The Challenge Facing SEAs- Defining a Unified Vision for MTSS
By Duncan Young, CEO, Effective School Solutions & Amy Kennedy, Education Director, The Kennedy Forum
There is no greater issue facing our education system today than the degradation in student mental health outcomes, including both higher numbers of students presenting with mental health challenges, as well as increased acuity levels of students. In the face of this, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) has become the closest thing that we have to a national, unifying framework for addressing these challenges. However, while most states have issued high level guidance for districts that MTSS must be part of their planning, very few states have gone into more explicit detail to define exactly what specific interventions at specific tiers of support look like. This- defining concrete steps that can be taken to give Local Education Agencies (LEAs) a clear “mental health model” and a set of implementation guidelines for making MTSS a reality- is the fundamental implementation challenge facing today’s State Education Agencies (SEAs).
Here are three concrete steps that SEAs can take in supporting their LEAs:
Create MTSS Demonstration Sites
Many LEAs, like students, are visual learners. They will get more out of having a nearby district to visit and learn from than in reading a 400-page policy document. This means that SEAs should invest in the establishment of MTSS Demonstration Sites. Specific districts (or schools within larger districts) would receive extra funding, project management assistance, technical support, and direct clinical and professional learning assistance to create a fully functioning MTSS continuum to support school-based mental health outcomes. Importantly, this funding must go to districts that are willing to implement (with the support of external partners if necessary) the key components of a high functioning MTSS system: high quality, “wrap-around” support at the Tier 3 level, structured shorter-term interventions at the Tier 2 level, comprehensive professional learning for all educators on mental health related topics, and a sound system of universal mental health screening. Importantly, any demonstration site effort should be set up from the beginning as a research project, with a respected third-party agency involved from the outset, so that efforts can result in clear data that can drive policy.
Establish a School-Based Mental Health Best Practices Network and Associated Grant Funding
A key part of making MTSS a reality is establishing a forum for the exchange of ideas, innovations, and best practices among school districts. A School-Based Mental Health Best Practices Network is a great way to accomplish this. This is a statewide community of district leaders who will come together periodically (e.g., monthly) for professional learning and idea exchange. At each monthly meeting, a participating LEA will be selected to share an MTSS related innovation or best practice that is working for them. Another key component of this effort is a knowledge management platform- a living, breathing online repository of resource for districts. Finally, any Best Practices Network effort should have an associated grant funding program. Under this program, participating districts seeking to implement the MTSS best practices defined by the state would be eligible for $50,000-$250,000 grants to implement these innovations. These funds can complement federal dollars (e.g., school focused COVID relief funds) to enhance innovation and try new concepts to develop a fully mature MTSS framework.
Create a Statewide MTSS Playbook
It is vital that both states- and districts- have MTSS “Playbooks”: clearly defined “instruction manuals” defining the detailed standards of what specific interventions must look like at each tier of support. These playbooks- typically a 50-to-100-page document- should cover the organizational and team structure aspects of how districts manage MTSS, the referral process that guides students through the framework (with special care to ensure that it supports both general education and special education students), as well as detailed technical implementation criteria for each approved intervention in a district. In implementing MTSS, it is important that districts avoid “random acts of therapy.” The Playbook is an important way to avoid this.
In summary, the establishment of clearer standards and best practices will be part of the ongoing maturation of school-based mental health systems in our country. SEAs have a critical role to play in this and can achieve more LEA alignment around a common vision by implementing the above key steps.