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Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau
May 9, 2021

What is the relationship between PBIS, RTI, and MTSS?

Larry Bird was one of the greatest basketball players of his time. He played in the NBA from 1979 to 1992 after an incredible career at Indiana State University. What was unique about Bird was how incredibly well-rounded he was as a player. Bird had a lethal jump shot, great court awareness, he was a phenomenal passer and had incredible hustle. I watched his career from start to finish and even had a chance to work with him on a TV commercial in the late 1980s.  He was not only an incredible player but he was also the only person in NBA history to be named Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, NBA Finals MVP, All-Star MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. That is a whole new level of “well-rounded.”

Imagine if we looked at Bird’s skills as being independent of each other. It wasn’t his mechanics that made him great, it was his whole game and presence.  He needed to dribble to get open for a shot. He needed to follow up his shot to grab a rebound. He had to know where his teammates were for a no-look pass. All of his skills were so interconnected that we can’t isolate them. He is widely regarded as one of the best players to ever play the game because he was such a complete player.

In education, we have to look at our systems the same way.

Education requires that schools and districts support all students in inclusive and equitable ways and to look at the whole student. To do that, there are numerous frameworks and systems that need to be put in place. Instead of looking at these frameworks as being independent, or worse, competing, it’s important that we pull them together. For Larry Bird, the umbrella term was “basketball.” We advocate that districts help to connect critical initiatives under the umbrella “multi-tiered systems of support.” In this post, we will discuss specifically how PBIS and RTI need to be embedded into multi-tiered systems.

PBIS, RTI, and MTSS are all three-tiered systems that start with a universal base where all students receive support in inclusive and equitable classroom settings. All are scientifically based and data-driven. PBIS is primarily concerned with supporting students’ behavioral needs and can expand to academics and social-emotional needs as the three domains are interconnected. RTI is focused on meeting the academic and behavioral needs of students to determine which students may be eligible for additional services. MTSS encompasses both of these frameworks to meet the holistic needs of all students and provide additional support and challenge when students need it. 


   Acronym Guide:

  • PBIS: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports 
  • RTI: Response to Intervention
  • MTSS: Multi-tiered systems of support


Oftentimes, RTI and PBIS are perceived to be working independently of each other. This has often led to competing interventions instead of coordinated support (Miller, 2015). To help integrate all evidence-based practices to ensure that students get what they need, when they need it, think of MTSS as an “umbrella network” that requires collaboration between all services. MTSS is the Larry Bird of education.

There is a lot of overlap between these three frameworks and all systems could be used together but due to the evolution of these three frameworks, MTSS should be the system used now.  In many states and school districts, MTSS is also used as a means for providing equity and as such it makes a perfect connection to Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

There seems to be a lot of confusion about all three of these frameworks. Let’s unpack them in more detail.


Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is “an evidence-based three-tiered framework behavior system that is used  to improve and integrate all of the data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes every day.”

The three tiers of PBIS are:

  • Tier 1 – Universal Supports/Practices 
  • Tier 2 – Targeted Supports
  • Tier 3 – Intensive Supports

PBIS.org notes, “Tier 1 practices and systems establish a foundation of regular, proactive support while preventing unwanted behaviors. Schools provide these universal supports to all students, school-wide. Tier 2 practices and systems support students who are at risk for developing more serious problem behaviors before those behaviors start. These supports help students develop the skills they need to benefit from core programs at the school. At Tier 3, students receive more intensive, individualized support to improve their behavioral and academic outcomes. At this level, schools rely on formal assessments to determine a student’s need.”

PBIS was first funded by the US Department of Education in 1998 to: 

  • scale up tier 2 and 3 systems to improve outcomes for students with or at-risk for disabilities
  • enhance school climate and school safety, and 
  • improve conditions for learning to promote the well-being of all students.


PBIS Graphic


Response to Intervention RTI “is a multi-tiered approach to help struggling learners. Students' progress is closely monitored at each stage of intervention to determine the need for further research-based instruction and/or intervention in general education, in special education, or both.”(RTI Network)  “The word intervention is key to understanding what RTI is all about. The goal is for the school to intervene, or step in, and start helping before anyone falls really far behind. RTI isn’t a specific program or type of teaching. It’s a proactive approach to measuring students’ skills and using this data to decide which types of targeted teaching to use”(understood.org).

The three tiers of RTI are:

  • Tier 1 – Core classroom instruction
  • Tier 2 – Targeted small group instruction
  • Tier 3 – Intensive individual intervention

RTI Tiers

RTI has four essential components:

  • High-quality, scientifically based classroom instruction
  • Ongoing student assessment
  • Tiered instruction
  • Parent involvement

In some districts, RTI has become a hoop to jump through to get an IEP for special education. As I stated in one of our previous blogs, “One of the biggest shortcomings of RTI is that educators and systems often supplant high-quality Tier 1 instruction with Tier 2 or Tier 3 instruction. RTI also has a particular focus on the academic needs of the student and oftentimes fails to consider the whole child or the systematic barriers that prevent this model from being successful.”


Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is also a three-tiered framework used to provide targeted support for students in academics, behavioral and social-emotional areas.  All students receive Tier 1 services and are given primary support in inclusive classrooms. Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports are supplements to Tier 1 and do not supplant Tier 1.  Some students receive additional services as Tier 2 supports in class or in special settings.  A smaller group of students receive Tier 3 supports in class or in special settings.  None of the tiers are synonymous with special education. 

Harlacher et al. (2014) described six key tenets of the MTSS framework:  

  • All students are capable of grade-level learning with adequate support.  
  • MTSS is rooted in proactivity and prevention.  
  • The system utilizes evidence-based practices.  
  • Decisions and procedures are driven by school and student data.  
  • The degree of support given to students is based on their needs. 
  • Implementation occurs school-wide and requires stakeholder collaboration.

MTSS is a distinct approach that builds upon the original concept of tiered support, as with RTI, but is more proactive. MTSS, unlike RTI, addresses systematic barriers and conditions for both students and educators. Novak Education had the pleasure of working with the Massachusetts Department of Education to help to develop the state MTSS Blueprint. If you need assistance with implementing your multi-tiered system of support, we can provide some guidance. Learn more about our professional development and long-term implementation assistance programs here.

MTSS graphicCaption: 2019, Massachusetts Multi-Tiered System of Support Visual,Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Novak Educational Consulting, RECA

2019, Massachusetts Multi-Tiered System of Support Visual, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Novak Educational Consulting, RECA 

So, like Larry Bird, MTSS is a well-rounded player in the “game” of education. It looks at the whole child regardless of variability.  It sees everything that a student presents, all work, all behavior, culture, attitude, and community as a connected whole with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the student gets what he/she/they need when they need it.  When Larry Bird needs to make a play, he has all the tools he needs. In a robust, comprehensive multi-tiered system, educators should also have the skills, resources, and support to give students what they need to be successful. There is nothing quite like watching Bird going down the court, after picking up a loose ball and throwing a pass between two defenders to Kevin Mchale for an easy layup to win the game. Well, except all kids learning at high levels. That wins every time.


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