MTSS and PBIS Comparison

MTSS and PBIS are a couple of the many acronyms educators use when talking about helping and supporting students. In this post, we'll share what these acronyms stand for, the frameworks behind them, and how these frameworks differ and overlap.


What is MTSS?

MTSS stands for multi-tiered system of supports. It’s a comprehensive framework that school districts use to provide targeted support to struggling students. MTSS often includes:


  • Universal screening for all students
  • A schoolwide approach to student support, including teachers, counselors, psychologists, and other specialists (and parents/caregivers!)
  • Use of evidence-based strategies and interventions at every tier of support
  • Time-bound monitoring of student progress


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Many districts use a three-tier system. Here’s a basic outline of how a three-tiered system works, according to


Tier 1: Whole class - All students in the general education classroom are in this tier. Students may work in small groups based on their strengths and areas of need. The school monitors all kids’ progress. A student who is struggling may move to Tier 2.


Tier 2: Small group interventions - Students in Tier 2 still attend Tier 1 lessons with the rest of the class. But they get more targeted support through small group lessons. It can also mean special teaching, called interventions. A student who isn’t making progress may stay in Tier 2 or move to Tier 3.


Tier 3: Intensive individualized support - This tier can mean small group work or individual lessons. Most kids in Tier 3 still spend a lot of the day in the general education classroom. They may spend more time in a resource room than before.

If students don’t make progress in Tier 3, the MTSS team would consider a comprehensive evaluation to determine if a student qualifies for special education. The goal of using MTSS is to monitor and intervene early so that students can catch up to their peers.


What is PBIS?

PBIS stands for positive behavioral interventions and supports. It’s a proactive approach school districts use to promote school safety and good behavior. PBIS focuses on prevention rather than punishment and emphasizes the use of positively framing behaviors

For example, instead of a teacher telling a student, “Don’t talk back,” they would say, “Talk respectfully”. PBIS follows the concept that students can only meet behavior expectations if they know what the expectations are and emphasizes the use of common language to talk about behavior at school. 


Similar to MTSS, PBIS also uses a three-tier system:

Tier 1: Universal, schoolwide system for everyone- All students at the school learn basic behavior expectations, like respect and kindness. School staff recognize and praise students for good behavior. Sometimes, they use small rewards, like tokens or prizes, to recognize kids.


Tier 2: Extra targeted support for struggling students- Some students have a harder time with behavior expectations. The school gives these kids evidence-based interventions and instruction. 


Tier 3: Intensive support for individual students- The third tier of PBIS is the most intensive. It’s for students who need individualized support and services because of ongoing behavioral concerns.

According to research, “PBIS leads to better student behavior. In many schools that use PBIS, students get fewer detentions and suspensions. They also earn better grades. And there’s some evidence that PBIS may lead to less bullying." (


3 Differences Between MTSS vs PBIS

If you’re thinking, “There seems to be a lot of overlap between these two systems…” you’re not wrong–there is! Even though these two systems do have their similarities, they also have a few key differences.

  1. MTSS focuses on "whole-child," including academics, behavior, social and emotional development, and absenteeism. PBIS is solely behavior focused. 

  2. MTSS uses universal screenings (usually 3x/year) to determine where students are to help identify at-risk students. PBIS is a schoolwide learning environment that is implemented for all students.

  3. With PBIS, students with IEPs or 504 plans can be in any of the tiers. With MTSS, IEP students are not included in the tiered-system since they already qualify for targeted interventions through special education.

Understanding the differences between MTSS and PBIS can be tricky. Both models have a lot of overlap and similarities in their structure, including the use of a tiered system.

While these two models are different, they both have the same end goal: to provide support and to ensure that all students are getting the instruction they need to learn and be successful in school.


Are you looking for a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum to support students in every tier? The Everyday Speech SEL Curriculum supports every student in your building. Learn more here.

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