Making SEL a Cornerstone of Your MTSS Success Plan

Co-author: Dana Murano, PhD

We all know that selecting the right path for social and emotional learning (SEL) implementation can be a daunting task. With countless SEL offerings on the market, selecting and implementing the right program for your school or district can quickly become overwhelming.

Luckily, industry experts at CASEL have made everyone’s job a bit easier by outlining four of the most common approaches to SEL implementation: free-standing SEL lessons, targeted teaching practices, integration of SEL lessons into academic curriculum, and universal culture and climate initiatives.

While each of these four approaches has its merits, universal SEL initiatives that include SEL lessons, teaching practice, and academic integration are the most effective at positively influencing school culture and academic achievement. A key factor to consider in implementing universal SEL initiatives is how they can align with higher-level district priorities.

Why consider district priorities?

Aligning SEL goals with higher-level district initiatives means improving SEL’s sustainability. The closer an SEL initiative gets to becoming an integrated part of a district, the more likely the initiative is to gain momentum and result in changes in staffing, budget, and long-term planning. One way to help an SEL initiative find its feet is to determine whether there’s an “easy fit,” or a neat and coherent way to tie together SEL goals and pre-existing district priorities.

A common “easy fit” is to pair SEL with a pre-existing multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) framework. Why? Because when it’s done well, as we explain below, the results can be widespread and long withstanding — often prompting pervasive changes in academics and school culture.

Integrating SEL and MTSS

MTSS is an approach that schools can use in order to provide appropriate levels of support to all students through evidence-based interventions.  The goal of an MTSS approach is to ensure that all students receive supports that are matched to their needs, which are categorized based on a three-tiered system.

MTSS Framework
In an MTSS framework, about 80% of students fall into Tier 1, 15% of students fall into Tier 2, and 5% of students fall into Tier 3.

One of the most common misconceptions about SEL programs is that they’re best utilized as solely Tier 2 or 3 -level MTSS interventions. Admittedly, this approach can, under very specific circumstances, be an appropriate SEL implementation tactic, yet when it comes to driving desirable outcomes, it can be effective to invest in building out a universal SEL initiative that’s rooted in Tier 1 interventions. With this approach, SEL touches every student in every classroom — and gives them a strong foundation for academic and interpersonal success. An SEL approach that encompasses all three tiers of an MTSS framework can be an effective and sustainable way to implement SEL within your school.

What does MTSS & SEL integration look like?

SEL as a Tier 1 Intervention

Tier 1 MTSS interventions take place in general education classrooms. In these settings, students can learn social and emotional skills that help them perform better academically and prepare themselves for future contributions in adulthood. Research shows that universal SEL interventions, which are aimed to help all students at all levels develop social and emotional skills, are very effective in improving students’ skill, attitudes, and academic performance. SEL at the universal level consists of interventions that are delivered to all students within a general education classroom. They can either be taught as stand-alone SEL lessons during class time or embedded into academic content areas. With this Tier 1 approach, SEL becomes a priority for all students within the school.

SEL as a Tier 2 Intervention

Typically, students who receive Tier 2 interventions spend most of their days in a general education setting but receive small-group instruction to address areas of identified need. Students in Tier 2 receive small-group lessons that focus on redirection strategies for problem behaviors and setting individual behavior goals. During general instruction time, teachers reinforce these strategies and goals so that the student receives a continuum of support in every setting. SEL—with its focus on emotional regulation, positive self-concept, and relationship building – is critical for students who receive Tier 2 MTSS interventions and can be delivered in these targeted settings. Teachers and counselors can focus small-group instruction on students’ demonstrated areas of need.

SEL as a Tier 3 Intervention

When students do not show improvement with Tier 2 interventions, they may need more intensive Tier 3 supports. At this level, schools recognize that students have a high risk of failure due to academic, social, or behavioral challenges. At Tier 3, the frequency and intensity of interventions increases, often resulting in daily individualized or small-group instruction. Practices such as Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA) or Behavior Improvement Plans (BIP) are common tools. Both of these processes help students and school staff identify specific target behaviors and work to resolve them. Targeted SEL interventions that focus on listening, identifying and controlling emotions, and using structured problem-solving methods can complement Tier 3 behavioral strategies.

At all levels, schools can leverage data from SEL assessments to help inform decisions made around curricula and intervention support. At Tier 1, schools can make decisions for school-wide curricula and initiatives based on aggregate school- or grade-level data. At Tiers 2 and 3, school staff can use individual student-level data obtained from SEL assessments to select curricula and interventions that are best fit to the needs of individual students. For example, if a student’s assessment results show emotion regulation as an area of need, counselors and teachers could employ emotion regulation tools and techniques with this student during small-group or 1:1 instructional opportunities.

How Can I Learn More?

Mawi Learning and ACT have produced several resources to help you learn more about MTSS, how it can benefit students in your school, particularly during the middle school years, and how you can make a plan to integrate SEL into MTSS within your school. Check out this eBook, a quick read that provides an overview of MTSS and SEL for middle school students, and this white paper, which provides more of the research evidence on SEL, MTSS, and how these systems can provide support to your students during the middle school years.