Incorporating a Multi-Tiered System of Supports Into School Counselor Preparation

Christopher A. Sink

With the advent of a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) in schools, counselor preparation programs are once again challenged to further extend the education and training of pre-service and in-service school counselors. To introduce and contextualize this special issue, an MTSS’s intent and foci, as well as its theoretical and research underpinnings, are elucidated. Next, this article aligns MTSS with current professional school counselor standards of the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) School Counselor Competencies, the 2016 Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) Standards for School Counselors and the ASCA National Model. Using Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) models as exemplars, recommendations for integrating MTSS into school counselor preparation curriculum and pedagogy are discussed.

Keywords:multi-tiered system of supports, school counselor, counselor education, American School Counselor Association, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Response to Intervention

When new educational models are introduced into the school system that affect school counseling practice, the training of pre-service and in-service school counselors needs to be updated. A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is one such innovation requiring school counselors to further refine their skill set. In fact, during the school counseling profession’s relatively short history, counselors have experienced several major shifts in foci and best practices (Gysbers & Henderson, 2012). The latest movement surfaced in the 1980s, when school counselors were encouraged to revisit their largely reactive, inefficient and ineffective practices. Specifically, rather than supporting a relatively small proportion of students with their vocational, educational and personal-social goals and concerns, pre-service and in-school practitioners, under the aegis of a comprehensive school counseling program (CSCP) orientation, were called to operate in a more proactive and preventative fashion.

Although there are complementary frameworks to choose from, the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA; 2012a) National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs emerged as the standard for professional practice, offering K–12 counselors an operational scaffold to guide their activities, interventions and services. Preliminary survey research suggests that counselors are performing their duties in a more systemic and collaborative fashion to more effectively serve students and their families (Goodman-Scott, 2013, 2015). Other rigorous accountability research examining the efficacy of CSCP practices supports this transformation of counselors’ roles and functions (Martin & Carey, 2014; Sink, Cooney, & Adkins, in press; Wilkerson, Pérusse, & Hughes, 2013). As a consequence of the increased demand for retraining, university-level counselor preparation programs and professional counseling organizations (e.g., American Counseling Association, ASCA, National Board for Certified Counselors) have generally responded in kind. Over the last few decades, K–12 school counselors have been instructed to move from a positional approach to their professional work to one that is programmatic and systemic in nature.

As mentioned above, the implementation of MTSS (e.g., Positive Behavioral Supports and Responses [PBIS] and Response to Intervention [RTI] frameworks) in the nation’s schools requires in-service counselors to augment their collaboration and coordination skills (Shepard, Shahidullah, & Carlson, 2013). Essentially, MTSS programs are evidence-based, holistic, and systemic approaches to improve student learning and social-emotional-behavioral functioning. They are largely implemented in educational settings using three tiers or levels of intervention. In theory, all educators are involved at differing levels of intensity. For example, classroom teachers and teacher aides are the first line (Tier 1) of support for struggling students. As the need might arise, other more “specialized” staff (e.g., school psychologists, special education teachers, school counselors, addictions counselors) may be enlisted to provide additional and more targeted student interventions and support (Tiers 2 or 3). Even though ASCA (2014) released a position statement broadly addressing school counselors’ roles and functions within MTSS schools, research is equivocal as to whether these practitioners are implementing these directives with any depth and fidelity (Goodman-Scott, 2015; Goodman-Scott, Betters-Bubon, & Donahue, 2016; Ockerman, Mason, & Hollenbeck, 2012; Ockerman, Patrikakou, & Feiker Hollenbeck, 2015). Moreover, school counselor effectiveness with MTSS-related responsibilities is an open question.

To sufficiently answer these accountability questions, there is a pressing need for university preparation programs to better educate nascent school counselors on MTSS, particularly on the fundamentals and effective ways PBIS and RTI can be accommodated within the purposes and practices of CSCPs (Goodman-Scott et al., 2016). While educational resources and research are plentiful, they are chiefly aimed at pre-service and in-service teachers and support staff working closely with special education students, such as school psychologists (Forman & Crystal, 2015; Owen, 2012; Turnbull, Bohanon, Griggs, Wickham, & Salior, 2002). Albeit informative, nearly all school counselor MTSS research and application publications are focused on in-service practitioners (ASCA, 2014; de Barona & Barona, 2006; Donohue, 2014; Goodman-Scott, 2013; Martens & Andreen, 2013; Ockerman et al., 2012; Ryan, Kaffenberger, & Carroll, 2011; Shepard et al., 2013; Zambrano, Castro-Villarreal, & Sullivan, 2012). With perhaps the exception of Goodman-Scott et al. (2016), who provided a useful alignment of the ASCA National Model (2012a) with PBIS practices, there are few evidence-based resources for school counselor educators to draw upon in order to rework their pre-service courses to include MTSS curriculum and instruction. To successfully prepare counselors to work within PBIS or RTI schools, students must understand the ways MTSS foci are aligned with professional counseling standards for practice. Such a document is noticeably absent from the literature.

The primary intent of this article is to offer school counselor educators functional and literature-based recommendations to enhance their MTSS training of pre-service counselors. To do so, MTSS programs are first contextualized by summarizing their major foci, operationalization, theoretical underpinnings and research support. Next, the objectives of MTSS models are aligned with the ASCA (2012b) School Counselor Competencies and the 2016 CACREP Standards for School Counselors. Finally, using PBIS and RTI models as exemplars, recommendations for school counselor preparation curriculum and pedagogy are offered.

Foundational Considerations

Since MTSS programs are extensively described in numerous publications (e.g., Bradley, Danielson, & Doolittle, 2007; Carter & Van Norman, 2010; Forman & Crystal, 2015; R. Freeman,  Miller, & Newcomer, 2015; Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Horner, Sugai, & Lewis, 2015; McIntosh, Filter, Bennett, Ryan, & Sugai, 2010; Sandomierski, Kincaid, & Algozzine, 2007; Sugai & Simonsen, 2012), including articles in this special issue, there is little need to reiterate the details here. However, for those school counselor educators and practitioners who are less conversant with MTSS’s theoretical grounding, research evidence and operational characteristics supporting implementation, these topics are overviewed.

MTSS programs by definition are comprehensive and schoolwide in design, accentuating the importance of graduated levels of student support. In other words, the amount of instructional and behavioral support gradually increases as the student’s assessed needs become more serious. Although the most prominent and well-researched MTSS approaches, PBIS and RTI, are considered disparate frameworks to address student deficits (Schulte, 2016), the extent of their overlap in theoretical principles, foci, processes and practices allows for an abbreviated synthesis (R. Freeman, et al., 2015; Sandomierski et al., 2007; Stoiber & Gettinger, 2016).

Initially, RTI and PBIS programming and services emerged from special education literature and best practices. Over time these evidence-based approaches extended their reach, and the entire student population is now served. Specifically, PBIS aims to increase students’ prosocial behaviors and decrease their problem behaviors as well as promote positive and safe school climates, benefitting all learners (Bradley et al., 2007; Carter & Van Norman, 2010; Klingner & Edwards, 2006). Although RTI programs also address students’ behavioral issues, they largely focus on improving the academic development and performance of all children and youth through high-quality instruction (Turse & Albrecht, 2015; Warren & Robinson, 2015). RTI staff are particularly concerned with those students who are academically underperforming (Greenwood et al., 2011; Johnsen, Parker, & Farah, 2015; Ockerman et al., 2015; Sprague et al., 2013). Curiously, the potential roles and functions of school counselors within these programs were not delineated until many years after they were first introduced (Warren & Robinson, 2015). Even at this juncture, often cited MTSS publications neglect discussing school counselors’ contributions to full and effective implementation (Carter & Van Norman, 2010). Instead they frequently refer to behavior specialists as key members of the MTSS team (Horner, Sugai, & Anderson, 2010).

MTSS Theory and Research

PBIS and RTI model authors and scholars consistently implicate a range of conceptual orientations, including behaviorism, organizational behavior management, scientific problem-solving, systems thinking and implementation science (Eber, Weist, & Barrett, n.d.; Forman & Crystal, 2015; Horner et al., 2010; Kozleski & Huber, 2010; Sugai & Simonsen, 2012; Sugai et al., 2000; Turnbull et al., 2002). It appears, however, that behavioral principles and systems theory are most often credited as MTSS cornerstones (Reschly & Cooloong-Chaffin, 2016). Since PBIS and RTI are essentially special education frameworks, it is not surprising that behaviorist constructs and applications (e.g., reinforcement, applied experimental behavior analysis, behavior management and planning, progress monitoring) are regularly cited (Stoiber & Gettinger, 2016). Furthermore, MTSS frameworks are in concept and practice system-wide structures (i.e., student-centered services, processes and procedures that are instituted across a school or district), and as such, holistic terminology consistent with Bronfrenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory and other related systems orientations (e.g., Bertalanffy general systems theory and Henggeler and colleagues’ multi-systemic treatment approach) are commonly cited (see Reschly & Cooloong-Chaffin, 2016, and Shepard et al., 2013, for examples of extensive discussions).

MTSS research largely demonstrates the efficacy of PBIS and RTI models. For instance, Horner et al. (2015) conducted an extensive analysis of numerous K–12 PBIS studies, concluding that this systems approach is evidence-based. Other related literature reviews indicated that PBIS frameworks are at least modestly serviceable in preschools (Carter & Van Norman, 2010), K–12 schools (Horner et al., 2010; Molloy, Moore, Trail, Van Epps, & Hopfer, 2013), and juvenile justice settings (Jolivette & Nelson, 2010; Sprague et al., 2013). Across most studies, PBIS programming yields weak to moderately positive outcomes for PK–12 students from diverse backgrounds (e.g., African American and Latino) and varying social and academic skill levels (Childs, Kincaid, George, & Gage, 2015; J. Freeman et al., 2015, 2016). Similarly, evaluations of RTI interventions are promising for underachieving learners (Bradley et al., 2007; Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Greenwood et al., 2011; Proctor, Graves, & Esch, 2012; Ryan et al., 2011). Students tend to especially benefit from Tier 2 and 3 interventions. In their entirety, PBIS and RTI models are modestly successful frameworks to identify students at risk for school-related problems and ameliorate social-behavioral and academic deficiencies. It should be noted, however, that the long-term impact of MTSS on students’ social-emotional outcomes remains equivocal (Saeki et al., 2011). As mentioned previously, there is a paucity of evidence demonstrating that school counselors indirectly or directly contribute to positive MTSS outcomes. As with any relatively new educational innovation, research is needed to further clarify the specific impacts of MTSS on student, family, classroom and school outcome variables. The next section summarizes the ways MTSS frameworks are viewed and instituted in school settings.

Operational Features

For school counselors to be effective MTSS leaders and educational partners, they must understand the conceptual underpinnings and operational components and functions of PBIS and RTI frameworks. Given the introductory nature of this article, we limit our discussion to essential characteristics of these frameworks. Extensive practical explanations of MTSS models abound in the education (R. Freeman et al. 2015; Preston, Wood, & Stecker, 2016; Turse & Albrecht 2015) and school counseling literature (Goodman-Scott et al., 2016; Ockerman et al., 2012, 2015). To reiterate, MTSS frameworks are designed to be systems or ecological approaches to assisting students with their educational development and improving academic and behavioral outcomes. As described below, they attempt to serve all students through graduated layers of more intensive interventions. School counselors deliver, for example, evidence-based services to students, ranging from classroom and large group interventions to those provided to individual students in the counseling office (Forman & Crystal, 2015). By utilizing systematic problem-solving strategies and behavioral analysis tools to guide effective practice (Sandomierski et al., 2007), students who are most at risk for school failure and behavioral challenges are provided with more individualized interventions (Horner et al., 2015).

Practically speaking, MTSS processes and procedures vary from school to school, district to district. To understand how these frameworks are operationalized, there are numerous online school-based case studies to review. For instance, at the Web site, Ross (n.d.), the principal at McNabb Elementary (KY), overviewed the ways a PBIS framework was effectively implemented at his school. Most importantly, the reach of PBIS programming was expanded to all students, requiring a higher level of educator collaboration and “buy in.” Other pivotal changes were made, including (a) faculty and staff visits to students’ homes (i.e., making closer “positive connections”); (b) the implementation of summer programs for student behavioral and academic skill enrichment; (c) additional school community engagement activities (e.g., movie nights, Black History Month Extravaganza); and, (d) further PBIS training to improve school discipline and classroom management strategies. Other MTSS schools stress the importance of carefully identifying students in need of supplemental services and interventions using research-based assessment procedures (e.g., functional behavioral analysis or functional behavioral assessment [FBA]). Most schools emphasize these key elements to successful schoolwide PBIS implementation: (a) data-based decision making, (b) a clear and measurable set of behavioral expectations for students, (c) ongoing instruction on behavioral expectations, and (d) consistent reinforcement of appropriate behavior (, 2016).

Furthermore, MTSS frameworks, such as PBIS and RTI, have two main functions. First, they offer an array of activities and services (prevention- and intervention-oriented) that are systematically introduced to students based on an established level of need. Second, educators carefully consider the learning milieu, particularly as it may influence the development and improvement of student behavior (social and emotional learning [SEL] and academic performances). MTSS staff must be well educated on the signs of student distress, including those indicators that suggest students are at risk for school-related difficulties (e.g., below grade level academic achievement, social and emotional challenges, mental health disorders, long-term school failure). Moreover, educators should be provided appropriate training on various assessment tools to determine which set of students require more intensive care.

Within a triadic support system, all students (Tier 1: primary or universal prevention) are at least monitored and assisted by classroom staff. Teachers are encouraged to document student progress (or lack thereof) toward academic and behavioral goals. At the first level, school counselors partner with other building educators to conduct classroom activities and guidance to promote academic success, SEL (e.g., prosocial behaviors), and appropriate school behavior (Donohue, 2014). Counselors also may assist with setting behavioral expectations for students, suggest differentiated instruction for academic issues, collect data for program decision making, and conduct universal screening of students in need of additional behavior support (Horner et al., 2015). In short, the aim of Tier 1 is to (a) support all student learning and (b) proactively recognize individuals displaying the warning signs of learning or social and behavioral challenges.

Once the signals of educational or behavioral distress become more pronounced, relevant staff may initiate a formal MTSS process. For example, in many states and school districts, within the context of an MTSS, the struggling learner becomes a “focus of concern” and a multidisciplinary or school support team is convened (Kansas MTSS, 2011). Panel members are generally comprised of the school psychologist, administrator, counselor and relevant teachers. Counselors may be asked to collaborate with other educators to appraise the student’s learning environments. If potential hindrances are detected, these must be sufficiently attended to before further educational intervention is provided. Once the determination is made that the “targeted” learner received high-quality academic and behavioral instruction, and yet continues to exhibit deficiencies, the student is considered for Tier 2 services (Horner et al., 2015). School counselor tasks at this level may include providing evidence-based classroom interventions, short-term individual or group counseling, progress monitoring and regular school–home communication. Other sample interventions might involve the application of a behavior modification plan, the assignment of a peer mentor and tutoring system, and the utilization of “Check and Connect” (Maynard, Kjellstrand, & Thompson, 2013) or Student Success Skills (Lemberger, Selig, Bowers & Rogers, 2015) programs.

In most cases, identified students make at least modest progress at Tier 2 and do not require tertiary intervention. Even so, a small percentage of students receive Tier 3 services involving, for example, a comprehensive FBA, additional linking of academic and behavioral supports, and more specialized attention (Horner et al., 2015). School counselor support at this level commonly incorporates and extends beyond Tier 2 services. Ongoing consultation with and referrals to community-based professionals (e.g., learning experts, marriage and family counselors, child psychiatrists, and clinical psychologists) and out- or in-patient treatment facilities may be necessary.

In summary, the essential focus of collaborative MTSS programming is to improve student performance by first carefully assessing student strengths and weaknesses. Once these characteristics are identified, the MTSS team, with input from the school counseling staff, develops learning outcomes and, as required, may institute whole-school, classroom, or individual activities and services to best address lingering student deficiencies. As such, counselors should be significant partners with other appropriate staff to deliver the needed assistance and support (e.g., assign a peer mentor, provide individual or group counseling, institute a behavior management plan) to address students’ underdeveloped academic or social-emotional and behavioral skills. To close the MTSS loop, follow-up assessment of student progress toward designated learning and behavioral targets is regularly conducted by teachers with assistance from counselors and other related specialists. Based on the evaluation results, further interventions may be prescribed. School counselors therefore contribute essential MTSS services at each tier, promoting through their classroom work, group counseling and individualized services a higher level of student functioning. Regrettably, anecdotal evidence and survey research suggest that many are ill-equipped to conduct the requisite prevention and intervention activities (Ockerman et al., 2015). The following sections attempt, in part, to rectify this situation.

Alignment of MTSS With Professional School Counselor Standards and Practice

Before considering the implications for pre-service school counselor preparation, school counselors and university-level counselor educators should benefit from understanding the ways in which MTSS school counselor-related roles and functions are consistent with the preponderance of the ASCA (2012b) School Counselor Competencies and CACREP (2016) School Counseling Standards. Because there are so few publications documenting school counselor roles and functions within MTSS frameworks, a standards crosswalk, or matrix, was developed to fill this need (see Table 1). It should be noted that the ASCA standards and CACREP competencies are largely consistent with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ (National Board; 2012) School Counseling Standards for School Counselors of Students Ages 3–18+. As such, they were not included in the table.

Table 1

Crosswalk of Sample School Counselor MTSS Roles and Functions, ASCA (2012b) School Counselor Competencies, and CACREP (2016) School Counseling Standards

MTSS School Counselor Roles and Functions*

ASCA School Counselor

CACREP Section 5: Entry-Level Specialty Areas – School Counseling

I. School Counseling Programs
B: Abilities & Skills

1. Foundations 2. Contextual Dimensions
3. Practice

Shows strong school
I-B-1c. Applies the school counseling themes of leadership, advocacy, collaboration and systemic change, which are critical to a successful school counseling program 2.d. school counselor roles in school leadership and multidisciplinary teams
I-B-2. Serves as a leader in the school and community to promote and support student success
Collaborates and consults with relevant stakeholders I-B-4. Collaborates with parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders and other stakeholders to promote and support student success 3.l. techniques to foster collaboration and teamwork within schools
Collaborates as needed to provide integration of
I-B-4b. Identifies and applies models of collaboration for effective use in a school counseling program and understands the similarities and differences between consultation, collaboration and counseling and coordination strategies 1.d. models of school-based collaboration and consultation
I-B-4d. Understands and knows how to apply a consensus-building process to foster agreement in a group
Provides staff development related to positive
discipline, behavior and mental health
I-B-4e. Understands how to facilitate group meetings to effectively and efficiently meet group goals
Leads with systems change to provide safe school I-B-5. Acts as a systems change agent to create an environment promoting and supporting student success 2.a. school counselor roles as leaders, advocates and systems change agents in PK–12 schools
Intervention planning for SEL and academic skill
improvementProvides risk and threat
I-B-5b. Develops a plan to deal with personal (emotional and cognitive) and institutional resistance impeding the change process 2.g. characteristics, risk factors, and warning signs of students at risk for mental health and behavioral disorders;2.h. common medications that affect learning, behavior and mood in children and adolescents;2.i. signs and symptoms of substance abuse in children and adolescents as well as the signs and symptoms of living in a home where substance use occurs;3.h. skills to critically examine the connections between social, familial, emotional and behavior problems and academic achievement 
II. Foundations B: Abilities and Skills
II-B-4. Applies the ethical standards and principles of the school counseling profession and adheres to the legal aspects of the role of the school counselor 2.n. legal and ethical considerations specific to school counseling
II-B-4c. Understands and practices in accordance with school district policy and local, state and federal statutory requirements  2.m. legislation and government policy relevant to school counseling
III. Management B: Abilities and Skills
Effective collection, evaluation, interpretation and use of data to improve availability of services  III-B-3. Accesses or collects relevant data, including process, perception and outcome data, to monitor and improve student behavior and achievement 1.e. assessments specific to PK–12 education 
Assists with schoolwide data management for documentation and decision making III-B-3a. Reviews and disaggregates student achievement, attendance and behavior data to identify and implement interventions as needed
Collects needs assessment data to better inform culturally relevant practices III-B-3b. Uses data to identify policies, practices and procedures leading to successes, systemic barriers and areas of weakness
III-B-3c. Uses student data to demonstrate a need for systemic change in areas such as course enrollment patterns; equity and access; and achievement, opportunity and/or information gaps 3.k. strategies to promote equity in student achievement and college access
III-B-3d. Understands and uses data to establish goals and activities to close the achievement, opportunity and/or information gap
III-B-3e. Knows how to use data to identify gaps between and among different groups of students
Measures student progress of schoolwide interventions with pre/post testing III-B-3f. Uses school data to identify and assist individual students who do not perform at grade level and do not have opportunities and resources to be successful in school
Promotes early intervention Designs and implements
interventions to meet the behavioral and mental health needs of students
III-B-6a. Uses appropriate academic and behavioral data to develop school counseling core curriculum, small-group and closing-the-gap action plans and determines appropriate students for the target group or interventions 3.c. core curriculum design, lesson plan development, classroom management strategies and differentiated instructional strategies
III-B-6c. Creates lesson plans related to the school counseling core curriculum identifying what will be delivered, to whom it will be delivered, how it will be delivered and how student attainment of competencies will be evaluated
Provides academic
interventions directly to students
III-B-6d. Determines the intended impact on academics, attendance and behavior 3.d. interventions to promote academic development
III-B-6g. Identifies data collection strategies to gather process, perception and outcome data
Coordinates efforts and ensures proper communication between MTSS staff, students and family members III-B-6h. Shares results of action plans with staff, parents and community
III-B-7b. Coordinates activities that establish, maintain and enhance the school counseling program as well as other educational programs 
IV. Delivery B: Abilities and Skills
Provides specialized
instructional support
IV-B-1d. Develops materials and instructional strategies to meet student needs and school goals 3.c. core curriculum design, lesson plan development, classroom management strategies and differentiated instructional strategies
IV-B-1g. Understands multicultural and pluralistic trends when developing and choosing school counseling core curriculum
IV-B-1h. Understands and is able to build effective, high-quality peer helper programs 3.m. strategies for implementing and coordinating peer intervention programs
Engages in case management to assist with social-emotional and academic concerns IV-B-2b. Develops strategies to implement individual student planning, such as strategies for appraisal, advisement, goal-setting, decision making, social skills, transition or post-secondary planning 3.g. strategies to facilitate school and postsecondary transitions
Understands social skills development IV-B-2g. Understands methods for helping students monitor and direct their own learning and personal/social and career development 3.f. techniques of personal/social counseling in school settings
Provides interventions at three levels IV-B-3. Provides responsive services
IV-B-3c. Demonstrates an ability to provide counseling for students during times of transition, separation, heightened stress and critical change
Coordinating with community service providers and integrating intensive interventions into the schooling process  IV-B-4a. Understands how to make referrals to appropriate professionals when necessary 2.k. community resources and referral sources 
Train/present information to school staff on data
collection and analysis
IV-B-5a. Shares strategies that support student achievement with parents, teachers, other educators and community organizations 2.b. school counselor roles in consultation with families, PK–12 and postsecondary school personnel, and community agencies
Implements appropriate
interventions at each tier
IV-B-5b. Applies appropriate counseling approaches to promoting change among consultees within a consultation approach 
V. Accountability B: Abilities and Skills
Collects, analyzes, and interprets school-level data to improve availability and effectiveness of services and interventions Uses progress monitoring data to inform counseling interventions V-B-1g. Analyzes and interprets process, perception and outcome data 3.n. use of accountability data to inform decision making3.o. use of data to advocate for programs and students
Understands history, rationale, and benefits of MTSS

Note. *Primary sources: ASCA (2012b, 2014); CACREP (2016); Cowan, Vaillancourt, Rossen, & Pollitt, (2013);
Ockerman et al. (2015).

The MTSS School Counselor Roles and Functions column was generated from several sources, including a recent study examining school counselors’ RTI perspectives (Ockerman et al., 2015), ASCA’s (2014) RTI position statement, and a lengthy school psychology publication that specifically addresses school counselor roles in creating safe MTSS schools (Cowan, Vaillancourt, Rossen, & Pollitt, 2013). Essentially, the crosswalk reveals that K–12 school counselor MTSS roles and functions correspond substantially with the ASCA (2012b) School Counselor Competencies and CACREP (2016) Standards. Similarly, MTSS school counselor tasks fit well within the broad and longstanding role categories traditionally associated with counseling services: (a) coordination of CSCP services, interventions and activities; (b) collaboration with school staff and other stakeholders; (c) provision of responsive services (e.g., individual and group counseling, classroom interventions, peer helper and support services, crisis intervention); (d) consultation within school constituencies and external resource personnel; and (e) classroom lessons (i.e., MTSS Tier 1 services; Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Goodman-Scott et al., 2016; Gysbers & Henderson, 2012; Schmidt, 2014; Sink, 2005). Since the ASCA (2012a) National Model also is a systemic and structural model aimed at whole-school prevention and intervention of student issues, school counselor MTSS roles (direct and indirect services) also align reasonably well with the model’s components (e.g., foundation, management, delivery and accountability; Goodman-Scott et al., 2016). In short, including MTSS into the pre-service training of school counselors is professionally defensible as well as best practice.

Implications for School Counselor Preparation

PBIS and RTI frameworks are now firmly established in a majority of U.S. schools. As documented above, research, particularly within the context of special education, largely demonstrates their positive impact on student academic achievement and SEL skill development, as well as on school climate (Horner et al., 2010, 2015; McDaniel, Albritton, & Roach, 2013). However, school counselors in the field report a lack of MTSS knowledge and their roles and functions within at least RTI schools are somewhat inconsistently and ambiguously defined (Ockerman et al., 2015). In some circumstances, school counselors’ MTSS duties may not fully complement their CSCP responsibilities (Goodman-Scott et al., 2016). Given these realities, many school counselor preparation programs need to be revised to effectively account for these limitations. To accomplish this end, the following literature-based action steps are offered. First, counselor educators should conduct a program audit, looking for MTSS curricular and instructional gaps in their school counseling preparation courses. Curriculum mapping (Jacobs, 1997) is a useful tool to recognize program content deficiencies (Howard, 2007). Essentially, the process involves

the identification of the content and skills taught in each course at each level. A calendar-based chart, or “map,” is created for each course so that it is easy to see not only what is taught in a course, but when it is taught. Examination of these maps can reveal both gaps in what is taught and repetition among courses, but its value lies in identifying areas for integration and concepts for spiraling. (Howard, 2007, p. 7)

Second, the various options for program revision should be weighed. The two most obvious alternatives are to either add a separate school counseling-based MTSS course or to augment existing courses and their content. Classes already focusing on topics associated with MTSS theory, research and practice (e.g., special education, at-risk children and adolescents, comprehensive school counseling, strengths-based counseling and advocacy) are perhaps the easiest to modify. Certainly, accreditation standards and requirements, funding implications, and logistical concerns must be considered.

Third, specific MTSS content and related skills should be reviewed and syllabi revised accordingly. To inform decision making and planning, Table 2 provides sample core MTSS content areas associated with school counselor roles and functions. Curriculum changes might involve strengthening these four broad areas: (a) assessment, data usage and research, (b) general knowledge and practices, (c) specific interventions, and (d) systems work. To alleviate potential redundancies in pre-service education, it is imperative that any proposed modifications be aligned with current CSCP training (e.g., ASCA’s [2012a] National Model; see Goodman-Scott et al., 2016 for details). Consult the crosswalk provided in Table 1 to ensure that any course changes are consonant with ASCA’s (2012b) School Counselor Competencies and CACREP (2016) standards.

Table 2

Core MTSS Content Areas Aligned With School Counselor Roles and Functions

Content Areas

Assessment, Data Usage and ResearchAcademic and SEL skill assessment and progress monitoringApplied experimental analysis of behavior/functional behavior analysis (FBA)Behavioral consultation assessmentEvidence-based (data-based) decision making and intervention planning (academic and social-behavioral issues)Research methods (e.g., survey, pre/posttest comparison, single subject designs)Student and classroom assessment/testingUse of student assessment and schoolwide data to improve MTSS services and interventions
General Knowledge and PracticesBest practices in support of academic and social-behavioral developmentIntegration with comprehensive school counseling programs (e.g., ASCA National Model)Ethical and legal issuesEducational, developmental and psychological theories (e.g., behaviorism, social learning theory, ecological systems theory, cognitive, psychosocial, identity)Effective communicationStudents at risk and resiliency issues (i.e., knowledge of early warning signs of school and social-behavioral problems)Leadership and advocacyMental health issues and associated community servicesModels of consultation

Multicultural/diversity (student, family, school, community) and social justice issues


Special education (e.g., relevant policies, identification procedures, categories of disability)

Specific InterventionsCheck and Connect (Check In, Check Out)Individualized positive behavior support (e.g., behavior change plans, individualized education plans)Peer mentoring/tutoringSchoolwide classroom guidance (academic and SEL skill related)Short-term goal-oriented individual and group counseling
Systems WorkCollaboration and coordination of services with counseling staff, MTSS constituents, external resources and familiesConsultation with caregivers, educational staff and external resourcesStaff coaching/liaison work (e.g., conducting workshops and training events to improve conceptual knowledge and understanding as well as skill development)MTSS (PBIS & RTI) structure and components and associated practicesResource providers (in-school and out-of-school options)Policy development addressing improved school environments and barriers to learning for all studentsSystems/interdisciplinary collaboration and leadership within context of comprehensive school counseling programs




















Note. Primary sources: Cowan et al. (2013); Forman & Crystal (2015); R. Freeman et al. (2015); Gibbons & Coulter
(2016); Goodman-Scott et al. (2016); Horner et al. (2015); Ockerman et al. (2015); Reschly & Coolong-Chaffin (2016).


Finally, course syllabi need to be updated to integrate desired curricular changes and appropriate instructional techniques instituted. It is recommended that counselor educators design the MTSS course using a spiral curriculum (Bruner, 1960; Howard, 2007). This theory- and research-based strategy rearranges the course material curriculum and content in such a way that knowledge and skill development and content build upon each another while gradually increasing in complexity and depth. Research informed pedagogy suggests that MTSS course content be taught using a variety of methods, including direct instruction for learning foundational materials and student-centered approaches, such as case studies and problem-based learning (PBL), for the application component (Dumbrigue, Moxley, & Najor-Durack, 2013; Ramsden, 2003; Savery, 2006). Specifically, given that scientific (systematic problem-solving) and data-driven decision making are indispensable educator practices within MTSS frameworks, these skills should be nurtured through “hands on” and highly engaging didactic methods rather than relying on conventional college-level teaching strategies (e.g., recitation, questioning and lecture; Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning, 2001). Specific activities could be readily implemented during practicum and internship. PBL invites students to tackle complex and authentic (real world) issues that promote understanding of content knowledge as well as interpretation, analytical reasoning, interpersonal communication and self-assessment skills (Amador, Miles, & Peters, 2006; Loyens, Jones, Mikkers, & van Gog, 2015). Problems can take the form of genuine case studies (e.g., a sixth-grader at risk for severe depression), encouraging pre-service counselors to reflect on issues they will face in MTSS schools. Succinctly stated, when developing a new course or refining existing courses to include MTSS elements, counselor educators are encouraged to use research-based methods of curriculum design and student-centered pedagogy.


School counselor roles and functions must be responsive to societal changes and educational reforms. These shifts require university-level counselor preparation programs to be adaptable and open to new practices. K–12 schools around the nation are committed to instituting MTSS (PBIS and RTI) to better educate all students as well as to reduce the number of learners at risk for academic and social and emotional problems. School counselors largely indicate that they require further training on these MTSS frameworks and best practice (Goodman-Scott et al., 2016; Ockerman et al., 2015). It is therefore incumbent upon counselor education programs to revise their curriculum and instruction to meet this growing need. This article provides a clear rationale for instituting pre-service program changes, as well as summarizes MTSS’s theoretical and research foundation. Literature-based recommendations for pre-service course and curricular modifications have been offered. Preparation courses are encouraged to align their MTSS curriculum and content with ASCA’s (2012b) and CACREP’s (2016) school counseling standards, and the role requirements of comprehensive school counseling programs. Subsequent research is needed to determine whether this added level of pre-service education support actually impacts school counselor MTSS competency perceptions, and more importantly, whether schoolchildren and youth are positively impacted by better trained professional school counselors.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interestor funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.


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Christopher A. Sink, NCC, is a Professor at Old Dominion University. Correspondence can be addressed to Christopher Sink, Darden College of Education, 5115 Hampton Blvd, Norfolk, VA 23529,

Integrating a Multi-Tiered System of Supports With Comprehensive School Counseling Programs

Jolie Ziomek-Daigle, Emily Goodman-Scott, Jason Cavin, Peg Donohue

A multi-tiered system of supports, including Response to Intervention and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a widely utilized framework implemented in K–12 schools to address the academic and behavioral needs of all students. School counselors are leaders who facilitate comprehensive school counseling programs and demonstrate their relevance to school initiatives and centrality to the school’s mission. The purpose of this article is to discuss both a multi-tiered system of supports and comprehensive school counseling programs, demonstrating the overlap between the two frameworks. Specific similarities include: leadership team and collaboration, coordinated services, school counselor roles, data collection, evidence-based practices, equity, cultural responsiveness, advocacy, prevention, positive school climate, and systemic change. A case study is included to illustrate a school counseling department integrating a multi-tiered system of supports with their comprehensive school counseling program. In the case study, school counselors are described as interveners, facilitators and supporters regarding the implementation of a multi-tiered system of supports.

Keywords: multi-tiered system of supports, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Response to Intervention, comprehensive school counseling programs, coordinated services

A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS), including Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), has been embedded in many public schools for the last decade. Specifically, these data-driven frameworks promote positive student academic and behavioral outcomes, as well as safe and favorable school climates (Ockerman, Mason, & Hollenbeck, 2012; Sugai & Horner, 2009). School counselors design and implement comprehensive school counseling programs that promote students’ academic, career, social, and emotional success as well as equitable student outcomes and systemic changes (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2012). As school leaders, school counselors should understand MTSS and play a leadership role in the development and implementation of such frameworks (ASCA, 2014; Goodman-Scott, 2014; Goodman-Scott, Betters-Bubon, & Donohue, 2016).

In a 2014 position statement on MTSS, ASCA described school counselors as important stakeholders in its implementation plan, stating “professional school counselors align their work with MTSS through the implementation of a comprehensive school counseling program designed to improve student achievement and behavior” (p. 38). Several scholars have discussed the alignment of RTI and comprehensive school counseling programs (Gruman & Hoelzen, 2011; Ockerman et al., 2012; Ryan, Kaffenberger, & Carroll, 2011; Ziomek-Daigle & Heckman, under review) as well as PBIS and comprehensive school counseling programs (Donohue, 2014; Goodman-Scott, 2014; Goodman-Scott et al., 2016; Shepard, Shahidullah, & Carlson, 2013), including school counselors’ roles in both. However, there remains a need to examine MTSS as an overarching construct and its overlap with comprehensive school counseling programs. In this article, we present information on MTSS, including RTI and PBIS, discuss comprehensive school counseling programs and the overlap of the two frameworks, and culminate with a case study illustrating the role of school counselors as interveners, facilitators, and supporters integrating MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs in a middle school.

Multi-Tiered System of Supports

The use of MTSS offers school counselors opportunities to have a lasting impact on student academic success and behavior development while integrating these frameworks with comprehensive school counseling programs. MTSS, often used as an overarching construct for PBIS and RTI, is a schoolwide, three-tiered approach for providing academic, behavioral and social supports to all students based on their needs and skills (Cook, Lyon, Kubergovic, Wright, & Zhang, 2015; Harlacher, Sakelaris, & Kattelman, 2014; Sugai & Horner, 2009; Sugai & Simonsen, 2012). Harlacher et al. (2014) described six key tenets of the MTSS framework: (a) all students are capable of grade-level learning with adequate support; (b) MTSS is rooted in proactivity and prevention; (c) the system utilizes evidence-based practices; (d) decisions and procedures are driven by school and student data; (e) the degree of support given to each student is based on their needs; and (f) implementation occurs schoolwide and requires stakeholder collaboration.

MTSS consists of a continuum of three tiers of prevention: primary, secondary, and tertiary (Harlacher et al., 2014; Sugai & Horner, 2009). In Tier 1, or primary prevention, all students receive academic and behavioral support (Harlacher et al., 2014). Approximately 80% of students in a school are successful while receiving only primary prevention, or the general education academic and behavioral curriculum for all students. Examples include teaching expected behaviors schoolwide and the use of evidence-based academic strategies and curriculums. Students with elevated needs receive more specialized secondary and tertiary prevention, typically 15% and 5% of students, respectively (Harlacher et al., 2014; Sugai & Horner, 2009). Educators provide increasing degrees of interventions and supports in order for each student to be successful academically and behaviorally.

In regards to prevention, students are usually screened using academic benchmark assessments and behavioral data to determine their level of need (Harlacher et al., 2014; Sugai & Horner, 2009; Sugai & Simonsen, 2012). Some schools have moved to the use of universal screening to identify students with emerging mental health needs such as anxiety and depression (Lane, Oakes, & Menzies, 2010). Those with elevated needs receive interventions and are monitored to determine their progress and the interventions’ effectiveness. Further, the prevention activities in all three tiers are evidence-based practices (e.g., scientifically-based interventions; Harlacher et al., 2014; Sugai & Horner, 2009) and data-driven. Specifically, data is used to determine students’ needs and to measure progress. In the next section, two examples of MTSS will be discussed: RTI and PBIS.

Response to Intervention

The No Child Left Behind Act (2002) clearly emphasized that educators have unique opportunities to provide early intervention, quality instruction and data-driven decisions for all students. RTI, an outcome of the accountability movement, is “a systematic and structured approach to increase the efficiency, accountability, and impact of effective practices” (Crockett & Gillespie, 2007, p. 2). This framework was designed in 2004 as an alternative to states’ use of the discrepancy model of special education assessment, which compared children’s current ability and achievement levels (Ryan et al., 2011). By using only the discrepancy model to identify students in need of special education services, inconsistencies prevailed among school districts and states. Concerns about the discrepancy model included: (a) students of color were being over-identified as being in need of special education services as compared to White peers; (b) difficulty determining if low achievement was due to a possible learning disability or inadequate teacher performance; (c) educators waiting for students to fail instead of proactively identifying discrete literacy and numeracy skills that merited remediation (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006). As RTI has evolved over the years, educators expanded the model to include behavioral and social interventions that are universal (e.g., whole-school) as well as intensive services (e.g., individual or small group), more fully responding to students with varied development.

RTI is currently used in school systems as a way to decrease referrals for special education services (Gersten & Dimino, 2006). The framework and the use of tiered supports ensure that students receive the appropriate level of intervention needed (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006). Previously, students who exhibited difficulties in a single academic area would be referred to special education services, potentially removing them from the general education classroom. With RTI implementation, students now receive supports that allow them to remain in the general education classroom and reduce the rate of unnecessary referrals for special education services (Gersten & Dimino, 2006). RTI can be further described as instructional and behavioral.

Instructional RTI

Most educators report having a thorough knowledge of RTI to establish early literacy and math fluency and to provide additional supports in academic areas where needed (Shepard et al., 2013). Instructional RTI often is used to describe the process in which teachers work with students to mitigate the labeling and negative effects often associated with learning disabilities (Johnston, 2010). The teacher tailors the instruction to address the perceived deficit the student is exhibiting. Most often this delivery is used in the context of reading instruction (Shinn, 2010). The focus on instructional practice can take place on the first tier with whole class instruction, on the second tier with a small reading group, or on the third tier with intensive one-on-one instruction (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006).

Behavioral RTI

Students may not only struggle with academic challenges, but behavioral, social and emotional challenges as well. Many students experience a host of challenging situations occurring in their homes and communities, such as poverty, homelessness, immigration and residency barriers, and the lack of fulfillment of basic needs such as adequate nutrition, transportation, and medical care (Shepard et al., 2013). Supporting social behavior is central for students to achieve academic gains, although this area is not often represented in traditional RTI implementation that may focus primarily on learning and instruction. More recent RTI frameworks reveal pyramids split in half showing both the academic and behavioral domains, more fully recognizing the complex entanglement between academic, social and emotional learning (Stormont, Reinke, & Herman, 2010). Behavioral RTI emphasizes a continuum of services that can be provided to students by school counselors and integrated into comprehensive school counseling programs.

A hallmark of both the instructional and behavioral RTI models is the focus on differentiation among the three tiers of intervention. Each approach delimits critical factors and components at the primary levels; interventions become more intense and personalized as students are provided more individualized supports. As with any type of intervention, data tracking is necessary to the success of the outcome (Utley & Obiakor, 2015). Both instructional and behavioral RTI use a system of data tracking known as continuous regeneration, in which the data is analyzed on an ongoing basis and interventions are evaluated based on recorded outcomes (McIntosh, Filter, Bennett, Ryan, & Sugai, 2010). The use of continuous regeneration means students receive the most applicable form of intervention throughout the course of their academic career. The following section will discuss the use of the RTI within school counseling programs.

School Counseling and RTI

 Researchers have discussed the school counselor’s role and involvement in the RTI process (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ryan et al., 2011). Studies reveal that school counseling interventions using tiered approaches, such as universal instruction via classroom guidance programming and subsequent small group follow-up, have increased student achievement and motivation (Luck & Webb, 2009; Ryan et al., 2011). Ziomek-Daigle and Cavin (2015) discussed that positive behavior support strategies, which can be designed for students with behavioral issues in classrooms or at home, can be taught to teachers and parents for children who need more individualized support and monitoring. Additionally, school counselors have been identified as integral members to RTI teams by using behavioral observations to determine the responsiveness and effectiveness of services (Gruman & Hoelzen, 2011).

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

PBIS, a multi-tiered system of supports, is grounded in the principles of applied behavior analysis (Johnston, Foxx, Jacobson, Green, & Mulick, 2006) and implemented in over 21,000 schools across the United States (Sugai, 2016). Further, PBIS is often described as a function of RTI, including the “application of RTI principles to the improvement of social behavior outcomes for all students” (Sugai & Simonsen, 2012, p. 4). Thus, PBIS uses the three-tiered preventative continuum of data-driven and evidence-based practices to improve students’ academics and social behaviors (Sugai & Horner, 2009; Sugai & Simonsen, 2012). PBIS is implemented schoolwide, including evidence-based primary prevention for all students, and secondary and tertiary prevention for students with elevated needs (Shepard et al., 2013). Examples of primary prevention include universal behavioral expectations, discipline procedures, and acknowledgements, also known as positive reinforcement. Secondary and tertiary prevention can include behavioral contracts, social skill instruction and wraparound services.

One appealing aspect of PBIS is the use of systematic data collection for monitoring student referrals as well as PBIS implementation and fidelity (Simonsen & Sugai, 2013). Thus, data is used to continually determine student and school needs and related progress, and to guide future decisions in an iterative cycle. Examples of student data utilized include suspensions and office discipline referrals, grades, attendance, and other student outcomes (Sugai & Horner, 2009). Student data is often analyzed for patterns in office discipline referrals, such as frequency, location and time of year. Patterns can be analyzed using tools such as the School Wide Information System, a web-based tool for organizing and analyzing office discipline referral trends (May et al., 2006). Standardized assessments can be used to determine schoolwide data trends, including the School Wide Evaluation Tool, a research-validated instrument that measures the degree of PBIS implementation (Todd et al., 2012).

A plethora of researchers have demonstrated the positive impact of PBIS implementation as related to a number of school, student and staff benefits. Schools implementing PBIS have demonstrated better student academic outcomes (Horner et al., 2009; Simonsen et al., 2012), a decrease in student discipline incidences (Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010; Bradshaw, Waasdorp, & Leaf, 2012; Curtis, Van Horne, Robertson, & Karvonen, 2010; Sherrod, Getch, & Ziomek-Daigle, 2009; Simonsen et al., 2012), and a more positive and safer school climate and work environment (Bradshaw, Koth, Bevans, Ialongo, & Leaf, 2008; Horner et al., 2009; Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012).

School Counseling and PBIS

Several scholars have discussed school counselors’ roles in PBIS implementation. Goodman-Scott et al. (2016) described the alignment between comprehensive school counseling programs and PBIS, particularly the use of data-driven, evidence-based practices and a tiered continuum of supports: prevention for all students and intervention for students with elevated needs. Further, through case studies, several researchers have demonstrated school counselors’ roles in PBIS implementation in their schools. Specifically, Sherrod et al. (2009) found a decrease in schoolwide and small group office discipline referrals and described school counselors’ roles in creating and implementing schoolwide interventions addressing student behaviors. Further, school counselors utilized student outcome data generated by the PBIS team to determine students’ needs for and progress in school counselor interventions such as small group counseling (Goodman-Scott, Hays, & Cholewa, under review). While in PBIS leadership roles, school counselors have demonstrated collaboration and consultation with stakeholders, contributed to a safe school environment and schoolwide systems of reinforcement, utilized student outcome data, implemented universal screening, facilitated PBIS-specific bullying prevention and conducted small group interventions (Curtis et al., 2010; Donohue, 2014; Donohue, Goodman-Scott & Betters-Bubon, 2016; Goodman-Scott, 2014; Goodman-Scott, Doyle, & Brott, 2014; Martens & Andreen, 2013).

PBIS and Behavioral RTI

Behavioral RTI and PBIS, although similar in their focus on schoolwide behaviors within a three-tiered framework, are remarkably different. First, all students are exposed to behavioral RTI, but only students who attend schools implementing PBIS receive the behavioral supports of the latter. The implementation and mandate of RTI is a direct outcome of the No Child Left Behind Act (2002). On the other hand, PBIS, a manualized approach, requires ongoing training and a specific evaluation process. PBIS fidelity is necessary for successful implementation and requires ongoing data collection and analysis. The behavioral RTI approach allows schools to design and develop their own frameworks in a contextual manner to best support their students, and the method and training for implementation remains flexible. School counselors can be active in both RTI and PBIS implementation in their schools, as several of these roles overlap with comprehensive school counseling programs.

Comprehensive School Counseling Programs

Comprehensive school counseling programs were initially conceptualized in the 1960s and 1970s, have evolved over time, are tied to the school’s academic mission, and are based on student competencies in the academic, career, social and emotional domains (Gysbers & Henderson, 2012). One well-known and widely used comprehensive school counseling framework is the ASCA National Model (ASCA, 2012; Gysbers & Henderson, 2012). The model was based on (a) the ASCA National Standards for School Counseling Programs, which defined student standards and competencies regarding academic, career, personal and social development (Campbell & Dahir, 1997), and (b) the Education Trust’s Transforming School Counseling Initiative, which emphasized school counselors’ roles in closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students, and performing leadership, advocacy, systemic change, and collaboration and teaming (Martin, 2015). The model was created in 2003, was updated in both 2005 and 2012, and has provided the school counseling professional with a unified vision, voice, and identity in regards to the school counselors’ roles (ASCA, 2012; Gysbers & Henderson, 2012).

Many scholars have reported positive outcomes related to comprehensive school counseling program implementation. For example, Wilkerson, Pérusse, and Hughes (2013) found that elementary schools designated as fully implemented ASCA Model Programs had higher standardized English and Language Arts and Math scores than those schools without the designation. Similarly, other scholars have associated comprehensive school counseling program implementation with higher student achievement scores (Sink, Akos, Turnbull, & Mvududu, 2008; Sink & Stroh, 2003). In a similar vein, Hatch, Poynton, and Pérusse (2015) reported that the increased national emphasis on comprehensive school counseling programs over the last decade has positively impacted school counselors’ related beliefs and priorities.

The ASCA National Model and a Multi-Tiered System of Supports

 School counselors are crucial in students’ learning and social development and are invested in early interventions that are at the root of comprehensive school counseling programs (Ryan et al., 2011). MTSS aligns with the ASCA National Model’s chief inputs of advocacy, collaboration, systemic change, prevention, intervention and the use of data. Thus, both the ASCA National Model (2012) and MTSS are inherently connected given their overlapping foci (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Overlap and similarities between a multi-tiered system of supports and comprehensive school counseling programs

Overlap exists between these two frameworks, especially prominent when school counselors take on roles as supporters, interveners and facilitators in offering indirect as well as direct services (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ziomek-Daigle & Heckman, under review). In the role as supporters, school counselors share data related to interventions, discuss needs assessment data and increase awareness regarding equity gaps that may be present at the school (Ockerman et al., 2012). School counselors are interveners and facilitators as active members of RTI teams who provide behavioral interventions and services and, through progress monitoring, collect and review data and make recommendations (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ziomek-Daigle & Heckman, under review).

 The ASCA National Model (2012) provides the necessary components for comprehensive school counseling programs grounded in student data and based on student academic, career, social and emotional development. The model includes four components: foundation, delivery, management, and accountability. Next, we discuss the integration of a multi-tiered system of supports into the four components of the model.

     Foundation. Establishing the program’s foundation is the initial step in building a comprehensive school counseling program (ASCA, 2012). As programs are developed, school counselors should examine their own personal beliefs about their role with students. Program mission and vision statements should also be created, using measurable language. Additionally, student competencies in the academic, career, social and emotional domains are reflected in comprehensive programs along with school counselors’ ethical decision making and professional practice. School counselors’ program visions and goals should reflect priorities also highlighted in the school’s multi-tiered framework (Goodman-Scott et al., 2016).  For example, Goodman-Scott et al. (2016) suggested school counselors’ vision and mission statements should represent school and district current trends and goals, such as PBIS delivery and implementation.

     Delivery. The delivery component of the framework identifies the types of services that school counselors directly offer students such as classroom guidance programming and core curriculum (Ziomek-Daigle, 2015), individual student planning, small group and individual counseling, consultation, and referral (ASCA, 2012). Many approaches used within a multi-tiered system of supports also can be utilized within the delivery system of school counseling programs, such as prevention activities (e.g., teaching schoolwide expectations in classroom guidance programming) and interventions (e.g., check in/check out; Goodman-Scott et al., 2016; Goodman-Scott et al., under review; Ziomek-Daigle & Heckman, under review). Further, school counselors can integrate more intensive interventions for students with multiple, complex needs, including wraparound services (Shepard et al., 2013).

     Accountability and Management. Accountability and management are at the root of any comprehensive school counseling program, as data is collected, analyzed and reported, identifying how students are different as a result of the program (ASCA, 2012). Further, school counselors utilize a variety of tools and assessments to gather evidence of program and school counselor effectiveness (ASCA, 2012). Data generated from a multi-tiered system of supports, such as student achievement and behavior, are continuously collected and reviewed to determine student needs and intervention effectiveness. School counselors can use this data from a multi-tiered system of supports to determine student and school needs and create curriculum, small group and closing-the-gap action plans accordingly (Goodman-Scott et al., 2016). After implementing interventions, school counselors can measure the impact of their interventions on the desired student outcomes including attendance, office referrals and grades, thus determining their effectiveness and impact through the use of result reports. MTSS overlaps with comprehensive school counseling programs; thus, the two can be integrated to strengthen both. The following section discusses the commonalities between MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs.

Commonalities Between a Multi-Tiered System of Supports and Comprehensive School Counseling Programs

Several similarities exist between MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs (see Figure 1). Similarities include utilizing collaboration and coordinated services; efficiently using the school counselors’ time through tiered supports; collecting and reviewing student and school data; using evidence-based practices; developing culturally responsive interventions that close achievement gaps; promoting prevention and intervention for students through a tiered continuum; and facilitating schoolwide systemic change and a positive school climate. First, both frameworks have established leadership teams that guide program design and implementation, represent the stakeholders within the building and offer support in program development and accessing resources. Next, tiered approaches provide school counselors time to address whole-school needs while also providing services to and advocating on behalf of students in crisis or with significant needs. Thus, using tiered approaches may assist school counselors directly and indirectly serve students. Ongoing progress monitoring through continuous data collection keeps MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs focused and stakeholders informed, which may lead to greater stakeholder awareness and support for school counseling initiatives. Similarly, the use of evidence-based practices, recommended by MTSS and comprehensive school counseling, offers students quality, empirically-backed academic and behavioral services across all three tiers. A successful MTSS also allows school counselors to address achievement gaps and increase equitable practices by strengthening social supports for students in the classroom, school building and community who present with challenging behavior. A case study illustrating the role of school counselors as interveners, facilitators and supporters of integrating both MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs follows.

Case Study

Example Middle School (EMS) is located in a suburban setting with approximately 700 students across sixth, seventh and eighth grades; 25% of students come from households considered economically disadvantaged. The majority of students identify as Caucasian (45%) or African American (30%). RTI has been implemented in EMS for approximately seven years, while PBIS has been implemented for four years. The school administration consists of one principal and three assistant principals (APs), and the school counseling department includes three school counselors with a school counselor to student ratio of 1:233. Each grade level is assigned one AP and one school counselor.

The grade levels each meet bi-weekly to discuss academic planning and share information regarding students (both concerns and accomplishments). The EMS student support team is an interdisciplinary team that meets to create and discuss academic and behavioral interventions and related progress for students demonstrating consistent academic and behavioral challenges that were not successfully addressed by the grade-level Tier 1 meetings. The student support team is facilitated by a teacher and attended by the grade-level AP and school counselor as well as the school psychologists. Parents of the reviewed student also are invited. In addition, EMS has a PBIS team comprised of representatives from all grade levels and specialties, including one school counselor; parents and students are represented on the PBIS team. The school counselor and AP together oversee the PBIS data collection and analysis. Lastly, the school counseling team meets weekly and over the last seven years has developed a comprehensive school counseling program based on the ASCA National Model. All school counselors at EMS have essential roles in the program implementation.

Tier One

The school counselors act as supporters, interveners and facilitators in Tier 1. As supporters, EMS school counselors attend all regular grade-level meetings and provide background information on students as appropriate. As interveners, school counselors collaborate and consult with teachers on their instruction and curriculum as well as teachers’ monitoring and screening of all students to identify those with elevated academic and behavioral needs. For example, at the most recent seventh-grade-level meeting, the school counselor reviewed grade-level office discipline referrals, attendance records and teachers’ anecdotal feedback. The grade-level team expressed concern about a student, Elena, who had several absences and office discipline referrals in the last month. The seventh-grade school counselor provided non-confidential background information on Elena to the grade-level team members.

The school counselor on the PBIS team holds a number of additional roles as supporter. First, the counselor provides information on school climate generated by the comprehensive school counseling program, including both anecdotal observations and data-driven findings. The school counselor also assists the PBIS team in developing a common school language and protocols (i.e., school expectations: Be Responsible, Be Respectful, Be Safe), schoolwide and individual acknowledgements for students and staff, and discipline procedures (i.e., the office discipline referral process). In the role as facilitator, the school counselors assist the PBIS team as they plan schoolwide pep rallies to further teach the school expectations, acknowledge students, classes and staff with certain achievements (e.g., the homeroom with the lowest office discipline referrals per quarter; staff who distributed the highest number of school tickets). As an intervener, all school counselors teach the PBIS-generated school expectations during their regular monthly classroom lessons and engage in student acknowledgements (e.g., distributing EMS tickets for positive behaviors). Intervener roles also include school counselors engaging in student advising and schoolwide programming, such as teaching students and staff the bullying prevention strategies from Expect Respect, an evidence-based bully prevention program (Stiller, Nese, Tomlanovich, Horner, & Ross, 2013). Additionally, in roles as interveners, school counselors deliver a social skills curriculum to students during weekly homeroom advisory periods or through regular guidance lessons (Ziomek-Daigle, 2015). Further, school counselors collaborate with school psychologists to engage in universal mental health screening for student depression and anxiety and provide evidence-based classroom lessons to all students to promote positive mental health, as interveners (Donohue et al., 2016).

The school counseling program holds advisory team meetings quarterly. Members include all school counselors, a student and parent representative, a general education teacher from all grade levels, the PBIS coach, the AP who reviews PBIS data and one special education teacher. At the end of each year, the advisory team reviews a number of data points, including the comprehensive school counseling program goals from the previous year and related outcomes and results reports, schoolwide PBIS behavioral data, RTI instructional and behavioral data, and the school data profile. Next, the advisory team makes goals for the subsequent year based on data-determined needs. Then, based on the advisory team’s recommendations, the school counselors create closing-the-gap action plans and goals for the next year (i.e., SMART goals,). School counselors present the results of their advisory team meetings, action plans, SMART goals, and results reports to the administrative team (principal and APs), as well as the PBIS team, RTI team and whole school faculty.

Tiers Two and Three

When providing Tier 2 and 3 supports and services, the EMS school counselors engage in supporter, interventionist and facilitator roles. To follow up from the grade-level meetings, the EMS school counselors act as interveners by consulting and collaborating with teachers individually regarding evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions for struggling students as well as teachers’ classroom management. As part of the PBIS team, the school counselor acts as a supporter by discussing schoolwide behavioral trends, students with elevated office discipline referrals, and students who are otherwise considered at risk (e.g., absences, class failures, poor standardized and benchmark tests) and recommending interventions. One intervention may be referral to the student support team.

In a role as supporter, school counselors attend the student support team meetings and, along with this team, recommend increasingly individualized evidence-based student academic and behavioral interventions and monitor students’ progress at subsequent meetings. Tier 3 interventions are greater in duration and intensity than Tier 2 and have greater individualization. The student support team works together to identify students in need of Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions, facilitates service implementation and decides to decrease and end interventions due to students maintaining positive progress. The student support team recommends interventions which may include individual or small group counseling and function-based behavioral mentoring interventions such as Check In, Check Out and Check & Connect (Baker & Ryan, 2014). As interveners, school counselors often provide counseling and mentoring or coordinate other staff and community members’ involvement in mentoring programs. In addition, the school counselor may be trained to use the Check & Connect program and continuously review attendance, behavioral and academic data (i.e., check) and provide interventions (i.e., connect) to a small caseload of students who are being served through Tier 2 and 3 services. As facilitators, school counselors also may develop and access a list of health care providers so that students and families participate in a seamless referral process. In this role, counselors also may coordinate quarterly interdisciplinary meetings for a few students whose needs are complex and who receive community-based agency assistance. Some examples of interdisciplinary collaborative team members include: school counselors, mental health counselors, psychologists, nurses, probation officers and case workers. Lastly, the EMS school counselors, acting as interveners and facilitators, analyze the results of the universal mental health screener for depression and anxiety.

In regards to student Elena, the seventh-grade school counselor and grade-level team agreed that the school counselor would meet with Elena individually to gather additional background information on her absences and office discipline referrals. When Elena did not improve over the subsequent two-week period, more intensive and continued interventions were discussed with the grade-level team, including a referral to the student support team. After review by the student support team, Elena began Check & Connect with the school counselor, and the school counselor maintained communication with Elena’s mother and stepfather, teachers and members of the student support team.


ASCA (2014) recommends that school counselors can implement MTSS in alignment with facilitating a comprehensive school counseling program. Further, several scholars have contended that school counselors can be leaders in MTSS, incorporating these duties into aspects of a comprehensive school counseling program (Cressey, Whitcomb, McGilvray-Rivet, Morrison, & Shander-Reynolds, 2014; Goodman-Scott et al., 2016). As described in this article, MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs share many overlapping characteristics, and school counselors may act as leaders in both, vacillating between the roles of supporter, intervener and facilitator (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ziomek-Daigle & Heckman, under review). In implementing both frameworks, school counselors are able to focus on student achievement and behavior, as well as collaboration, data collection, evidence-based practices and social justice advocacy, to close achievement and equity gaps. Additionally, school counselors can utilize the existing MTSS in the schools to enhance, expand and challenge their own comprehensive programs and present new, relevant and critical research and practical implications to the field. Goodman-Scott et al. (2016) suggested that aligning both frameworks may be a strategy to advocate at local and national levels for the school counseling field and comprehensive school counseling program implementation. Presenting school counseling programs in this manner also can increase stakeholder involvement, access additional resources and increase job stability. Focusing on the overlap between MTSS and comprehensive school counseling programs leads to a data-driven, evidence-based focus on improving school climate, as well as student equity, access, and academic and behavioral success, meeting the needs of students across all three tiers.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.


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Jolie Ziomek-Daigle is an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia. Emily Goodman-Scott, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University. Jason Cavin is the Director of Behavior Support and Consultation at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University and a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia. Peg Donohue is an Assistant Professor at Central Connecticut State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Jolie Ziomek-Daigle, 402 Aderhold Hall, Athens, GA 30602,