Difference Between MTSS, RTI, and PBIS

Education has long been regarded as a basic human right. It ensures that individuals can become successful adults who can access various opportunities and lead independent lives.

Ensuring that education is accessible to all is the responsibility of the governing bodies. With the same goal in mind, the U.S. government has put several multi-tiered structures of support in place. 

MTSS, or Multi-Tiered System of Support, RTI or Response to Intervention and PBIS, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support have been introduced and implemented by the government to make education more inclusive and equitable.

This article will shed further light on these systematic educational support systems.

What do MTSS, RTI, and PBIS mean?

MTSS, RTI, and PBIS are all scientific, data-driven, three-tiered support systems that aim to make inclusive classrooms by providing each child with the support they need.

1. Positive behavioural interventions and support: A step in the needed direction 

The idea of PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, was introduced in 1997 through the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It received an official green flag and its funding in 1998 from the United States Department of Education. The motive behind PBIS was to enhance the learning and overall well-being of all students.

  1. Tier 1 in PBIS refers to Universal Supports/Practices, proactive behavioral interventions that each student in school is supposed to receive. Their goal is to prevent the development of any unwanted behaviors.
  1. Tier 2 stands for Targeted Supports, aimed to introduce behavioral interventions for children who are at a higher risk for developing problem behaviors and are not benefitting from tier 1 interventions.
  1. Tier 3 caters to Intensive Supports, offered to a very small and targeted group of students who need special individualized support and interventions. These individuals have usually developed several problem behaviors and are not responding well to tier 1 and 2 interventions.

2. Response to Intervention: Keeping up with the needs of the hour

The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act brought forth the idea of RTI or Response to Intervention. Much like PBIS, RTI is also a scientific research and data-driven structure supposed to enhance learning outcomes and facilitate equitable education for all. But, unlike PBIS, RTI takes a more proactive approach in screening everyone, whether they are at risk or not. It adopts a wider stance to not only prevent and address behavioral needs but academic needs as well.

RTI also has three tiers which take the form of a pyramid. 

  1. Tier 1 or Core classroom instruction makes sure that the topics being taught in the classroom are clear and understandable for the majority of the children. Every student is part of tier 1 instruction, and the goal is to facilitate quality learning through proper instruction.
  1. Tier 2, or Targeted small group instruction, focuses on a small percentage of children who require some extra support due to learning concerns and difficulties. Here specialized instruction is delivered to meet the needs of those groups of children.
  1. Tier 3, or Intensive individual intervention, focuses on individuals who are not able to benefit from tier 1 and 2 levels of instruction. Specialized intervention in this tier is customized to meet the individual needs of the child who is having difficulties.

In RTI, the goal is to get all students to benefit from the Tier 1 level of instruction. This is why students who do become a part of Tier 2 or 3 levels of instruction are also simultaneously a part of Tier 1 classes. Regular progress reports are also made to track how the students in different tiers are responding to the forms of instruction and if there are any modifications required in the type of instruction or the level of tier for a particular student.

3. Multi-Tiered system of support: Combining the best of RTI and PBIS

The Multi-Tiered System of Support or MTSS was introduced as a result of the 2015 Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act. MTSS combines the characteristics of both PBIS and RTI. It is also a data-based system of support meant to identify children who require it as early as possible and provide them with research-based interventions. Unlike PBIS and RTI, MTSS focuses on the holistic individual of the child and caters to healthy behavioral, academic, and socio-emotional development. It also aims to include all the stakeholders so that it can effectively meet the educational needs of all students. 

MTSS follows the same tiers as PBIS and RTI, namely, Tier 1: Universal Support for all Students, Tier 2: Targeted Support for Students at risk and Tier 3: Individualized and Intensive Support for Students with Challenges. 

In the MTSS framework, the focus isn’t just on students with learning difficulties but on everyone. The goal is to provide effective education to all that promotes learning and growth. This could include providing extra individualized support for basic concepts that children in Tier 3 might be having difficulties with and providing sufficient challenges to children in Tier 1 who are performing exceptionally well.

To implement this structure of support, regular and proactive testing, as well as progress checkups, are also required.

Key differences explored

Year of Introduction 201520041997
Three tiersTier 1: Universal Support, Tier 2: Targeted Intervention, Tier 3: Intensive InterventionTier 1: Core Classroom Instruction, Tier 2: Targeted Small Group Intervention, Tier 3: Intensive Individual InstructionTier 1: Universal Supports/Practices, Tier 2: Targeted Supports, Tier 3: Intensive Supports
FocusHolistic individual needs including socio-emotional, behavioral and academic Academic and behavioral needsMajorly behavioral needs
NatureProactive and ReactiveProactive Reactive

Is one better than the others?

A Multi-Tiered System of Support, the most recent advancement in the frameworks for inclusive education, builds on the best features of both Response to Intervention and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. It works as an umbrella framework that includes the proactive testing and regular progress reports characteristic of RTI and the tiered structure backed by scientific data first introduced by PBIS. It also aims to bring all the students to Tier 1 using research-based frameworks and interventions.

It emphasizes quality and individualized education that is beneficial for students on both sides of the curve. The focus isn’t just on students with learning differences who need alternative support mechanisms to learn better but also on exceptional students who need sufficiently challenging environments that optimize their educational outcomes.

MTSS also takes extra steps to ensure that all stakeholders involved in the education of children become a part of this framework. This could ensure equitable allocation of various resources as and when they are needed. MTSS also recognizes the integration of various life areas that contribute to the individual’s educational outcomes. This is why it takes a holistic approach in addressing not just academic and behavioral needs but also the social and emotional needs and development of the students.

The goal of MTSS is not just to help the student in getting better grades but also to help them better adjust, contribute and become an upstanding member of society.


PBIS, RTI, and MTSS are huge advancements in the feat to make education accessible and equitable for all. While these are inclusive structures of support, aimed at ensuring that each student benefits from their educational curriculum, they all still have room for improvement. They will need to be updated from time to time to keep up with the changing and growing needs of the students and the evolution of the structure of society.

Leave a Comment