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June 21, 2019

MTSS Programs: Using the Universal Design for Learning

A Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS, is primarily designed to improve academic and social-emotional performance. At times, MTSS is used only through interventions targeted at deficit areas for our most struggling students.


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How can MTSS enhance performance in my class for all students?

A Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS, is primarily designed to improve academic and social-emotional performance. At times, MTSS is used only through interventions targeted at deficit areas for our most struggling students. Many of those students are identified as having a learning disability. While focusing on students who struggle will likely improve an overall school score because it brings up the bottom numbers, it doesn’t necessarily improve the scores of average or higher-achieving students. MTSS is not a replacement of special education but rather a curriculum and instruction model designed to improve all students’ performance, which includes raising the level of rigor. This means that the MTSS model must take into account the needs of students with disabilities, students with academic struggles, students meeting expectations, students outperforming expectations and even students labeled as gifted. In other words, MTSS is designed to be an approach that benefits all students.

MTSS and Universal Design for Learning

In order to meet the needs of students in all tiers of MTSS, a key tool is differentiated instruction. One model for differentiation is the Universal Design for Learning. However, UDL isn’t about strict individualization, but rather is about providing multiple ways for students to access content and revealing understanding for students. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning identifies three central guidelines for implementing UDL: (a) multiple means of engagement, (b) multiple means of representation and (c) multiple means of action and expression.

MTSS and Multiple Means of Engagement

Engagement means having students actively involved in the lesson. Since all students differ in what motivates them to learn, it is important to provide multiple options for engagement, such as letting students take charge of their own learning or connecting learning to meaningful experiences. However, engagement alone does not make a lesson effective. Students should be engaged in content-focused instruction that meets rigorous standards and helps them grow academically.

Teacher collaborating with children using MTSS

MTSS and Multiple Means of Representation

Using multiple representations for instruction has been supported in research for nearly 100 years. In 1925, Samuel Orton evaluated students who had difficulty with language. He learned that even some students with average or above average intelligence still struggled with reading. He determined that one way to help these students was by matching kinesthetic, auditory and visual sensory input with literacy. He later teamed up with Anna Gillingham to develop what we now know as the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Because of the popularity of this program and its effectiveness with students with disabilities, other programs have been created based on the same multisensory language approach, and mathematics has also seen an increase in the use of multisensory approaches.

One such method is the concrete-to-representational-to-abstract sequence of instruction, which has been proven effective for students learning basic facts, fractions and decimals computation, and algebraic equations solving. As a central guideline for UDL, the use of representations does not need to be relegated to intervention or special education settings. Rather, graphic organizers, concrete manipulatives, video modeling, color coding and other means of representation should be made available to all students. However, the use of these representations may be differentiated based on the needs of students.

MTSS and Multiple Means of Action and Expression

The use of action and expression within lessons enhances engagement and allows for better access to content. Student movement must be purposeful and plentiful as part of the lesson. A teacher who uses movement to connect to phonemes, for example, likely helps children remember letter sounds. In one classroom, Ms. Helmick has students form a b with their left hand and pretend to bounce a ball while saying the letter sound /b/. To differentiate that from the letter d, the students form a d with their right hand, clicking their wrist downward like a dog eating from a dish while saying the letter sound /d/. In this example, Ms. Helmick not only is using movement to support learning phonemes, but also is having students practice the letter sounds verbally. Every student should have an opportunity each day to speak about the subject they are learning about. Getting the students to express their learning improves the opportunity for input, retention and recall. As children show success, the amount of action and expression may be gradually reduced or faded to help students with generalization.

A Final Note on MTSS

A Multi-Tiered System of Support can help address the needs of all students. In order to do so effectively, teachers may consider the elements of Universal Design for Learning to differentiate instruction.

by Barbara R. Blackburn with Brad S. Witzel

Engage with Barbara and the Share My Lesson Community by signing up for her webinar, Differentiating Instruction without Lowering Rigor, on-demand. Interested in another quick read? Check out her last blog here.

Want to learn more about Social and Emotional Learning? Check out Share My Lesson's collection and let us know what you think!

Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 25 best-selling books.

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