March 7, 2024

It’s February, and Angie is concerned about some of her students who spend significant time in their classroom’s “quiet corner” to regulate behaviors and emotions. Angie is also attentive to the fact that a majority of these learners happen to be students of color. Within her school’s Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) model, she knows she can refer students for more targeted Tier 2 social and emotional learning (SEL) supports. However, she senses the need to delve deeper into understanding why students of color may be experiencing emotional escalations in her classroom

In our Massachusetts Social, Emotional, and Behavior (SEB) Academy work, we coach teachers like Angie in equitably using MTSS to foster the well-being of diverse groups of students. In the MTSS model, educators use individual student-level data, such as the amount of time a student spends in the quiet corner or their number of visits to the principal’s office, to identify students who need additional support, and then they refer them for more targeted (Tier 2) or intensive (Tier 3) interventions. Educators use this data to select an intervention, usually one that is student focused. For example, students who frequent the quiet corner receive targeted interventions to help them strengthen their self-regulation skills.

Individual student data is important. However, considering only individual student data takes on a deficiency perspective toward the individual student without considering the systems that the student is operating within. To equitably use MTSS to address each student’s social, emotional, and behavioral needs, educators must also consider each student’s unique background, identity, and feeling of belonging in the context of the classroom environment and culture.

Below, we briefly describe four pitfalls that educators often encounter when using MTSS and then share strategies that educators can use to apply an equity lens to MTSS work.

1. Pitfall: When we expect students to adhere to norms and expectations that are driven by our own identities and experiences, we miss an opportunity to foster student investment and ownership in the classroom.


  • Co-develop classroom behavioral norms and expectations with your students.
  • Respect and value each student’s individual stories, contributions, and experiences.
  • Engage students in self-awareness and identity work as a path to self-management and self-regulation.

2. Pitfall: When we believe escalated behaviors should be punished, tiered supports and strategies can look like rewards for bad behavior.


  • Talk with students about their use of SEB supports and strategies. Listen to student responses with empathy and curiosity.
  • Collaborate with your students to come up with a set of agreements about strategy use that includes their ideas and contributions.
  • Develop your understanding of restorative practices.

3. Pitfall: When we make decisions solely based on aggregate data, or assume all students have the same opportunities, we risk exacerbating inequities.


  • Engage in continuous professional learning and self-reflection to understand events and experiences through the lenses of power, culture, and race.
  • Disaggregate data to identify trends by different social identities, such as race, gender, class, ability, and language.

4. Pitfall: When we avoid conversations about social differences, equity, and racial inequality we deny the opportunity to develop and practice social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies.


  • Incorporate “racial literacy” as an element of SEL.
  • Build students’ empathy skills and social awareness by providing opportunities to share their lived experiences.

EDC’s model of support integrates equity throughout MTSS systems, so educators have the knowledge, tools, and resources to shift their practice. This work is ongoing, and there is no magic solution, but with time and intentionality, educators can become aware of these pitfalls, recognize them when they rear their ugly heads, and place equity in the center of their reflective decision-making.

Are you working to weave equity into MTSS systems? What pitfalls have you encountered, and what strategies are you using to address the pitfalls? Please share your insights in a comment.

 Sara Velia Niño is an educational equity expert and scholar-practitioner who advances systemic change in education. As a member of EDC’s SEB Academy team, she supports the use of effective SEB and inclusive, anti-racist, and culturally and linguistically sustaining practices.
Tori Todd is an expert in solutions-focused coaching and an experienced learning designer. As project director for EDC’s SEB Academy, she oversees the design and delivery of professional learning services that focus on creating equitable, human-centered education systems.
Behavioral, Physical, and Mental Health

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