By Barbara Bole Williams, Ph.D., NCSP

Let’s imagine the following scenario: You are a middle-school student who has just transferred into a new school midway through the school year. You and your family have moved 400 miles from a midwestern state to New Jersey. What might you be thinking and feeling as you enter your new school that first morning?

Are you thinking, “Boy, I can’t wait to continue learning about the American Revolution in social studies,” or, “Now that I’ve mastered division with fractions, I hope I get a chance to use it.”

Probably not. More likely you are wondering, “Will I be able to make new friends?” “Is this school an accepting place for newcomers?” “Will my teachers welcome me as a new student?” and “Will I be bullied and threatened?”

Essentially, this hypothetical middle school student is asking questions about the social/emotional/behavioral climate within his or her new school. The student is wondering if the new school is a healthy learning environment to which he or she can adjust emotionally and socially and be able to learn.

Healthy learning environments

What are the policies and practices that help schools become healthier, more effective learning environments for students? Many of these factors will not surprise you. According to the National Association of School Psychologists the following are common school-based themes that promote improved student behavior and learning:

• Positive school climate.

• Effective discipline practices.

• Bullying and harassment prevention.

• Social-emotional learning.

• Promotion of student wellness programs.

• Drop-out prevention.

• School safety.

• Positive behavioral interventions and supports.

• Access to specialized instructional support personnel and school-based mental health services.

• Learning support programs for struggling learners.

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As its name implies, the language of ESSA includes an emphasis on providing educational services to all students. The National Association of School Psychologists identified the following themes of ESSA as key initiatives to promote services to all students:

1. Effective, coordinated use of data that informs instruction, student and school outcomes, and school accountability.

2. Comprehensive, rigorous curricula provided to all students.

3. Effective coordination of services across systems and within schools.

4. Provision of evidence-based comprehensive learning supports.

5. Integration of comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services into learning supports.

6. Integration of school climate and safety efforts into school improvement efforts.

7. Provision of high-quality, relevant professional development.

8. Maintaining a comprehensive accountability system.

ESSA places an emphasis on high-quality instruction, professional development for teachers and other staff, and comprehensive learning supports based on the unique needs of the school community. ESSA also promotes a multi-tiered system of support as a method of delivering services to all students.

What are multi-tiered systems of supports?

MTSS is an evidenced-based, multi-tiered framework for effectively integrating multiple systems and services to simultaneously address students’ academic achievement, behavior and social-emotional well-being. Consistent with the goals of ESSA, MTSS expands the school’s capacity to provide strategies for improving academic, mental health, and behavioral health outcomes for all students, while also helping to create safe and supportive learning environments free of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

These goals are accomplished through a three-tiered system that provides universal, targeted and intensive supports. Specifically, varying levels of supports, or tiers, are defined as:

• Tier I universal supports: evidence-based instruction and programs are available to all students.

• Tier 2 targeted supports: available to those students who, despite being exposed to Tier 1 instruction, require additional assistance/instruction through services such as small-group counseling, tutoring and targeting behavioral skills training.

• Tier 3 intensive supports: provided for those students whose needs have not been resolved through either Tier 1 or Tier 2, and who continue to require individualized interventions, e.g., individualized assessment and instruction, community-based, after-school wraparound services, etc.

Plans to implement MTSS within New Jersey public schools

Guided by models of MTSS within other states and based upon evidence-based practice, the New Jersey Department of Education is planning to implement its own brand of MTSS within New Jersey schools. Referred to as New Jersey Tiered Systems of Support (NJTSS), an NJTSS Development Team of approximately 30 people has been formed to assist with planning.

Under the leadership of members of the New Jersey Department of Education, the Development Team is a combination of district-level teachers and administrators, child study team members with experience implementing MTSS, representatives from parent and community groups, as well as representatives from New Jersey universities.

The Development Team met throughout the 2015-16 school year and continues to meet this year. The collaborative efforts among these various stakeholders have resulted in establishing a solid foundation for the work ahead to prepare New Jersey school districts to implement NJTSS.

First and foremost, members of the Development Team learned from a review of the research in the area of MTSS that it takes approximately five years for a district to plan and transition to full implementation of NJTSS. For those interested in reviewing the progress of our state’s planning for NJTSS, visit the NJTSS website at www.state.nj.us/education/njtss. There you will find this statement explaining the structure and purpose of NJTSS:

NJTSS is a framework of supports and interventions to improve student achievement, based on the core components of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and the three-tiered preventive logic of Response to Intervention (RTI). With a foundation of strong district and school leadership, a positive school culture and climate and family and community engagement, NJTSS builds on Intervention and Referral Services (I&RS) and gives schools structure to meet the academic, behavioral, health, enrichment and social/emotional needs of students. 

Within the three-tiered model of delivery of services and supports, some common characteristics are inherent within the interventions at each of the tiers.

Tier 1

According to the NJDOE, Tier 1 at the universal level provides “high-quality learning environments, evidence-based curricular and instructional practices, and a continuum of supports and interventions” for all students within general education classes.

Examples of Tier 1 universal supports include but are not limited to:

• Evidence-based curricula in all academic areas with an emphasis on language arts and math.

• Universal academic screening of all students to assess the students’ needs.

• Ongoing progress monitoring within a response-to-intervention (RTI) model with appropriate methodologies.

• Collaborative approaches to plan, implement and evaluate evidence-based interventions to improve school climate and increase social, emotional, behavioral and academic competencies for all students.

• Implementation of a system of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) as a specific example of a universal-level intervention to address social/emotional/mental health/behavioral functioning.

• Implementation of data-based decision-making throughout the universal academic and social/emotional/mental health/behavioral interventions in order to monitor students’ responses and growth.

• Professional development offered to teachers and other personnel to provide ongoing training in evidence-based intervention and programs in both academic and social/emotional areas.

• Safe-school infrastructure including policies, procedures and practices that support school safety.

• Instruction delivered to students with identified needs, e.g. English language learners.

Tier 2

At Tier 2, students have access to “supplemental supports and interventions that may be delivered in small-group instruction, provided in either the general classroom or during an intervention period.” These are additional services, beyond the universal level, designed to intervene with students at risk for learning and behavioral problems.

Examples of Tier 2 targeted supports would include:

• Evidence-based practices and interventions to provide targeted instruction in areas of demonstrated student needs through small-group services.

• Additional teacher and other personnel professional development, as needed.

• Family partnerships.

• Increase in intensity, frequency and duration of services based upon demonstrated student need.

• Continued and more frequent progress monitoring.

• Adherence to data-based decision-making.

Tier 3

At Tier 3, services are designed to be intensive supports and instruction to address continued student needs. Often these services are provided individually or on a pull-out-of-classroom basis. These may be adaptations of supports and interventions for the students, based upon the student’s demonstrated needs.

Examples of Tier 3 intensive supports may include:

• Intensive, individualized instruction and interventions.

• Continued use of evidence-based interventions delivered under conditions of treatment fidelity.

• Interagency resources and collaboration.

• Crisis prevention and intervention.

• Collaboration with child study team members.

• Professional development training for teachers and support personnel based on identified areas of need.

• Ongoing progress monitoring and data-based decision-making.

As district-level and school-based groups of educators transition to an NJTSS model, three concepts must remain the focus of discussion. First, continue to examine the relationship between behavior, learning and healthy school environments. Second, explore the connections between ESSA and Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and current federal and state legislation that promotes conducive learning environments. Finally, form a building-level team of professionals dedicated to supporting students by seeking innovative and evidence-based interventions to respond to student needs. It is critical that teachers and child study team members examine how school administrators, counselors, parents and other stakeholders can collaborate to provide comprehensive student learning supports.

Barbara Bole Williams, Ph.D., NCSP is a professor and coordinator of the School Psychology Program at Rowan University in Glassboro. Prior to joining the Rowan University faculty, she spent many years as a school psychologist and director of special services in Audubon Public Schools. While in Audubon, she was an NJEA member and now continues her affiliation with NJEA as a retired member.

Bole Williams is past president of New Jersey Association of School Psychologists, an NJEA affiliate, and currently a member of the Executive Board chairing the Ethics and Professional Practices committee for NJASP.

She is also a long-time leader within the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and presently chairs the National Certification Board for NASP. In 2013, she was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by NASP for her leadership in school psychology.

Of special note, Bole Williams’ father, Dr. Robert D. Bole, served as the first research director for NJEA in the 1950s. She grew up in an NJEA family. Her husband, J. Theodore Williams, is a retired teacher from Washington Township (Gloucester County) and a retired NJEA member.


For more information

“ESSA and Multi-tiered Systems of Supports for School Psychologists,” National Association of School Psychologists. (2016). Visit bit.ly/essamtss.

“Leveraging essential school practices, ESSA, MTSS, and the NASP practice model: A crosswalk to help every school and student succeed.” National Association of School Psychologists (2016). Visit bit.ly/naspcrosswalk.

“New Jersey Tiered System of Supports,” New Jersey Department of Education (2017).  New Jersey Tiered System of Supports. Visit www.state.nj.us/education/njtss/.

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