How an MTSS Can Support Anti-Bullying Initiatives in Schools

Using a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework, schools can better identify bullying victims and provide interventions that address perpetrators, empower victims, and support bystanders.

How an MTSS Can Support Anti-Bullying Initiatives in Schools

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Incidences of bullying have shot up 14 percentage points since 2019, with 40% of children and teens reporting that they were bullied on school campuses within the past year, according to an annual survey published by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Bullying negatively impacts all youth, including the bully, victims of bullying, and bystanders. Students who experience bullying are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, lower academic achievement, and dropping out of school. Bullies and bystanders also suffer negative mental and physical health consequences.

In addition to significantly affecting students’ mental health, bullying also strains school resources. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 14% of public schools report that bullying is a discipline problem that occurs daily or at least once a week.  

To prevent and address bullying, your district needs resources to create and sustain a school climate that establishes behavior expectations, promotes positive relationships, and supports both aggressors and victims of bullying. According to a study published in American Psychologist, schools that proactively implement programs promoting positive school climates can significantly reduce bullying and peer victimization, even if those programs don’t specifically target bullying behaviors. Research reveals such programs typically meet the needs of approximately 80% of students within a school. However, it’s often difficult to understand which of your students are at risk and may need more intense interventions before troubling behaviors occur.

Furthermore, in a Campus Safety article on predictions for 2024, Danielle Stevens, District Safety Manager at Lake Zurich CUSD 95 District, highlighted the increasing importance of emotional safety in K-12 schools. Stevens emphasizes the crucial role of prioritizing emotional safety alongside physical safety to create a conducive environment for learning. This prediction resonates with the ongoing efforts to foster positive school climates and combat bullying.

Identifying the Signs of Bullying

While there are distinct warning signs that someone is affected by bullying at school, you may have difficulty recognizing them, and many students who are bullied or are bullying others don’t ask for help.

Bullying can be especially challenging to spot in older students. For example, among teens, bullying is less physical and could include actions that take place in the form of cyberbullying. More than 20% of students between 9 and 12 have been victims of cyberbullying, have seen cyberbullying, or have cyberbullied others, according to Pacer. Of those who reported being victims of cyberbullying, 69% said it had devastating effects on their self-esteem. Among students aged 12 to 18, 15% were bullied online or by text.

Statistics from the 2018 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that students reported only 20% of school bullying incidents. Yet, two-thirds of tweens said they were willing to step in to defend, support, or assist those being bullied at school and online.

Some signs a student is being bullied could include:

  • Not wanting to attend school
  • Declining grades
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Avoidance of social situations or friends
  • Difficulty eating or sleeping
  • Lost clothing, electronics, or toys

At the same time, it can be tricky to recognize students who are bullying others. Some of the signs of bullying include:

  • Increasing aggression
  • Having friends who are bullies
  • Difficulty with accepting responsibility
  • Unexplained new belongings

With the right systems in place, schools can better identify students affected by bullying and provide timely interventions that address perpetrators, empower victims, and support bystanders.

The Role of an MTSS

Many schools already follow a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework, which addresses student wellbeing through three tiers of prevention and intervention. An MTSS can identify the elements that lead to bullying and victimization. Using MTSS as a guide, schools can offer escalating layers of programming and mental health support solutions to meet the needs of your entire student population.  

  • Tier 1 – These interventions include prevention programs, such as systems to support the acquisition of social-emotional skills, typically taught to all students by classroom teachers. Data from universal screenings can help determine whether certain groups of students would benefit from additional supports.
  • Tier 2 – Response-to-intervention programs address targeted student groups who might benefit from additional skill development or early intervention. At this level, students often work directly with educators or specialists—such as school counselors or other school behavior or mental health professionals—to address their academic or social-behavioral needs.
  • Tier 3 – These programs target individual students and include one-on-one instruction and services for students needing ongoing social behavioral support, typically delivered by a mental health counselor. Tier III services often address the most severe behavioral and mental health concerns. In some cases, students may be referred to community-based services.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, MTSS efforts can improve school safety, create safe and supportive learning environments free from bullying and harassment, support students’ mental and behavioral health, and reinforce effective discipline policy and practice. However, for it to work, your team must move students to the right support tier when needed. As most schools nationwide face special education staffing shortages and tight budgets, school leaders can benefit from an integrated, one-stop MTSS that provides the intervention resources, support, and data needed to serve students at all three levels.

The Benefits of an Integrated MTSS System

With clear, ongoing visibility into students’ social and emotional needs, it’s easier to understand what behaviors could be contributing to different types of bullying. Yet, schools often lack scalable Tier 1 solutions that accurately assess students’ social-emotional health and guide educators through transitions in Tiers 1, 2, and 3. An integrated MTSS solution can uncover key warning signs that indicate a student or groups of students require more targeted or comprehensive services.

Here’s how it works:

  • Universal mental health screeners give educators important information about students’ social and emotional health. Data from these screeners also give you insights into how well your student body is functioning and may uncover any behaviors that indicate bullying.
  • Classroom guidance lessons support general education classrooms, helping districts meet social-emotional learning objectives and schoolwide wellness and mental health initiatives. These lessons can help students recognize bullying and better understand how to report and confront it.
  • Staff professional development helps educators improve their knowledge of wellness, student mental health, and personal mental health, empowering them to recognize risk factors.
  • Student risk and student threat assessments can determine if students cause a threat to themselves or others. School leaders can then work with counselors or other follow-up interventions.

Once schools have data that points to a greater need for Tier 2 and 3 solutions, they often struggle to find resources. In 2021, only 8% of school districts met the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of one school psychologist for 500 students. When students require specialized providers, schools can fill that gap with licensed, skilled clinicians and service providers with diverse specializations.

Bullying is not a rite of passage—it’s a behavior that can seriously harm a student’s academic performance, mental and physical health, and personal safety. By proficiently utilizing their Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) to identify conducive behaviors and environments and provide appropriate assistance to perpetrators and victims, schools can make substantial progress in diminishing harmful incidents and fostering a positive school environment.

Jeremy Glauser is the founder and CEO of eLuma, an end-to-end student services solution that addresses intervention needs for mental health and special education across a school district’s multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). Jeremy also serves as an advisory council member for school mental health on The Kennedy Forum, founded by former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), which aims to advance health equity by promoting evidence-based practices, policies, and programming related to mental health and substance use.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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