Frontline Initiative

The Community Support Skill Standards


Marianne Taylor is senior research associate at the Human Services Research Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts

As a senior research associate for the Human Services Research Institute, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many direct support professionals from across the country and have heard many of their stories. The most personal of them have come from my brother Joe, who works with children in Pennsylvania. He’s shared many stories that illustrate the multiple facets of his job and affect my emotions in ways that are sometimes disturbing, though often inspirational. His stories illustrate that his role as a DSP bears enormous responsibility, involving the ability to teach, love, comfort, protect, and guide those in his care toward a positive future.

He once described how staff were given rancid butter to use for the children’s meal. Because my brother objected, good butter was provided – but with opposition from program administrators. This story reminded me of the vulnerability of many of the people who depend on human services for support and the importance of the direct service practitioner in delivering good supports. Knowing how difficult it can be for DSPs to speak up in these kinds of situations, this story left me concerned about how direct support professionals could be empowered.

In recent years, through the Community Support Skill Standards Project (CSSS), I’ve worked with direct support workers and others to move toward a public and collaborative search for ways to strengthen and support the direct service workers in performing their many roles, including advocacy. One outcome of this search has been the creation of the CSSS.

The Community Support Skill Standards are a body of practice standards that describe the knowledge, work practices, and philosophic basis of the direct service role in a concrete and comprehensive way. This is especially important given that the direct service work force isn’t currently identified or counted correctly by the Department of Labor – nor is the role visible or well understood by the general public. By describing what direct support practitioners know and do, the Community Support Skill Standards have defined a valid title and role that can be recognized and valued within a professional context.

DSPs have collaborated to construct the content and the vision of the CSSS. Direct support workers serving various populations converged for a series of two-day workshops. Using a prescribed methodology, a DACUM (developing a curriculum) analysis, facilitators led these practitioners in discussions of many aspects about their day-to-day activities as well as exercises designed to identify industry trends and values which were then distilled into a the following definition: The Community-Based Human Service Practitioner assists the participant to lead a self-directed life and contribute to his or her community, and encourages attitudes and behaviors that enhance inclusion in his or her community.

Data from these workshops were synthesized and then validated through a survey of stakeholders and used by expert panels that included consumers, educators, workers, and employers to write the standards. The formulation of these standards bridges the gap between anecdote and practice. These are a just few examples of how people are using them:

  • Tyngsborough, Massachusetts’ high school uses the CSSS to introduce students to human service and to build career exploration activities involving work-based learning in human service environments.
  • Nekton, Inc., of Minneapolis used the standards to assess organizational training needs, devise competency-based worker self-appraisal systems, and design pre- and in-service training content specifications.
  • City University of New York used the standards to strengthen curriculum in four-year degree programs.
  • The technical colleges of New Hampshire used the CSSS to strengthen curriculum, enhance faculty development, and create virtual workplaces for students.

While stories like my brother’s provide an important means of understanding the direct support role, the CSSS marks the first attempt to use a systematic and national approach to defining this role and communicating it to a wide spectrum of people.