Multi-tiered frameworks: Understanding RTI, PBIS, MTSS

You may have heard the term “multi-tiered framework” along with other related acronyms like RTI, PBIS, MTSS when people talk about helping and supporting students… but what do these terms actually mean and how are they related? Let’s break this down below.


MTSS stands for multi-tiered systems of support. It is a framework to provide academic and behavioral supports for all students based on their individual needs. Because different students have different strengths and needs, tailored levels of support are more likely to help them succeed in school. “Multi-tiered” generally refers to three tiers that correspond to different intensities of the support:

MTSS Pyramid Graphic

Tier 3

Tier 1, or school-wide support, is provided as the foundation of the “pyramid of support” to all students. In an MTSS framework, Tier 1 supports are intended to prevent challenges from occurring in the first place. As such, this involves teaching critical skills and behaviors that all students are expected to learn. For example, students learn core academic content through high quality evidence-based instruction in the classroom along with universal screening and progress monitoring. School staff also teach students clear rules and expectations for behaviors in and out of the classroom. In a school that is effectively implementing these school-wide supports it is estimated that a majority of students (80-90%) will respond positively. For example, this means that if there are 100 total students at Pyramid Elementary School, about 80-90 students will follow school rules and respond well to general classroom instruction.

Tier 2

But then, this leaves about 10-20 students who may need more support to be successful. These students may exhibit difficulties with learning specific academic content or following rules more often than their peers, causing delays in instruction and/or behavior problems. For these students, school staff can provide more focused, or “Tier 2” supports, which are more specialized or targeted intervention programs. Typically, these targeted programs are provided in small group settings, which may involve increased time dedicated to instruction or more intensive methods of instruction. For example, students may receive differentiated instruction matched to their needs based on screening or progress monitoring data for a specific subject, or increased opportunities for instruction and feedback on the school rules and expectations (through an intervention called “Check in Check out”). We might predict, based on our example with our students at Pyramid Elementary School, that about 5-10 students would respond well to these targeted supports—helping them to improve their academic and/or behavior challenges.

Tier 1

Now what about the few remaining students at Pyramid Elementary School who don’t respond effectively to Tier 1 or Tier 2 supports? These students may need more intensive Tier 3 supports at the top of the pyramid. Usually these students, with serious and chronic needs, will receive individualized services from specialists, such as the school counselor, psychologist, behavioral specialist, and/or instructional specialist—or even from outside services, such as community practitioners.

This type of multi-tiered framework puts processes in place to identify, support, and monitor the progress of students using the best data and evidence available, to make sure students’ levels of support match their levels of need.

OK, that’s MTSS… what about RTI and PBIS?

MTSS is an umbrella framework that includes both RTI and PBIS. Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered framework primarily for academic supports, whereas Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a multi-tiered framework for behavioral supports. RTI and PBIS both focus on providing support at different levels of intensity based on what the student needs–at the school-wide (Tier 1), targeted (Tier 2), and individual (Tier 3) levels of support.

Some background on RTI and PBIS

With updates and changes to state and federal education guidelines in the past two decades, including the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and revision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), schools are encouraged to match the support that a student receives with the level of need demonstrated.

RTI grew from efforts to improve special education services, specifically in identifying students who are struggling academically, and providing support early on based on their level of need. Instead of the “wait and fail” method for identifying students with learning challenges, all students are screened regularly in an RTI framework. Students who are struggling academically are identified and receive evidence-based interventions, with progress monitored frequently by teachers collecting data to determine if the students need additional help.

The principles of PBIS have been around longer than RTI, since about the mid-90’s, but the core principles are quite similar—to prevent and address behavioral challenges by offering a range of interventions based on the student’s level of need.

With the recognition that to achieve academic success, a student must also have behavioral strengths (and vice versa), there has recently been a shift away from using RTI and PBIS frameworks separately. Many states and districts employ MTSS to integrate their systems of support and address both academics and behavior by leveraging common resources and data elements. In fact, MTSS is named in recent public education federal legislation as a critical element for student success in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Our team’s work with multi-tiered frameworks

Our team has researched various tiered behavior/PBIS programs to investigate how they may be effective for students and staff. Please read our blog posts about the types of school-wide and classroom-based programs our team studies and our evaluation of a school-wide program to improve school climate and safety.

Other resources and information:

Topics: Classroom-based intervention Multi-tiered systems of support School-wide prevention Secondary intervention

Tags: Multi-tiered Systems of Support Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Response to Intervention