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November 3rd, 2016

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

As the use of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) has become more widespread in schools, terms such as tiers, benchmarks, universal instruction, as well as strategic and intensive intervention have become familiar to many teachers. An MTSS might also be known by other terms such as Response to Intervention (RTI) or Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). All of these terms refer to a system of providing all students the instruction they need at the moment needed. Most versions of an MTSS include three tiers, or levels. Tier 1 is the universal tier and is provided to ALL students every day. Tier 1 includes the adopted curricula and related instructional methods and materials. Tier 1 is usually easy to understand, but Tiers 2 and 3 might be more confusing because they require providing specific subtypes of instruction to certain students. Teachers might wonder, “what is the difference between Tiers 2 and 3”? In general, Tier 2 is less intensive than Tier 3, but what does that really mean? There are some key principles and practices that distinguish Tiers 2 and 3 from each other.

The National Center for Response to Intervention (NCRTI) has a number of helpful resources about tiered supports. In the publication Essential Components of RTI (NCRTI, 2010), the overall framework is described in relation to how Tiers of support are levels of prevention. Specifically, each Tier is matched to a different level of prevention as follows:

  • Tier 1: Primary—efforts applied universally across all students to create optimal learning outcomes
  • Tier 2: Secondary—efforts applied for selected students in a targeted manner to reduce or eliminate learning difficulties as soon as they are identified
  • Tier 3: Tertiary—efforts applied in response to significant and chronic learning problems to improve student success as much as possible
Three Tiers of RtI

Three Tiers of MTSS/RTI

The terms primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention come from the field of public health and might not be as clear or appropriate in schools. For this reason, school-specific terms for these levels of support were developed:

  • Tier 1 = Universal or core instruction
  • Tier 2 = Targeted or strategic instruction/intervention
  • Tier 3 = Intensive instruction/intervention

This leads back to the question, what is the difference between targeted/strategic intervention and intensive intervention?

Tier 2
The NCRTI provides the following definition of Tier 2 (secondary) instruction:

Secondary prevention typically involves small-group instruction that relies on evidence-based interventions that specify the instructional procedures, duration (typically 10 to 15 weeks of 20- to 40-minute sessions), and frequency (3 or 4 times per week) of instruction. Secondary prevention has at least three distinguishing characteristics: it is evidence-based (rather than research-based); it relies entirely on adult-led small-group instruction rather than whole-class instruction; and it involves a clearly articulated, validated intervention, which should be adhered to with fidelity (NCRTI, 2010, p. 10).

This definition provides three distinguishing characteristics of Tier 2 intervention; it needs to be (a) evidence-based, (b) provided in small groups, and (c) utilize a specific intervention with fidelity. Additionally, the NCRTI definition suggests that Tier 2 interventions are typically about 20 to 40 minutes in length and occur at least three to four times per week.  

In other words, Tier 2 is likely to involve small groups of students with similar learning needs who work daily with a teacher using a specific instructional practice or program. Tier 2 instructional materials and methods are typically similar to those used for the Tier 1 core instruction. It is important to note that Tier 2 intervention is ALWAYS in addition to Tier 1 universal (core) instruction (Brown-Chidsey & Bickford, 2016). Tier 2 needs to supplement Tier 1 because students who have not yet met learning goals need more time to learn, practice, and review knowledge and skills. The good news is that when evidence-based Tier 2 interventions are used with fidelity, the majority of students who participate will make the improvements needed to reach grade-level learning goals. Nonetheless, not all Tier 2 interventions will be effective for all students who participate. In order to know whether a Tier 2 intervention is working, the instructor needs to conduct regular progress monitoring . The NCRTI recommends that Tier 2 progress monitoring be at least monthly but can be more often. FastBridge Learning recommends that Tier 2 progress monitoring be conducted weekly and has many tools that can be used for progress monitoring.

Tier 3
What about the students who do not make expected progress with Tier 1 plus Tier 2? It might be tempting to assume that such students have a disability and should be referred for a special education evaluation. However, research indicates that not all students who do not make adequate progress with the combination of Tiers 1 and 2 have disabilities. Specifically, such students often make gains when provided with instruction that is more direct, systematic, and intensive than what has been used at Tiers 1 and 2. Here is the NCRTI definition of Tier 3 intensive intervention:

Tertiary prevention, the third level of the RTI prevention framework, is the most intensive of the three levels and is individualized to target each student’s area(s) of need. At the tertiary level, the teacher begins with a more intensive version of the intervention program used in secondary prevention (e.g., longer sessions, smaller group size, more frequent sessions). However, the teacher does not presume it will meet the student’s needs. Instead, the teacher conducts frequent progress monitoring (i.e., at least weekly) with each student (NCRTI, 2010, p. 11).

Note that the NCRTI recommends that Tier 3 materials and methods start with those used at Tier 2 but in longer, more frequent sessions with fewer students; Tier 3 interventions are typically 5 days a week. Using methods and materials that are already familiar to the student has the benefit of fostering a student’s ease of recognition and engagement.

When a student does not make expected gains from Tier 3 intensive interventions that use methods and materials from Tiers 1 and 2, it might be worth exploring if a different instructional program will work. Intensive intervention often requires a significant amount of time, and there are only so many minutes in each school day. When Tier 3 intervention involves replacing Tier 1 and Tier 2 methods and materials, this is often referred to as a “replacement core” program. If a replacement core program is considered, it is ESSENTIAL that the school contact the student’s parents and obtain permission for the student to participate in alternate instruction. With parent approval in place, the school can then arrange a schedule for the Tier 3 intensive intervention. Often, Tier 3 intervention is provided during the same block of time as Tier 1 core instruction, as well as the additional time for Tier 2 intervention. Tier 3 intervention is substantially more intensive and might require additional staff and material resources. For this reason, it should be reserved for those few students whose progress data indicate that prior intervention has not been successful .

An MTSS offers teachers an organized way to support the learning needs of all their students. Tiered supports are provided along a continuum of teaching methods and materials, with Tier 1 serving as the foundation for all students. For students who do not meet learning goals with Tier 1 alone, adding Tier 2 strategic intervention often leads to success. Nonetheless, a very small number of students will need more intensive intervention in order to meet their learning goals. Tiers 2 and 3 differ in regard to the length and duration of lessons as well as how many students participate in a group. With multiple tiers of instruction available, schools can successfully meet the learning needs of most students.

Brown-Chidsey, R., & Bickford, R. (2016).   Practical handbook of multi-tiered systems of support: Building academic and behavioral success in schools.  New York: Guilford.

National Center on Response to Intervention (March 2010). Essential components of RTI – A closer look at response to intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.  Retrieved from:

Dr. Rachel Brown is FastBridge Learning’s Senior Academic Officer. She previously served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Southern Maine. Her research focuses on effective academic assessment and intervention, including multi-tier systems of support, and she has authored several books on Response to Intervention and MTSS. 

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