Whether your district calls it PBIS, RTI-B, or MTSS-B, chances are, you are providing your students with levels of support. This is a good thing! That said, it’s also another set of things to learn and implement. Especially because it’s often on top of academic MTSS/RTI, and this wasn’t always covered in grad school. The good news is that you’re already likely doing the biggest pieces of this! The bad news is that it’s still a lot in some ways. In this post, I’m sharing some information on MTSS and school counseling. It’s focused mostly on MTSS-B, but we’ll start off with some basics and our role in MTSS-A.
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I’ll mention this again later, but it’s impossible (and in my opinion, unethical) to have a conversation about school counseling and MTSS without acknowledging something very important: districts and schools vary greatly in their staffing, ratios, trainings, and policies. Sometimes “best practices” are not feasible or not a match for every building.
*Note: This will be a living, evolving blog post. As I get more Qs, folk tell me what would be helpful, etc. I will add to it!
MTSS 101 (Lingo and Basics)
MTSS stands for Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. It’s a way to plan and conceptualize programming and interventions. One purpose is to make sure that we don’t dive right into special education evaluations and services before first trying other supports. Another purpose is to ensure students receive the targeted support they (might) need.
A key idea is that all students receive Tier 1. This is what core curriculum the school provides through academic instruction, and whatever behavior management system is used schoolwide. Data is used to determine who is “responding” to this Tier 1, and theoretically, 80-85% of students should.
Students who are not responding (significantly behind academically, below average attendance, multiple office referrals, etc.) then receive Tier 2 support. Tier 2 means things targeted a little more to the students’ needs, and requires a little more people power/staffing. It is often delivered in a small group format.
Tier 3 is for the 5ish% students who don’t respond to Tier 2 supports or whose data indicates a high-risk need from the beginning. Tier 3 supports are individualized and often provided one-on-one (or in a much smaller group). These are more intensive and require the most school resources (people power and time).
Some districts also use the verbiage of Tier 4 to describe the accommodations, modifications, and supports that students with IEPs (and/or Section 504 Plans) receive.
The data within MTSS, particularly for academics, usually includes a universal screener administered 3 times a year. This screener determine if students are at low risk, moderate risk, or high risk for developing more significant issues. Students receiving support(s) are often progress monitored. This means weekly or biweekly data collection (ideally specific to their goals) that measures if they are showing progress or not. This can look the same or different for emotional/behavioral concerns, which we will talk about more later!
School Counselors and MTSS-A
The school counselor’s most common role in MTSS for academics is through Child Find. That’s one of the names for the process of identifying students with suspected disabilities. Every district has its own process and name, but it usually involves the counselor coordinating and leading support team meetings. These meetings are for discussing specific students’ struggles and developing intervention plans for them. These plans usually include academic intervention in the form of tiered help during the day, but they might also include accommodations (extended time, read aloud, etc.). When students receiving support don’t show (enough) progress, the team may bring in the school psychologist to discuss a psychoeducational evaluation. It’s not always the school counselor that coordinates and facilitates these meetings – it can also be an administrator or instructional specialist.
School counselors also have a role in academic MTSS (or RTI) in helping to determine if there are social, emotional, behavioral, or attendance issues that are causing or contributing to the academic deficits. If so, counselors take the lead in coordinating and implementing the appropriate interventions.
What is MTSS-B and what are the supports?
MTSS-B is tiered systems of support for behavioral (and sometimes social and emotional) concerns. When it first originated, it had more of a focus on externalizing behavior concerns. Thankfully, many schools and districts are beginning to include social and emotional concerns as well.
The services, supports, and programming at each tier varies by school need and often by school staffing. Here are some common things included:
- Schoolwide expectations modeled and practiced (PBIS)
- Acknowledgment system (such as points and rewards)
- Proactive community meetings
- Explicit SEL lessons
- Daily mindfulness activities
- Peace corners in each classroom
- Check In/Check Out
- Small group counseling
- Mentoring programs
- Flexible seating
- Sensory tools
- Break cards
- School jobs
- Restorative circles and conferences
- *Some people consider short-term individual counseling to be a tier 2 intervention, some consider it tier 3
- Individual ongoing counseling
- Individualized behavior plans
- Alternate schedule
- Crisis intervention
- *Consultation with stakeholders (ASCA considers this tier 3 but I personally consider it tier 2)
There are not always hard lines between the tiers. Some things can be fluid depending on the situation. For example, a classwide intervention can be considered tier 1 because it’s for all the students in a class. Or, it can be considered tier 2 because it’s targeting that class (vs. the whole school or whole grade). That’s okay! What’s important, at the end of the day, isn’t labels. It’s about all students getting what they need to be successful.
While many schools use emotional behavioral universal screeners (I have a whole post about that!), you can also use data like office referrals, counseling referrals, and PBIS rewards to make data-based decisions about who needs additional support, and also about movement between the tiers. You also might be in a situation where you don’t have great data to use and instead rely on your own clinical judgment paired with faculty consultation – and that’s okay, too. We start with what we have!
Progress monitoring can look like the daily report card in Check In/Check Out, it can be from a software (such as SAEBRS or FASTBridge) that your district has purchased, or it can be something you create specific to the goals of the intervention. This post about measuring the effectiveness of group counseling gives more ideas and information about that.
MTSS-B Support Services Meetings
Our district has biweekly (used to be monthly or bi-monthly) meetings with the following staff: admin, counselors, social worker, behavior specialist, and school-based therapist. In these meetings, we review new data (attendance and discipline), discuss new referrals, and share any updates or concerns about students that we think the team needs to know about. Our social worker, behavior specialist, and school-based therapist all serve multiple schools and these meetings allow us to check in with one another more since we are less likely to catch each other in person. Real talk: Because these are all faculty members that regularly get pulled for crises and “crises” (you know what I mean), we rarely had meetings with everyone in attendance. We just had an agreement or system where if someone couldn’t come, they would email the MTSS-B coordinator (me!) with any needed updates or concerns.
Some districts also include their school psychs in these meetings if they provide counseling or behavioral interventions as well. In my experience, and from talking with others, these meetings are a little more valuable in middle or high school settings where student support staff are less likely to be regularly communicating, there are even more students in the building, and it’s easier for students to slip through the cracks.
MTSS-B Data Team Meetings
MTSS-B Data Team Meetings are meetings to discuss either universal screener data (which would include all relevant faculty, including grade level teachers) or to discuss progress monitoring data. I wrote in detail here about the meetings for discussing screener data and planning interventions.
In an ideal MTSS model, there would be teams that meet every 4-6 weeks to discuss whatever data is being used to guide intervention and make any needed changes. Some schools have tier 1 teams and tier 2/3 teams.
Here are some examples of what might happen in one of these MTSS-B data meetings (other than for discussing new screener data):
- Reviewing CICO data to see if anyone is ready to be weaned down or if anyone needs troubleshooting (new mentor, reminders to homeroom teachers, tweaked expectations, etc.)
- Reviewing small group post-survey data to determine if any students need to be referred for outside/more intensive therapy
- Analyzing office referral data to see if any students need a behavior specialist referral
- Checking for patterns in schoolwide tier 1 PBIS data that might indicate a need for reviewing expectations more in a specific location, teachers who need additional classroom management support, etc.
A counselor reached out to me recently to say that while they don’t lead MTSS-B meetings, they do go as a participant, and they weren’t sure what information they should bring with them. Here’s what I would bring:
- Information about any students currently receiving interventions that I coordinate or deliver, including any relevant data
- Names of students I’m concerned about but don’t currently provide an intervention for
- Questions about any trends providers are seeing in specific classrooms or grade levels
MTSS-B and School Counseling
There are some people who will tell you “THIS IS THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR’S ROLE IN MTSS-B.” I can’t do that. I don’t know your school, your district, their policies, the other student support faculty you work with, etc. And all of that matters! Like so many pieces of our jobs, a lot depends on context.
At some sites, the school counselor is the only one doing anything/everything with MTSS-B. At others, there is a behavior specialist who leads everything and there are teams for each tier. Sometimes, the admin is super supportive of MTSS-B. Other times, their mental investment is still developing.
Some schools have school-based therapists. Some cities have super long wait lists for children’s mental health clinicians. There are schools with full-time BCBAs, and there are districts with zero. Social workers provide direct counseling services in some schools. Some schools have teachers delivering explicit SEL lessons every week.
All that to say that without knowing your specific circumstances, I can’t tell you exactly what you’re responsible for or what you “should” be doing for MTSS-B. If you want what ASCA considers to be best practices in that realm, maybe to share with your admin, they have a position statement about it.
School Counselor Roles in MTSS
Here is a list of possible roles for school counselors within MTSS:
- Child Find coordinator
- MTSS-B coordinator/facilitator
- Class SEL lessons
- Group counseling
- Short-term individual counseling
- PBIS team member
- Consulting and collaborating with teachers on behavior interventions and classroom accommodations
- Providing relevant faculty/staff trainings
I created an (editable) presentation for sharing about the role of the school counselor with faculty/staff. In it are some slides breaking down our role in the tiers, filled in with some suggestions. Sharing these below if that’s helpful for you as you’re conceptualizing all of this:
It also includes slides about how the school counselor’s role compares to that of the school social worker, school psychologist, etc. Again, this is super site-dependent, but I’m sharing a few of those slides here as well.
Ways School Counselors Can Be Involved No Matter the Situation:
- When talking to teachers about social, emotional, or behavioral issues, consider using the language of RTI/MTSS. Things like “it seems they’re at moderate risk for developing more significant issues with this in the future, so it would be appropriate to support them with a tier 2 intervention.” Or “let’s collect/look at some data to help us determine our next plan of action.”
- Using the language might also look like reminding them you don’t have a magic wand: “You know how we give a student 4-6 weeks in their academic intervention before evaluating the data to see if they’ve made progress? We need to give this emotional intervention some time as well.”
- Ask yourself what supports your school is already implementing at each tier. If there isn’t much, consider a conversation with your admin about how students might be more successful if the school used a more comprehensive system of supports.
- If you’re not already using CICO and group counseling in your program, I encourage you to find a way to start building them in. They are both evidence-based tier 2 interventions that fall into our wheelhouse, and they are a way to provide high impact support for multiple students at a time.
- Everybody, eeeeeeverybody gets tier 1. Tier 2 and tier 3 services are for students with a demonstrated need (and if you have data, it’s easier to be objective with this). These two concepts are important when you’re getting an overwhelming number of referrals. It could truly be that all those kiddos truly need additional support. It could also be that tier 1 programming isn’t being fully implemented. Or that your teachers need help distinguishing between need and would benefit.
- One way to rev up your school’s MTSS-B could be by focusing any PDs or trainings you do with faculty on different things in the tiers. For example: restorative practices, de-escalation strategies, CICO, classroom coping skills, logical consequences, building class community, etc.
I’ll end this post (for now!) with a graphic about MTSS-B. If you click it, it will take you to a PDF of it you can download if that’s helpful for you.