Frontline Initiative Teamwork

Working Together to Create Professionals


Deb Matthai is director of Staff Development at SPIN, INC

Special People In Northeast, Inc. (SPIN) is a non- profit organization founded in 1970 as a summer camp for children and adolescents with moderate and severe mental retardation. Today, 300 Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) at SPIN assist over 1,500 infants, children, and adults with mental retardation. Our mission is to develop community resources, services and initiatives in support of people with mental, physical and/or sensory impairments so that they may exercise their right to a fully integrated life as citizens of their communities. 

In the fall of 1998, SPIN informed its Union (AFSCME Local 1739) that a change was needed in the direct care position in the agency in order for SPIN to be current with best practices in the field. Our vision is to help all 300 staff to develop greater skills and move beyond simply caring for people with mental retardation towards actively teaching and supporting people with mental retardation in their pursuit of an everyday life.

SPIN proposed that AFSCME Local 1739 and management work together as a team to forge the vision of a new position. The Union readily concurred. A new staff position, titled Direct Support Professional (DSP), was suggested to the Union, which reflected the shift in the field, and this agency. This shift moved the direct care position focus from care giving and habilitation to support in living an inclusive and meaningful life. Later that year, representatives of the Union, which included DSPs, and SPIN management worked together to design this new position and the training needed to support the conversion to a new model of providing supports

The DSP planning team met weekly to develop the vision, values and job responsibilities for the DSP position. After two months of positive, open meetings, the job responsibilities of the DSPs position were developed. The next step was designing training to develop the competencies needed to perform the newly defined job functions for the position. The foundation for the development of competency-based curriculum for the DSP trainees focused on two important premises, professionalism and teamwork.

SPIN looked at the individual strengths in the agency and identified people within the organization to develop and teach the courses. Each course provided the information that supports the mission of SPIN in its efforts to assure quality services. Current trends, philosophies and practices are included in the course materials and facilitate participant interaction, problem solving and group discussion. The courses are: 1) Introduction to Documentation, 2) Documentation II, 3) Supporting Everyday Lives 2000, 4) Community Based Instruction, 5) Health Information Recording System (HIRS), and 6) Individual Support Plan (ISP).

The grand finale to the training program was a series of three-hour team building sessions in which all DSPs and their supervisors participated together. The goal of the team building class was to ensure that all staff developed an appreciation and an understanding of the “team” process and its relationship to providing quality supports for individuals with disabilities. There were four main objectives. They were to identify the difference between a group and a team, to identify the roles we take in a team, to identify the roles that render a team ineffective, and finally, to discover how working as team can be more effective then working alone.

One example of a team building exercise used in this training was an activity in which participants break out into teams of DSPs, and supervisors. Team members were encouraged to share the following information; one positive thing that happened at work within the past two weeks, one positive thing that they did or said to a coworker and one positive thing happened to them today. The point of the exercise was simply to focus on the positive things in your life, rather than the negative.

After nine successful months of training over 300 direct support staff in this new program the first time around is drawing to a close. Three fun-filled “commencement” celebrations are scheduled which are designed to congratulate everyone on their success and inspire them to meet the challenges of being a true DSP. But, this is not the end. We are currently working with the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) to develop a certificate program leading to an Associates degree in Developmental Disabilities that we will offer to all DSPs in the fall. SPIN is committed to making the world a better place for everybody, including its direct support staff. At SPIN, we strongly believe that staff development, education, and teamwork are among the most effective ways of living our mission.