New law provides academic, behavioral supports for students in need (Capitol Update)

Third-year Representative Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, has been on a mission to provide for the implementation of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to address the core academic and non-academic needs of all students in Oklahoma public schools. During the 2020 interim Conley, a former teacher and administrator, hosted a study examining the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress on children’s behavior in the classroom and efforts schools can make to help avoid suspension.

According to state health officials, recent studies show Oklahoma ranks as the worst in the nation for the number of adverse childhood experiences. Such experiences include neglect and abuse, drug use in the home, exposure to domestic violence, living with someone who is mentally ill, having an incarcerated family member, living in a broken home, and more.

A child with several adverse childhood experiences is more likely to do poorly in school, get in trouble with the law as a juvenile or adult, and may have a reduced life expectancy.

MTSS is a framework that schools can use to provide targeted support to struggling students. It supports academic growth and achievement, but it also supports other areas such as behavior, social and emotional needs, and absenteeism. It’s a proactive approach that has several key elements:

  • Universal screening for all students early in each school year.
  • Increasing levels of targeted support for those who are struggling.
  • Integrated plans that address students’ academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs.
  • The use of evidence-based strategies.
  • A schoolwide approach to student support; Teachers, counselors, psychologists, and other specialists work as a team when they assess students and plan interventions.
  • Professional development so staff can deliver interventions and monitor progress effectively.
  • Family involvement so parents can understand the interventions and provide support at home.
  • Frequent monitoring of students’ progress so educators can use this data to help decide if more interventions are needed.

MTSS uses three tiers of support to assist all students at various levels. These three tiers include: 

Tier 1: The whole class. All students are taught with methods that research has shown to be effective. All students are screened to see who is and isn’t responding to these strategies. Classes may be broken into small groups that address different strengths and areas of need. (75-90 percent of students)

Tier 2: Small group interventions. Some students receive more targeted support in small groups. The scheduling of these interventions is important. The goal is to keep students from missing any core instruction or other Tier 1 activities that might make it harder to catch up. (10-25 percent of students) 

Tier 3: Intensive individualized support. A few students who move up to this most intensive level of support continue with Tier 1 activities. Their break-out groups are smaller than in Tier 2. And these sessions last longer and are more narrowly focused. (less than 10 percent of students)

HB 1773, authored by Rep. Conley and Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, passed both the House and Senate and was signed by Gov. Stitt last Friday. The bill requires the teacher preparation system in higher education to require all teacher candidates to study the philosophy, overarching framework, components, and implementation of MTSS, and it provides specific requirements for literacy, mathematics, behavioral health and identification and impact of trauma on student learning and trauma-informed responsive instruction. 

It’s no easy chore to pass a major policy mandate for teacher education. Rep. Conley’s expertise, focus, and determination paid off. She has already made a big difference in the lives of Oklahoma students, especially those who might be on the wrong track because of trauma experienced in their lives. Hopefully, she’ll soon have the opportunity to watch MTSS being implemented in schools across the state.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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