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MTSS Research: What do we know?

Educators have heard it before: “Use evidence-based curriculum!” “Use MTSS!” “Use PBIS!”

Policy initiatives such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015) emphasize the need for schools to use research-based, high-quality instruction and multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) models. However, these initiatives do not outline how schools should implement these models.

A cursory Google search will immediately generate a list of thousands of resources that address what MTSS is, how MTSS could be implemented, how to use social-emotional learning (SEL), and how to use school-wide positive behavior support (PBIS). What becomes difficult, then, is determining which resources are research based and of high quality and how you can use them to move forward and address your school’s needs. The processes of determining what models will address the needs in your school, implementing a systems-wide change, and managing a variety of different perspectives and opinions can be daunting. Even the most seasoned educator may become confused as they consider the best way to implement MTSS. Despite this reasonable confusion, evidence and supports do exist.

Research suggests that MTSS is effective with subpopulations, and, therefore, it is recommended that a similar approach be applied to military-connected students (Hernandez Finch, 2012; Fenning, 2022). There is solid, extensive evidence that MTSS has positive effects for behavior and academic outcomes (Lee & Gage, 2020) for students. Individual trials and meta-analyses, in which findings are summarized across research studies, seem to agree that MTSS is worth the investment in order to help the whole child. But, something is missing. Many studies focus on the general implementation of initiatives like school-wide PBIS or SEL, and they do not help educators understand how to make the small decisions. Educators may still have questions such as which core behavior expectations are the best in PBIS, is it better to use tokens or tickets for reinforcement, who should be on the MTSS team, or which universal screener or progress-monitoring tools will be most effective in a given school. These gaps exist because randomizing each of these decisions and comparing the outcomes would be nearly impossible for researchers. The answers to these questions will vary depending on the needs of individual schools. Thus, the trainings on this website often describe various choices for schools in order to offer schools options that will best address their specific needs.

While an MTSS structure is often tailored to a school, there are some common themes that can help educators use MTSS successfully. For example, when schools implement quality instruction with high fidelity, students have better outcomes, and MTSS frameworks tend to sustain better over time (Foreman & Crystal, 2015). In fact, there are probably several, or even many, evidence-based programs that could serve your school’s needs. Therefore, selecting interventions that fit with your school’s requirements and that can be implemented with fidelity by your teachers and the school community is more important than spending time searching for the “perfect” intervention. In another example, consider your MTSS team members: if you have a team that works well together, has a variety of professionals present, is invested in the process, meets regularly, and carefully documents their progress, then deciding whether Mrs. Jones or Mr. Ramirez should serve as representatives is just a matter of feasibility for your staff.

The take-home message is this: MTSS works, and educators and other school professionals can feel good about that. The difficult work will be deciding what your school needs, determining what procedures and resources you already provide, and deciding to implement. Remember, MTSS is a continuous improvement process, and it offers you the freedom to adjust and try again to find solutions to your school’s and your students’ needs!

We hope this information is useful in your professional practice. If you have questions or need help, visit the Contact Us page to reach out to us. If you would like to receive updates about new trainings or resources, sign up for our Mailing List.

Reference(s):


Every Student Succeeds Act, 20 U.S.C. § 6301 (2015). https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1177

Fenning, P. (2022). School supports for students in military families. The Guilford Press.

Forman, S. G., & Crystal, C. D. (2015). Systems consultation for multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS): Implementation issues. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 25(2–3), 276–285. https://doi.org/10.1080/10474412.2014.963226

Hernandez Finch, M. E. (2012). Special considerations with response to intervention and instruction for students with diverse backgrounds. Psychology in the Schools, 49(3), 285-296.

Lee, A., & Gage, N. A. (2020). Updating and expanding systematic reviews and meta-analyses on the effects of school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports. Psychology in the Schools, 57, 783–804. https://doi.org/1010.1002/pits.22336