Frontline Initiative Direct Support Professionals

The College of Direct Support:
Another Step Toward Professionalism


Susan O'Nell is a project coordinator for the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota.

Many things come together to create a profession. A top priority is the need for training and education that apply specifically to the field. These options need to teach the actual day-to-day skills used on the job. They must also provide guidance to help the professional make good judgments even in unpredictable situations. The training must present these skills through the lens of professional boundaries and ethical practice.

Professional education and training need to be reliable. This means that they need to be recognized as producing workers who can perform skills on the job. It also means that skills taught in one place are the same skills, knowledge, and professional values that are taught in another place. This assurance of quality creates a situation where people who have the training are recognized for having completed it. It prevents people from having to redo their training in order to practice with a different employer. 

Training and education for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) does not currently meet these standards. Instead it is often focused on meeting government mandates. In most cases, individual employers create the training to meet these mandates. While this flexibility to meet individual needs is desirable, it results in a situation where DSP training is not regarded as valuable outside the organization for which it was designed. Imagine a system for doctors that was similar. In this situation, individual hospitals would create and deliver training. When a doctor sought a position with a different hospital, they would have to start their medical training over at the beginning. In addition, imagine that the training focused only on the minimum activities a doctor could do to keep you alive. This situation would certainly create an unreasonable barrier to the medical profession. It would also diminish patient care.

To prevent this situation, programs that trained doctors became accredited. This helps ensure that doctor training and education meets the critical needs of the fi eld. A doctor trained in Iowa is expected to receive the same education as one trained in Wyoming, Massachusetts, or California. When a doctor completes an accredited program and passes their state board examination, patients can be confident that the training is consistent and the doctor is prepared to do the job.

Much effort has been going on across the country to create voluntary credentialing opportunities for DSPs. These credentials must mean something that has value. Over the years, many strides have been taken to identify the critical core skills of DSPs and frontline supervisors (FLS) in community human services settings.

In 1996, the Community Support Skill Standards (CSSS) were developed. These were a core set of skills needed for DSPs in a variety of community human services settings. The CSSS were developed through a national validation process to ensure that the skills were those needed not only in one region or one setting, but in all settings. What came of this process was a core set of skills necessary to achieve the vision of independence and full community participation and involvement for people with support needs.

In Minnesota, two other sets of skills were identified: one for DSPs supporting people with intellectual disabilities at home, and a second for supervisors of DSPs. In a similar way, the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) has articulates a set of ethical statements to help DSPs. This code of ethics helps DSPs understand ethical boundaries in their work and provides guidelines to help them resolve situations in which ethics play a role.

With these core competencies and ethical guidelines in mind, many places have gone about aligning their training around these skills, knowledge, and attitudes. They have done this to help create more portable and comprehensive training for DSPs. Around the country, training consortia, technical colleges, and employers have worked together to develop and support voluntary credentialing programs based on these guiding principles. This national movement recently got a boost when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) incorporated the best of these credentialing programs into an apprentice position for DSPs.

The College of Direct Support (CDS) is built on the foundation of portable, credible, and reliable training. It is an online curriculum. This method of delivery allows people to pace their own training and to complete it at times and in places that are convenient to them. The content in the CDS is consistently delivered and offers many ideas for helping the learner and their trainer or instructor make the leap from online learning to practice in the actual setting. In addition, it is built upon identified skill sets and ethical competencies and matches the educational needs of the DOL apprenticeship requirements.

There are currently 13 complete courses in the CDS ranging from health and safety content to documentation to cultural competence. The content of the CDS is interactive and uses multimedia. It intersperses video, voices, graphics, and interactions with text and narration. The content offered is accessible to people with varied educational, comprehension, and employment backgrounds. Concepts are presented in a clear and straightforward way that maintains the expectation of high-quality practice on the part of the DSP.

In addition to the curriculum, the CDS has a learner management system. This system allows administrators to customize and adapt the CDS content to the unique state requirements and employer needs, and the people being supported. The core curriculum can be organized and assigned in various ways. It can be annotated and linked to additional online content and tests developed by the purchaser. It also provides a permanent and transferable record of the learner’s training.

People who complete courses in the CDS can apply for Continuing Education Units (CEUs) through the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. In addition, there are now options for people to apply for online credit-bearing courses through the University of Minnesota that use the CDS as the foundation of the courses. As professionalism continues to be an emerging issue in direct support, the CDS provides a well-designed and flexible curriculum that realistically meets the needs of today’s community human services workforce. It can serve as a cornerstone to any effort designed to help DSPs improve their training and education options. Its high quality and consistency provides opportunities today as well as for tomorrow for DSPs.