we also discuss how news outlets and media companies can be biased. We delve into source biases and the credibility of sources who have an obvious lean in one direction or the other. During our poetry unit, we analyze the classic Frost and Whitman, but we also read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. All my classes draw comparisons between classical poetry and contemporary verse novels, but in challenge we discuss the historical context and its influence on the author. In short, I provide the type of instruction each of my unique groups need, providing more intensive support and deeper opportunity where required.
The students in my challenge class are ready for the abstract, more difficult concepts. They need the experience of being pushed and exploring what it means to learn instead of earning points for a grade. They need to experience what it is to work through a problem and have to think critically to solve it. They need help socializing and engaging with their peers. They need instruction that is consistently enriched, offers opportunities for deeper exploration, and challenges them. And, most importantly, they need to be in an environment that provides a sense of belonging and comfort so they understand that it’s okay to struggle in the pursuit of deeper understanding.
They need to find their place and they need our support. They need to be recognized.