Not Just for Academics: Expanding RTI/MTSS to Provide Behavioral and Social-Emotional Support

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In my early years as a school psychologist, I worked at Thornland Elementary School (fictitious name). Thornland was an urban school with committed teachers, students eager to learn and a behavioral environment that approached…chaos. In fact, when I first arrived, documented disciplinary office referrals at this 500-student building hovered at around 1000 per year — with many additional classroom removals occurring that were never recorded.

Given this school’s potential as a place of learning, what went wrong? At Thornland, positive behaviors were not explicitly taught. Instead, teachers simply assumed that students already knew adults’ behavioral expectations and chose to misbehave anyway. Furthermore, each educator applied his or her own standards in judging appropriate behavior, with wide variation across settings. Unsurprisingly, students often struggled in these instructional environments. Teachers in different classrooms applied different behavioral standards. And instructors’ primary means to ‘teach’ those standards was highly reactive through use of punishments such as class removal. Behavior management at Thornland lurched from one seeming crisis to another, and staff morale was low.

RTI/MTSS: A System to Manage Behaviors School-Wide

In the years since I worked at Thornland, the RTI/MTSS movement has spread across the country, employing research findings to bring innovative solutions to seemingly intractable school problems. We now know that schools can turn around their behavioral climate by adopting an RTI/MTSS model in which staff works together to provide graduated positive support to general-education students to match their social-emotional or behavioral needs (Grosche & Volpe, 2013). (Of course, students classified with behavioral disorders receive positive behavioral support separately as overseen by an IEP Team or Section 504 Committee.)

This model includes a continuum of behavior-intervention services distributed across 3 levels or tiers. At Tier 1, the classroom teacher teaches behavioral expectations and has a toolkit of ideas to proactively manage class-wide behaviors. At Tier 2, the school sets up programs such as Check & Connect that link unmotivated learners to mentors who can provide coaching support and encouragement. At Tier 3, the Problem-Solving team has the capacity to complete Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) for students with the most intense behavioral needs.

Building an RTI/MTSS model for behavior is not easy. It can require 3-5 years of sustained effort — an understandable timeline when one considers that schools often must make do with existing resources and can move forward only as quickly as their staff is able to assimilate changes to their professional practice. Nonetheless, implementing an RTI/MTSS model can truly transform a school, with problem behaviors no longer significantly interfering with student performance, classroom instruction and teacher job satisfaction.



Managing Behaviors: Adopt a Positive School-Wide Focus

RTI/MTSS for behavior provides a clear blue-print for action, with specific elements that schools implement over time. But the most important work for any school thinking about adopting RTI/MTSS to address behaviors happens before implementation even begins: At the outset, the school ensures that all stakeholders understand and accept a handful of fundamental principles of positive behavior intervention. When staff collectively believe in these principles, the odds for success with the RTI/MTSS behavior model is high. When staff are divided or fail to support these principles, failure is a virtual certainty.

5 Principles to Set Staff Up for Success in Using an RTI/MTSS Behavioral Model

  1. Goal behaviors should be defined. Teachers, support staff, administration and students should reach consensus on the core set of ‘goal’ behaviors they expect learners to display across school settings. Goal behaviors should be ambitious and, when possible, stated in positive terms. For example, one school selected as a positive-behavior goal, “Students share their opinions and are respectful when they disagree with others.”
  2. Goal behaviors should be taught. Once the school community agrees on a collective set of behavioral expectations, those pro-social, pro-learning behaviors become the foundation for an open, transparent ‘behavioral curriculum.’ Just as instructors explicitly teach the academic curriculum, so too do educators throughout the school instruct learners in desired behaviors — and provide performance feedback, encouragement and reinforcement as coaching tools to help students successfully to adopt these behaviors.
  3. Misbehaviors present a teaching opportunity. Educators should respond to problem behavior by re-teaching and reinforcing behavioral expectations rather than simply punishing the student. Of course, students do sometimes require disciplinary consequences when they intentionally and repeatedly violate school rules. But the initial teacher response when a student begins to stray from behavioral expectations should be to respond in a manner that aims to reengage that learner as quickly as possible in active, productive learning (Leach & Helf, 2016).
  4. Adults are behavior models. While educators explicitly teach and reinforce goal behaviors, they must also demonstrate those positive behaviors through their own conduct. Instructors who set the expectation that individuals will treat each other with respect, for example, would be expected to model the goal behavior by using a respectful voice and manner when interacting with students. The modeling of positive behavior is one of the most powerful of RTI/MTSS teaching tools.
  5. Data drives behavioral support. Schools employing an RTI/MTSS behavioral model must routinely collect data at the building and student levels to monitor the effectiveness of their behavior supports. At the building level, the school tracks Office Disciplinary Referrals (ODRs) to find and respond to ‘hot-spots’ — classrooms and other locations in the building (e.g., lunchroom) that generate disproportionately high rates of referrals. At the individual level, the school uses ODRs and perhaps other data sources to identify and provide intervention support to specific students who display challenging behaviors across settings.

Changing Paradigms: The Promise of an RTI/MTSS Behavior Framework

An increasing number of schools are building an RTI/MTSS model that teaches and reinforces expected behaviors in general-education classrooms. It’s worth asking, however, why more educational settings have not adopted this positive approach to school-wide behavior management. One explanation is that teachers see that punishment works — at least in the short term. After all, classroom removal and related ‘zero-tolerance’ responses often do result in immediate reduction of problem behaviors (Maag, 2001). Over time, however, schools that over-rely on punishment produce students who are at increased risk of continuing problem behavior, disengagement with school and failure to graduate (Skiba et al., 2006 ).



In contrast, the promise of the RTI/MTSS positive-behavior paradigm is that it treats behavior as a transparent, open curriculum. School stakeholders define the kind of school community they wish to create and then teach and reinforce the behaviors that will make this community a reality. For schools like Thornland, the RTI/MTSS model for behavior presents a path to move from a climate of behavioral turmoil to orderly classrooms with engaged students.

Are behavioral issues approached in a reactive way in your district? Is this method affecting staff and student morale? When evaluating if an RTI/MTSS model can help address behavioral challenges, consider how a data management system that communications with your SIS can empower district staff.


Grosche, M., & Volpe, R. J. (2013). Response-to-intervention (RTI) as a model to facilitate inclusion for students with learning and behaviour problems. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28, 254-269.

Leach, D., & Helf, S. (2016). Using a hierarchy of supportive consequences to address problem behaviors in the classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 52(1), 29-33.

Maag, J. W. (2001). Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 173-186.

Skiba, R. J., Reynolds, C. R., Graham, S., Shera, P., Conoley, J. C., & Garcia-Vazquez, E. (2006). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. Report by the American Psychological Association of the Zero Tolerance Task Force. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf.

Wright J. A. & Dusek, J. B. (1998). Compiling school base rates for disruptive behaviors from student disciplinary referral data. School Psychology Review. 27, 138–147.

Jim Wright

Jim Wright is a highly-acclaimed national presenter, trainer and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. He has worked for 17 years in public education as a school psychologist and school administrator. Jim has published "The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools" and is the creator of the InterventionCentral.org website.

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