MTSS and PBIS: What can it do for me?

What does an MTSS have that we don’t? Four advanced degrees. Two doctoral candidacies. Two decades of teaching experience at multiple grade levels and multiple subjects Not to mention, this includes special education and classes of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. That is what my husband and I bring to the table.We can handle anything that life throws at us because we have been educated to do so. We are considered the two top behavior experts at our school. You have a problem kid? That’s OK. We have solutions for you.

We sound pretty impressive between the two of us, right? 

Then, the joke is on you, because nothing could have prepared us for what was coming. The Year of the Threenager.

Toddler vs. Professional

Oh yes, the struggle is real. Behavior reinforcement and application is supposed to be universal, but my child is as stubborn as I am. (I was told repeatedly by family members that this would happen.) All the education and experience with children I have could not prepare me for the following conversation that happened right after my son turned three:

“Son, it’s time you pooped on the toilet.”

“No, Mama, I poop in a diaper.”

“You already go pee pee in the potty. It’s time to poo poo, too.”


“But you get a sucker if you poop in the potty.”

“I want a sucker.”

“You can have a sucker if you go poop in the potty.”

“I want a yellow sucker.”

“Oh, my child…”

“Or…how about blue, Mama?”

Let me just cut to the chase. My three-year-old was so focused on that sucker that we could not continue the conversation. I bet you didn’t wake up this morning thinking you would read about poop today. Fear not, that’s as far as this story goes with my son’s toilet training. 

For now.

Behavior Management

Teenagers and threenagers are really not so different, are they? They both have big emotions that they can’t quite handle yet, test the boundaries that have been set for them, and most importantly, they are trying to find an identity for themselves.

And yes, we must consider these things when we talk about behavior, for all behaviors have functions. That is the battle cry of those of us who search for the ultimate classroom management of unwanted behaviors. These functions can be based on sensory need, activation of the flight or fight response, or the receipt of tangible objects or attention. When we are thinking of students and how to help them achieve their goals, we must address their emotional and behavioral needs first. We cannot educate children who are driven by behaviors that detract from their learning process. They don’t care. Indeed, all they can focus on is their immediate needs.

The multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) model allows us to focus on the whole child. The umbrella of services that include emotional support, behavioral management, and academic interventions occur at a school-wide level; students are not “pulled out” of class, nor do they need an Individualized Education Plan to participate in this model. Instead, the faculty of a school works together to provide evidence-based interventions. These interventions can move from whole class instruction to small group to one-on-one depending on the students’ needs and the response to interventions. A more intense program is implemented if a child is not responsive to the initial whole group or small group instruction, and progress monitoring provides us with the data we need to make educated decisions about the child’s interventions. 

The Toilet Problem

Let me humbly brag for a moment. To start off, my three-year-old is a smart kid. He can add and subtract small numbers already. Even more, he knows words like “delicious” and “creation,” and the little booger can count to forty and identify all the letters of the alphabet. 

But no matter the bribery, no matter the positive praise, and no matter the effort on my behalf, he still will not poop in the toilet.

All behavior has a function. So, I decided to put his advanced vocabulary to the test when he asked me to put a diaper on him. This is his signal that it is time to go #2.

“Baby, don’t you want to use the potty for this?”

“I scared. I don’t like it.”

“Scared? What are you scared of?”

“I scared. Diaper now?”

Oh, I would like to yank my hair out, but instead I calmly put on the diaper. I have watched videos and read books. I have talked to other parents. Some of you are shaking your heads and saying, “Why doesn’t she just put him on the toilet and get it over with?”

I tried. He kicked and screamed and cried real tears, breaking down into the “no no no no no no NO!” chant so common to this age group. This is the child who clambers up on top of the cabinets and proudly waits for me to address him. In addition, he yanks away from holding my hand to run towards something that interests him. He is not normally an anxious child. He is downright fearless when it comes to most good things. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience deliberately scare my child again. Oh, and I don’t want poop all over the bathroom floor from the kicking and screaming. There is that.

Figuring out why

All behavior has a function. The function of my son’s behavior is escape or avoidance. Something is activating his flight or fight response, and he chooses flight every time.

Remember, if your student isn’t growing academically, we must make sure that we are addressing these types of behaviors first. There is absolutely a reason. Cognitive disabilities should be addressed appropriately through special education services, but if a child is performing below his or her ability level, we need to figure out the why. You can benefit up to 85-95% of your school population by implementing more proactive approaches. PBIS IS NOT THE EQUIVALENT OF SUCKERS. Bribery did not work for my threenager, and it’s not going to work for your most vulnerable students; they do not trust the quick and easy. My child will do almost anything for a sucker, but something extreme is driving his avoidance behavior: fear. Instead of a goods-for-behavior contract, MTSS is the overhaul of an entire school culture to embrace the social, emotional, and academic growth of each and every child. 

Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) fall under the umbrella of MTSS. This school-wide system promotes the use of research and behavioral analysis to educate the whole child. We can push academics all we like, but the reality is that almost half of the children in the United States have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. They are struggling in their own minds, and there is no room for new content until we help them manage their thoughts and behaviors. The U.S. Department of Education says that the goal of MTSS is to “promote positive, predictable, safe environments for everyone in all school settings.”

Strategies for Classroom Management

  • Firstly, you’ve got to set the right mood in the classroom with your expectations. Know what your expectations are, and make sure the students know them, too. These should be positively worded and involved the values of the classroom. For example, instead of “Don’t talk while the teacher is talking,” your expectation may be “Be respectful” and together you would establish what type of behaviors are respectful. Practice and reinforce these behaviors. Point out model behaviors when they occur.
  • Additionally, look for behavior antecedents in the environment. What is happening shortly before the undesired behavior occurs? Is the behavior an effect of a stimulus such as transition time, a type of assignment, or request? Sometimes changing a child’s behavior can be as simple as changing the antecedent. 
  • Furthermore, deliver positive feedback. One time, I was observing in a classroom to create a Functional Behavioral Analysis on a student. In the duration of 46 minutes, the teacher called that student’s name 26 times. Twenty-four of these times were negative occurrences (such as, “stop talking” or “sit still” or “stop tapping your pencil”), and two times were to answer questions the student asked. However, the student was on task for 34 of those minutes. Take a good long look at how you talk to your children in the classroom. Are you celebrating their victories? You do need to realize that the positive feedback to criticism ratio should be about 4:1 to be effective. For students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the positive feedback needs to be twice that amount to be effective!
  • Lastly, consider mistakes to be learning opportunities. Address students quietly and separately. Don’t seek to “make an example” out of the child; that only leads to greater emotional instability. Make sure to ask the student how they should have responded to the situation and if the student cannot answer, make sure he or she knows the alternate correct behavior. Provide opportunities for that child to either practice the correct behavior or make amends for the undesired behavior.

SEL programs in an MTSS make it more effective

All of these practices contribute to a culture of understanding, tolerance, and growth mindset. Effective MTSS and PBIS contributes to the social and emotional growth and maintenance of children. There are over 30% less office referrals in schools where PBIS is a part of the culture. Think about how much of your time is eaten up by the discipline process! This could change.

In a four-year study, Johns Hopkins researchers found that these schools who implemented pro-social behavior programs as part of PBIS or MTSS saw a dramatic decrease in disruptive behaviors, and impressive increases in concentration and academic scores, and greater student emotional regulation. There is research to support this as well, common sense tells us that the things on this list also increase the job satisfaction of teachers and principals everywhere. 

Literally, everyone wins with a curriculum that focuses on social and emotional learning and implementation in every classroom. Because when kids feel safe in their behavioral processes, they can perform academically. All of it is interconnected, and no variable in the education equation lives in isolation. Furthermore, we cannot “fix” grades without addressing behaviors. 

If you don’t already have the resources for this available, it can be terrifying and overwhelming. But it is critical that we implement MTSS and PBIS with confidence. We owe it to our students to give them an educational environment that is set up for their success. 

It’s OK to Ask for Help

No matter how smart or innovative we are, sometimes we just need help to start. I mean, I have never failed anything in my life, until now. So what did I do? I consulted an expert. Go ahead, make fun of me. After all, I am the overeducated, pretentious lady consulting a doctor about something that children have literally been doing for millions of years. Pooping. Who knew my all my years of college were really preparing me for a doctor telling me in a nice way that I’m an idiot?

After only three questions, our pediatrician calmly explained that my son is constipated, and because it hurts to go, he associates the entire process with pain. Hence, the flight or fight response with the toilet. He thinks I am deliberately trying to cause him pain, whereas in a diaper, he can choose to hold it. It broke my heart, but I am relieved there is a solution. The doctor gave me a plan of action, and one of them is to address the fear of the process before even attempting to move forward. At no point am I just to assume that he will “get over it” or “grow out of it.”

Solving the Mystery

All behavior has a function, and all children are human. My son was trying to tell me something, and I did not understand because I am not an expert in pediatric gastrointestinal issues. I know when to ask for help, and I’m so glad that I did. I would never intentionally cause my children pain. 

And you know what that crazy part is? I can’t believe it took me so long because as a classroom teacher, when I don’t know something, I ask questions. Then I do research. Finally, I look for solutions that make sense. Interestingly enough, I needed to practice this for my mama side, too. It just took me a bit to understand that. If you’re feeling the same way about the broad scope and intimidating depth of implementing a social and emotional curriculum, we got you. Also, everything we do is based on evidence, and we are all about building relationships and creating classroom communities that are student-centered.

WhyTry is designed to be an integral part of MTSS and PBIS. If you’re not seeing the results you want from your own PBIS program, we can even help you improve the system you have in place now. Likewise, there may even be a special population of children you have in mind who can benefit from more intense interventions. No matter your barrier, we can help you overcome it. We are the experts when it comes to a social and emotional curriculum worth investing in.

Call us today to schedule your own demo. We can help you add to your organization’s MTSS.

Just don’t ask about potty training. You’re on your own for that one.


Bradshaw, C. P., Waasdorp, T. E., & Leaf, P. J. (2012). Effects of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports on child behavior problems. Pediatrics, 130(5), e1136–e1145. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-0243

United States Department of Education. (2010, November). Resource: Supporting Students with Challenging Behavior in the Classroom. Retrieved from

Walsh, Lynn. (2017, December 19). Understanding Child Trauma. Retrieved from

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