Summary: Overcoming Barriers to MTSS

Schools use Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS) to impact the performance of students, especially those having difficulties in school. Let’s take a quick look at five barriers to MTSS implementation and discover how to overcome each one.

Barrier 1

There is an overreliance on interventions to overcome each student’s lack of proficiency.

Recommendation: It is important to evaluate and improve core instructional issues as part of an MTSS plan (Burns et al., 2016).

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress provided a call for help among teachers in the U.S. Only 35% of fourth graders met proficiency in math and only 32% met proficiency in reading. And by eighth grade, the scores declined further. These data show that there is a strong need for improved core instruction in math and reading as well as targeted interventions.

Schools and districts must choose impactful core instruction programs that are matched to the needs of students.

Barrier 2

The evidence-based intervention used isn’t working as well as it should.

Recommendation: Follow research protocols with fidelity.

Research studies tend to focus on a narrow set of standards and constructs. When we adapt these interventions to align with our students’ needs, the implementation and the results will vary from the studies we researched.

One way to address this is to focus an intervention on the exact content focus of the intervention research, and build from there.

Barrier 3

Not everyone believes that all students will learn grade-level standards.

Recommendation: Set grade-level goals as a minimum for all learners.

Students tend to rise to high expectations that are set for them. These same expectations will help to build a student’s self-determinism. The self‑determinism of youth with disabilities is associated with positive postsecondary outcomes (Wehmeyer, 2014).

We can support student success using the following guidelines:


  • Believe that students will exceed your expectations
  • Teach grade-level standards or approximations of those standards
  • Set goals with students and their families
  • Make everyone responsible for MTSS planning and implementation


  • Let self-fulfilling prophecy creep into your attitudes and beliefs
  • Avoid grade-level standards because students might not be ready to learn
  • Assume students and their families don’t have high expectations and don’t need to
  • Reserve MTSS responsibilities for special educators or interventionists

Rather than just saying that we have high expectations for each student, the team must also take actions to demonstrate the belief that students can succeed. These include:

  1. Involving students in progress monitoring reflection and goal setting.
  2. Asking students high-level questions.
  3. Building approximations of standards.
Barrier 4

Time on assessment isn’t spent targeting impactful skills.

Recommendation: Focus time on assessment to target student needs.

Several types of assessment drive MTSS decision-making. For example, screening determines who needs assistance and who is achieving. Progress monitoring shows how well a student is progressing in content between screening benchmarks. Diagnostics, though used far less consistently, help an intervention team determine the specific needs of the student to gain proficiency in grade-level standards. Therefore, diagnostics should be used across interventions and core instruction.

Formative assessments can help refine a student’s intervention content. For math, consider a formative assessment checklist based on the subskills of a math construct (Witzel & Little, 2016). For example, if you are teaching addition of two-digit numbers using place value, then the steps might be:

  1. Expand the addends by tens and ones
  2. Sum the number of tens
  3. Sum the number of ones
  4. Combine the tens and ones to conclude your answer

The checklist would show these steps and reasoning to determine common errors among students. The teacher collects this data in a small group of students to determine what they are doing to solve a problem.

Barrier 5

Students make gains in intervention but not in core instruction.

Recommendation: Connect intervention to core standards.

When a student receives intervention in a particular content, the intervention is often provided in isolation from the core content. While there are logistical and instructional purposes for this, students may feel that interventions are disconnected from core content. As a result, students may believe that intervention and core are two separate lessons on the same content.

Two ideas to help make the connection between core and intervention are using preteaching and worked examples.

Download our white paper for a more in-depth examination of these barriers to implementing MTSS and how to overcome them from Dr. Bradley S. Witzel, author of Rigor in the RTI and MTSS Classroom: Practical Tools and Strategies (2018).


Blackburn, B. R., & Witzel, B. S. (2018). Rigor in the RTI and MTSS classroom: Practical tools and strategies. Routledge.

Burns, M. K., Pulles, S. M., Helman, L., & McComas, J. (2016). Assessment-based intervention frameworks: An example of a Tier 1 reading intervention in an urban school. In S. L. Graves & J. J. Blake (Eds.), Psychoeducational assessment and intervention for ethnic minority children: Evidence-based approaches (pp. 165–182). American Psychological Association.

Wehmeyer, M. L. (2014). Framing the future: Self-determination. Remedial and Special Education, 36(1), 20–23.

Witzel, B. S., & Little, M. E. (2016). Teaching elementary mathematics to struggling students. Guilford.