Considering a multi-tiered system of support for social and emotional learning

Posted on 10th May 2020 in University Study, United States

Paul M. Reinert, Assistant Professor at Wilkes University, looks at best practice for preparing students for future challenges...

Universally, K-12 educators face the challenge and responsibility of preparing students for the world that awaits. This is especially true for high school teachers, the final line of defense between adolescence and the “real world.” In this preparation, there is an emphasis on academic achievement and an awareness of the need to educate the whole child, which includes social and emotional development. For example, in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP), students take courses in six subject areas – language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts – and complete the core, which includes the theory of knowledge, the extended essay, and creativity, activity, and service. Though instruction in social and emotional well-being (SEWB) is not explicit, it is reasoned that the generic DP curriculum creates an environment in which the social and emotional well-being of each student is enhanced (Cooker, Bailey, Stevenson, & Joseph, 2017).

Similarly, in the United States (US) the historical emphasis on academic achievement runs concurrent with an escalating focus on social and emotional learning (SEL).In fact, every state has established formal preschool SEL standards for all students, and the number of states that have SEL standards through grade 12 was expected to increase to 16 by the end of 2019 (Dusenbury, Dermody, & Weissberg, 2018). Like the IB learner profile, SEL standards identify what students should know and be able to do. What the IB profile and ESL standards do not provide are details about how the outcomes are to be achieved. To that end, a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) model for the development and delivery of social and emotional learning or social and emotional well-being is presented, with consideration given to the relevance of the model, potential barriers to the implementation of the model, and strategies for overcoming those barriers.

MTSS is a framework designed to provide instruction and support to all learners in three tiers: Tier 1 is the core curriculum and delivered to all students with the intent of achieving acceptable proficiency in academic or behavioral performance; Tier II is supplemental instruction, often in small groups, for students for whom Tier I instruction is not immediately effective; and Tier III includes intensive supports in small groups or individually to increase student growth (Averill & Rinaldi, 2013; MTSS Implementation Components, 2012).

In the model proposed, a Tier I curriculum of social and emotional skills would be taught to all students. The course would teach skills that students could use to manage stress, regulate emotions, and develop and maintain effective interpersonal relationships (Mazza, Dexter-Mazza, Miller, Rathus, & Murphy, 2016). In addition, all school staff – including administrators, faculty, counselors, and paraprofessionals - would be taught the vocabulary, main ideas, strategies, and skills that comprise the curriculum, enabling all staff to support students in school, at home, and in the community.

Following the MTSS model, with all staff and counselors aware of the curriculum, key staff members would provide Tier II and Tier III interventions for students who need additional behavioral or emotional support. These additional supports would be informed by and built upon the skills that each student has learned in their universal SEL class. Tier II and Tier III interventions would take the form of additional instruction or review of appropriate skills, skills coaching and practice in small groups of targeted students, or individually with students who need intensive support. Ideally, this curriculum would be taught, and the Tier II and Tier III supports provided, in the late middle school or early high school years.

Regardless of geography, there is a need for competence in social and emotional learning or well-being skills, particularly for students between the ages of 10 and 19. Worldwide, adolescence is acknowledged as a time of turmoil during which mental health and social and emotional difficulties contribute to behavioral problems, academic underachievement, and engagement in risky behaviors (World Health Organization, 2017). As students transition to US colleges and universities, many will confront unprecedented stressors that may influence their behavior, academic achievement, and overall well-being. College, particularly the initial year, is a time of high risk for developing or increasing anxiety. In 2017-2018, 63% students in US colleges reported overwhelming anxiety and 23% reported diagnosis of, or treatment for, anxiety (LeBlanc & Marques, 2019). Levels of reported anxiety, depression, and stress increase during the first semester and remain high through the second semester of college (LeBlanc & Marques, 2019). Helping students develop social and emotional competence before they leave the security of high school seems an effective course of action.

Even effective courses of actions can face barriers. Obstacles to implementing an MTSS model for SEL and SEWB might include competition with the demands of existing curricular requirements. A universal SEL curriculum might have to replace something, perhaps an entire course or a component of an existing course. Determining what to replace will likely require overcoming resistance. Deciding when to teach the course and who will teach it may necessitate negotiation. Identifying outcomes, developing curriculum and materials, and providing professional development to staff will call for resources, including time. Counselors and other student support personnel may need to adapt their approach and already demanding schedules to provide the proposed Tier II and Tier III supports. Involving and informing stakeholders, including caregivers, requires skillful communication.

Barriers can be overcome. Effective leadership that reveals the alignment of the SEL model with mission and vision, connects the expected outcomes to existing goals and initiatives, and demonstrates the present and future value to the students can help create stakeholder acceptance and support. Providing the resources needed for curriculum development and scheduling reflects the commitment of leadership and enables those responsible for implementing the model to be effective from design to delivery. Supporting implementation that allows for growth and monitors effectiveness provides for continuous improvement of the model.

A multi-tiered system of support can help students achieve SEL and SEWB outcomes in the present and prepare those same students for the world that awaits.

Paul Reinert is an associate professor of education in Wilkes University’s doctor of education degree. The Wilkes Ed.D. in Educational Leadership is specifically designed for international teachers and leaders who want to improve education around the world. Students in the program enjoy online learning combined with three, four-day residencies at international sites throughout the world, including Panama City, Dubai and the United States. Learn more at


Averill, O. & Rinaldi, C. (2013). Multi-tier System of Supports: A Description of RTI and PBIS Models for District Administrators. District Administrator.

Cooker, L., Bailey, L., Stevenson, H. & Joseph, S. (2017). Social and Emotional Well Being in IB Schools. Nottingham, UK: University of Nottingham.

Dusenbury, L., Dermody, C. & Weissberg, R. (2018). 2018 Scorecard Scan. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

LeBlanc, N. & Marques, L. (2019). Anxiety in College: What We Know and how to Cope. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing:

Mazza, J., Dexter-Mazza, E., Miller, A., Rathus, J. & Murphy, H. (2016). DBT Steps in School: Skills Training for Emotional Problem Solving for Adolescents (DBT STEPS-A). New York: The Guilford Press.

MTSS Implementation Components. (2012). Retrieved from Florida RtI:

World Health Organization. (2017). Mental health status of adolescents in South-East Asia: Evidence for action. New Delhi: World Health Organization