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Applying whole-child design to a school's tiered system of supports


Guiding Principles and Infrastructure

All students have unique needs, interests, strengths and areas of vulnerability to strengthen, support, restore and maintain. The science of learning and development tells us that there are reasons behind the academic, social, emotional and motivational challenges that students present. Instead of asking why a student isn’t motivated, or what is “wrong” with them, we can instead ask:

How can we create an equitable school environment that does not identify the student as the problem, but rather honors individual context (both external and internal circumstances unique to any individual student) and addresses inequitable structurespolicies and practices in order to meet the needs of students?

We begin to answer this question by designing a Tiered System of Supports – one that is proactive, is grounded in science, recognizes student assets, and is integrated and holistic. Turnaround for Children’s approach to a tiered supports model is grounded in a set of key principles.

Four Key Principles for Tiered Supports

1. Recognizes and supports the needs of ALL children.

A tiered support system grounded in a whole-child vision avoids sorting students into “buckets” of those who are capable or not capable. Instead, this system recognizes that all children need fluctuating levels of support throughout their academic career. Children have strengths and challenges that are based on the ongoing interaction between their biology and experience.

2. Provides supports in an integrated way.

Children are complex and influenced by context (e.g., environment, experiences and relationships). Addressing their needs must be conducted in a comprehensive, holistic and integrated manner. While schools comprise a diverse set of adults with varying disciplines, the work is often done in isolation. However, a school environment should function like the human body, made up of different parts all working in sync with one goal in mind: to keep us alive. All body parts, though different in size and function, are dependent on one another. Similarly, each component of the school has a different function ultimately focused on one goal: a successful, well-rounded student.

3. Requires strong collaboration among all adults in a student’s context.

All adults in a student’s context – parents and caregivers, extended family, teachers, coaches, mentors – support their development in a critical way. Within the school, teachers and leaders must collaborate effectively to ensure that the tiered supports process runs smoothly and effectively. Extending outside the school, there is enormous benefit to leveraging the support of other stakeholders within the family and outside community. The commitment to a holistic approach that addresses the student’s environment, relationships, experiences, and skills and mindsets, along with a strong curriculum, requires a collaborative approach. Students bring with them the assets of culture and community, along with the difficulties and challenges they face outside of school. Many of those difficulties are complex in nature and will require support from a diverse set of resources to ensure quality and responsiveness to students and families.

4. Operates with an understanding of the impact of trauma and adversity on learning and development.

In order to educate the whole child, schools must recognize that all children arrive at school with a “backpack” full of experiences. These include assets such as culture and community, and challenges such as adversity and trauma. Included in adversity and trauma are effects of systemic racism and oppression that many of our students and their families experience regularly. The ability to effectively address the needs of students is contingent on first developing a strong understanding about the roots of trauma-related challenges and the impact of traumatic experiences on learning and development.


Explore the tools below to dig deeper into the infrastructure of a Tiered System of Supports and start innovating within your own system:

How Students Receive Access to Supports Within a Tiered System


Learn about the tiered infrastructure of a tiered system of supports.


Understanding the Differences Between Tier 2 and Tier 3


Learn more about Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports, which provide additional layers of support when universal practices are not sufficient to meet an individual student’s needs.


The Crisis Component of a Tiered System of Supports


Learn more about the direct Tier 3 pathway for when the nature of a student need is significant enough that it requires an urgent response.

Considerations for Tiered Supports in a Virtual or Hybrid Setting


Learn more about implementation of a Tiered System of Supports in alternatives to in-person school settings.


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