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Tier the Supports… Not the Students

When schools engage in a Collaborative Response approach, our focus is on what we know about a student as a team, identifying their needs through focused assessments and providing the appropriate supports as they need them. When we engage in the activity of tiering our supports, we essentially say to our school team “we do good things in this school and in our classrooms… now let’s clearly articulate them, organize and support each other to access our collective toolbox!” This seemingly simple task of tiering our interventions, strategies and accommodations is powerful, as it confirms the good things happening in our school and reinforces that the students are not tiered…it is our responses that are tiered.


View an Overview of Collaborative Response

So what does it look like in practice to tier our supports for students without labeling or tiering the students themselves? It may appear, on the surface, to be a minor shift of semantics but it is a substantial shift in mindset for our teams responding to the needs of students.

Establish a Focus

First, we choose an area of focus that aligns with a key strategic priority in our school improvement plan. For example, if we determine a school-wide focus on literacy growth is a priority, we would develop a literacy continuum of supports. During the COVID pandemic, we saw student well-being become a major priority for schools… as a result, many schools went about developing a well-being continuum of supports. In time, a school could have several continuums developed and being consistently refined and utilized to support students.

Articulate the Supports

​​We then use the simple question “what do we do when a student struggles with (insert area of focus)?” to surface all the things we do in our classrooms and our school as a response. When schools do this in workshops, it typically involves reams of post-it notes being produced, each one sharing a strategy, accommodation or intervention that anyone uses in that particular area. If developing a literacy continuum of supports, ideas like “small group reading instruction”, “word walls”, “individual student dictionaries”, and “afternoon pull out program provided by interventionist” may be some of the many ideas surfaced. The most common responses we hear from this activity are “we do a lot as a school community” and “there is nothing really remarkable about what we’ve identified.” However, it also starts a rich conversation about classroom practice, one that does not end at the conclusion of this particular activity. It surfaces practices happening in one classroom that may not be happening in another. Teachers begin to form a common language, as one teacher typically refers to a particular strategy as something different, but it is virtually the same practice.

Tier the Supports

From there, we move to tiering all the supports (the post-its) into four tiers, most simply described as:

  • Tier 1 – universal instructional practices we use in all classrooms for all students
  • Tier 2 – supports provided by the classroom teacher for some students some of the time
  • Tier 3 – supports provided by someone other than the classroom teacher, but still school-based
  • Tier 4 – supports provided by someone external to the school

Many traditional tiered models, where students are tiered, focus on a three-tier approach, with a pyramid shape illustrating the optimal or desirable placement of students accessing supports that are increasingly intensifying. The universal tier, or Tier 1, would be where we would want to see 75-85% of students situated, finding success with instruction at the classroom level. As you can see, our approach in Collaborative Response does not take the traditional three-tiered approach and add another tier on top to make four. It essentially breaks apart the universal tier 1 into tier 1 and 2 – but both still within the domain of the classroom teacher. It is tier 3 and 4 supports where we begin to look beyond the realm of the classroom teacher for additional support.

View a Four Tier Support Overview

Refinement and Utilization

From that tiered collection of supports, a menu is developed, as shown in the sample below. However, it is important to note that a continuum of supports is never a finished product. It is constantly evolving, as new approaches are added through professional learning and further sharing, and less than impactful supports are removed. It essentially becomes a living document within the school, constantly being referred to when discussing and responding to the needs of students. Here is a supplementary document, sharing different strategies and ideas for schools engaging in consistent refinement and utilization of a continuum of supports.

View a sample literacy continuum of supports, as well as access additional samples

Narrowing Tier 1 and Expanding Tier 2

When you tier the students, a pyramid shape makes sense, as we envision the majority of students in tier 1, far fewer in tier 2 and even fewer in tier 3. However, when we tier the supports, a pyramid shape does not apply. Over time, we strive to narrow tier 1 to the “big rocks” – the non-negotiable, universal practices we collectively expect to see in every classroom for every learner. That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize that there are a large number of things we can be doing for students in the classroom. Rather, we collectively identify the 5-10 practices that we consider essential and will be part of every classroom in our school (as shown in the sample). However, there are a lot of things we can be doing in the classroom, beyond just the collectively identified universal tier 1 practices. These become the tier 2 interventions, strategies and accommodations which could be utilized by the classroom teacher to support a struggling student. As shown in the example, the tier 2 supports take up over half the page, which is why we see the bulge in the visual graphic at tier 2. We know that teaching is not uniform – some things that I do in my classroom for all students may not be something you do. For me, it is a tier 1 practice. For you, it is a tier 2. On our collective continuum, it is identified as tier 2, unless we all agree it is something everyone should be doing, which would move it to tier 1. This results in the gradual shading seen in the visual overview, rather than hard lines of division between tiers.

Essentially, by breaking up the traditional universal tier into Tier 1 and 2, we communicate there are some absolute “must-do’s” that we all must ensure are in place in every classroom… but then there are a large number of other instructional considerations we can put in place before ever looking beyond the classroom for support. Then, when we do look at tier 3 and 4 supports, we build these upon a strong foundation of tier 1 and 2 practices as additional support, rather than moving the child to the next tier, which can sometimes communicate “they are now the responsibility of someone else”.

Deprivatizing Practice

The development, followed by continual refinement and utilization, of a school’s continuum of supports, has an incredible impact on multiple fronts. It deprivatizes practice, sharing the rich toolboxes of practices for every teacher and assembling them in a common “toolshed” for all to access. It initiates questions of practice and sharing across classrooms. It makes it safe to ask questions about each other’s responses for students and classroom practice. It also provides distinct opportunities to ensure we’ve exhausted everything we could be doing at the classroom level before looking beyond the classroom to add another layer of support. Essentially, it provides confirmation that we don’t “hand off” a student to a more specialized team – we add those additional supports onto the strong foundation of tier 1 and 2 supports already established for the student. When we tier the supports, not the students, we shift our mindset to focus on what our collaborative response is for each and every student needing our support in different areas of focus.

Learn more about a continuum of supports from this May 2022 Collaborative Response Symposium Keynote address, as well as access additional resources and samples on the Jigsaw Learning website.

Written by

Kurtis Hewson is the co-founder of Jigsaw Learning and currently works with districts and schools nationally and internationally establishing Collaborative Response frameworks. With more than a decade of experience as a school admin­istrator, Kurtis has championed the call for collaborative struc­tures in schools to ensure suc­cess for all students. He is the author of Collaborative Response: The Three Foundational Components That Transform How We Respond to the Needs of Learners Lorna Hewson is a passion­ate educator who is co-founder and Lead Learner of Jigsaw Learning, a Canadian consult­ing company that provides support for educators. She is an engaging presenter, facilita­tor, coach, and mentor and has served to support classrooms, schools, and districts nation­ally and internationally. She is the author of Collaborative Response: The Three Foundational Components That Transform How We Respond to the Needs of Learners

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