A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Support
Considerations for schools adopting MTSS for behavior management
By H. Scott Pickle and Marilyn Shepherd | January | February 2024
Schools are continually seeking innovative ways to ensure that all students receive the support they need to succeed. This has become more critical for students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework gaining momentum as a result. This powerful system, rooted in research findings, offers innovative solutions to the many ongoing challenges in schools of providing proper academic, behavioral and social-emotional support. MTSS is designed to provide a comprehensive, data-driven approach to identifying and addressing students’ needs across multiple tiers of intervention. While MTSS holds immense potential for improving student outcomes, its implementation can be challenging.
The crucial groundwork for any school considering the adoption of MTSS for behavior management occurs before the actual implementation commences. Over our years of educational experience, we have learned that a school’s top priority is to ensure that all parties involved comprehend and embrace a set of core principles concerning positive behavior intervention. When the school staff wholeheartedly believes in these principles as a collective, the likelihood of achieving success with the MTSS behavior model is significantly increased. Conversely, if there is division among staff or insufficient support for these principles, the prospect of failure becomes almost inevitable.
One may begin to ask, “If MTSS is so powerful, why would any school not be successful in implementing it?” The answer is more emotional than research-based. Overwhelmingly, we find teachers do a wonderful job of controlling emotions in the classroom — both their students’ and their own. Our bottom line is that we are all human. There are times when emotion gets the best of all of us. There are moments when students can do a very good job of pushing all the right buttons of a teacher. Those buttons are directly connected to the level of calm a teacher possesses, and with every push, the teacher moves closer to the edge. When that happens, a timeout is needed. If that timeout is not identified and immediately taken, tempers can flare, and the result is typically negative for both teacher and student. The emotion the teacher feels results in some form of disciplinary consequence being handed out — a virtual pound of flesh. The student consequence for the teacher is a reparation for the emotional toil paid by the teacher.
The challenge in this situation is that the student may not be 100 percent at fault, yet they are paying 100 percent of the consequence. The “pound of flesh” mentality serves only the teacher and rarely serves the needs of the student. It is a cycle that begins with some sort of harm or trauma incident. The initial incident is followed by emotional damage, and then a challenging behavioral response. The reaction to the behavior is traditionally some sort of punitive discipline and the circle starts all over again. We see it play out in classrooms everywhere, and it is incumbent upon the adults to break the cycle.
This is where the inventive “BEAR Center” was introduced at Selma High School. As a new, mid-year hired principal at the school, the superintendent apprised me of many challenges, with the most glaring being student behavior. Traditionally, changes to school programs happen over the summer and are reintroduced to the staff in the fall upon their return. This situation was different. The superintendent provided the resources needed to fully implement a plan for intervention that was absolutely critical for student safety and ensuring Selma High was a positive learning environment.
The BEAR Center (named after the Selma High mascot) was established as the MTSS clearing house for the school site. Two classrooms were designated for the center, and necessary staff were assigned to meet the demand. The program’s design was to break the cycle of trauma occurring in the classroom and provide a place for a timeout. The BEAR Center team was assigned very specific tasks, with the primary task of being a triage center for students’ emotional and/or behavioral responses. Within the BEAR Center, there was an administrative assistant to handle support services and an assistant principal to meet with students and direct them to the many services available, including a student resource officer provided in partnership with the local police department, and a campus security staff member. In a large high school, some days the need called for all hands on deck in the BEAR Center.
Secondarily, the BEAR Center included a second classroom, which was designated as the intervention support room. Staffing of this room included a school counselor and a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) aide. The intervention room provided Tier 2 targeted support. The counselor would meet with students to find the root of the problem and many times, it was not the classroom but rather other issues impacting the students’ lives. Once the challenges were identified, the student was placed on a “Check & Connect” list for the PBIS aide. This proactive action was to connect with the students and to provide them with an outlet before the cycle of trauma begins. In addition, the intervention counselor could refer to additional Tier 2 services offered, such as academic counseling, life coaches, program leads of extra/co-curricular activities, or provide the student with learning opportunities with a modular curriculum. The bottom line is there were a number of people who could focus attention on a single student with the goal of providing additional support beyond Tier 1 interventions.
Additional services that could also be provided would typically fall more into the Tier 3 level of intensive support. These referrals would be to our mental health clinicians, such as our school social worker or school psychologist, who have the expertise to conduct risk assessments, functional behavioral assessments (FBAs) and develop behavior intervention plans (BIPs). The goal was to address the root causes of challenging behaviors and provide specialized interventions.
The implementation of a program such as this can only happen if there is support at the district level to allocate funding and resources. In any situation, if a change is desired, then it is going to come at a cost. In this instance, the cost was significant, but it doesn’t have to be to have an effective MTSS program. A school simply needs to adopt a new approach to address student issues, not continue to do the same things and expect a different result. New ways mean embracing technology and collaboration as key factors. There are five important areas that should be addressed in an implementation:
Data-driven decision-making: In our situation at Selma High, the district already had several data systems. We were actually able to consolidate to a primary data system that was incorporated into our student information system. This provided timely student performance data on several key points across the three areas of MTSS support.
Resource allocation: Obviously, resources drive everything that we do in education; however, there is a certain saturation point. Too many resources can also become a challenge. Reliance on our technology to provide answers is essential, utilizing data analysis to provide a clear view of resource allocation to where the need is the most critical.
Collaboration: The knowledge gained on the use of virtual meetings is invaluable in creating collaborative opportunities. By leveraging the digital platforms and being efficient with meetings, the staff can become more focused and communication can be increased with all staff and parents. Using these meeting platforms, the sharing of information and progress ensures everyone receives the same information at the same time. A critical component of a strong MTSS program is keeping everyone on the same page of the same book.
Professional learning: The development of staff is vital to success. All staff should be trained on the implementation of MTSS. Everyone needs to know what the program is, as well as how data is interpreted, interventions are used and the technology is accessed. The more everyone, knows the better the implementation.
Continuous monitoring and evaluation: As with any program implemented at a school, it is important to continuously monitor the effectiveness. If we reference the first point above and utilize quality data collection on actionable points of data, this should be academic. Data-driven insights will be primary to the responsiveness of the program to meet student needs.
Before MTSS can be implemented, the teachers have to understand the new paradigm and students have to understand the new expectations. The goal is to break the trauma cycle in the classroom. Teachers have to disseminate information to students about goal behaviors and they should teach the students, as is the expectation. We cannot assume students know how to act at school. We have to teach them. Following that, when goal behaviors are not followed, instead of seeing it as a violation, teachers need to see it as a teachable moment. As educators, we should seize every opportunity thrust upon us to teach.
Lastly, it is vital that we remind our adults that they are the behavior models on campus. Expectations should be applied universally and universally known. When violations of goal behaviors are controlled, academics and social-emotional learning will improve.
Introducing a well-executed MTSS program can become the bridge that transforms the educational experience for students. Through technology integration and collaboration among staff, school administrators and parents, operations can be streamlined and resources reallocated to ensure that students receive the support they need to achieve at higher levels. This innovative approach addresses traditional challenges and focuses the school’s efforts on meeting the evolving needs of the student population. As education changes in the future, a sound MTSS strategy can provide a stable foundation for schools to address the needs of teachers and students, providing a bright future for all. The Selma High School BEAR Center is an example of a collaborative MTSS process in action that supports both students and faculty.

H. Scott Pickle, Ed.D., is director of Human Resources at Selma Unified School District. Marilyn Shepherd, Ed.D., retired as superintendent of Selma Unified School District in June 2023.