School systems across the country are training teachers in multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to tackle issues like social emotional learning, mental health, and behavioral interventions. A recent study from the Institute of Education Sciences investigated the impact of multi-tiered systems of support for behavior.
The two-year study sampled eighty-nine schools within nine districts in six states. These schools were mostly large urban schools serving a majority of students from families with low incomes, Hispanic students, and students limited in their English proficiency. The sample included 25,391 grade 1–5 students in Program Year 1 and 24,842 grade 1–5 students in Program Year 2.
Schools within districts were randomly assigned to participate in the MTSS-B training and technical assistance program or be part of the control group. Half of the schools participated in the treatment and received specialized training over two years. The control group, or nonparticipant schools, proceeded with their standard practices for instruction and behavior.
The study looked primarily at two outcomes: student disruptive behavior and achievement levels. These were measured for all schools after one year of program participation and again after the second year of program participation. Student academic achievement levels were also measured the year after the study’s training and technical assistance ended to examine any potential impact. It also tracked measures of the program’s impact on classroom climate and culture, as well as its impact on prosocial behavior, attention to schoolwork, dysregulation, and internalizing behavior. And, separately, it looked at students in a subgroup identified as struggling with the most disruptive behavior, which comprised 15 percent of the sample.
The study measured these outcomes and impact measures in various ways. Student behavior was tracked via teachers’ ratings of individual student behaviors. Achievement was tracked through state assessment test scores in math and reading for grades 3–5 in the two years of the program and the year afterward. Since the research was conducted in more than one state, and all states have different assessments, the researchers adjusted scores so that they could be comparable within and between districts. School climate was measured through surveys given at the end of the program, and classroom experiences through observations conducted at the end of the program. The study also included observations of school team leaders and principals, and other staff members were interviewed to track behavior policies and practices. Finally, school behavior policy documents were reviewed during each of the two program years and the year afterward.
For students in general, the MTSS-B program was not found to significantly improve disruptive behavior. Nor did the study find any statistically significant improvements in overall student achievement.
The MTSS-B program did, however, have positive effects on both behavioral and academic outcomes for the most disruptive students. Typically, schools see an increase in disruptive behavior as the school year goes on. After the first year of the program, participating schools saw this increase in disruptive behavior reduce by about one-third. This effect persisted in the second year of the program but was not measured in the following year, meaning that we know nothing about the long-term effects of MTSS-B.
The effect on academic outcomes for this subgroup was limited to reading achievement. Students in participating schools scored just -0.16 standard deviations below the average reading achievement scores overall, which was better than the scores for the most disruptive students in the control group. This effect, however, only persisted through the second year of the program. In the year following, when participating schools utilized MTSS-B without the study’s supervision, the schools found no effect on reading achievement.
The study also found that teachers in participating schools had better control in their classrooms. For example, classroom disruptions were found to have decreased by about two instances within a fifteen-minute time period. However, this improvement in classroom management in participating schools did not translate into improvements in the measured outcomes for achievement and behavior, as discussed in previous paragraphs.
Still, it’s encouraging that MTSS-B tactics helped most disruptive students, at least for a couple years, and may help teachers manage their classrooms.
More research needs to be conducted to better understand the improvements within classrooms. Why, for example, did classroom disruptions decrease but overall behavior outcomes remained stagnant? Do the benefits for the most disruptive students persist past two years? Given the lack of benefits for everyone else, however, one might also ask whether there are more effective alternatives for these students.
SOURCE: Barbara Condliffe et al., “Study of Training in Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavior: Impacts on Elementary School Students’ Outcomes,” Institute of Education Science, U.S. Department of Education (July 2022).