Impact Feature Issue on Direct Support Workforce Development

The Importance of Competency-Based Training for Direct Support Professionals


Traci LaLiberte is Director with the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Amy Hewitt is Training Director and Senior Research Associate with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration,University of Minnesota. ​

High quality supports result in a higher quality of life for individuals who use direct support services. With the demand to fill open direct support positions, and a shrinking labor pool skilled in direct support services, it is critical that staff be effectively trained so that they can deliver high quality supports. Currently, much of the training and education available to Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) falls short of achieving that desired quality. Too often training and education programs focus heavily on regulatory requirements such as prescribed topics and the number of hours a DSP attends a training, rather than on the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable them to effectively support people with disabilities. Other ineffective training practices include scheduling the majority of training in the earliest days of employment, offering few opportunities for ongoing continuing education and skill development, and failing to meet national certification requirements.

Today’s DSPs desire the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to perform at a level of excellence in their jobs. They also desire the opportunity for professional development and a career path that is anchored in a high quality training and education program.

Competency-Based Training

Competency-based training is an avenue to achieve a highly knowledgeable and skilled workforce. A systematic approach to training that is monitored and revised in light of performance and outcomes is the hallmark of a competency-based training program. Clear and detailed outcomes or competency statements are used to develop the training curriculum and measure learners’ competence. Competency statements are derived from a thorough job analysis of the learner’s duties, which contributes to the training goal of meeting individual learner needs as they master various skill levels.

In community human services, competency requirements and corresponding competency statements for DSPs have increased with the evolution of community support and consumer-directed support practices. The Community Support Skill Standards (CSSS) serve as the national set of competencies for the field of direct support. The CSSS were developed in 1996 by the Human Services Research Institute in collaboration with a multidisciplinary advisory group. A comprehensive job analysis was completed across a variety of community human services settings resulting in the development of 12 broad competency areas with corresponding detailed skill statements. The competency areas are as follows (Taylor, Bradley & Warren, 1996):

  • Participant Empowerment
  • Communication
  • Assessment
  • Community and Service Networking
  • Facilitation of Services
  • Community Living Skills and Supports
  • Education, Training and Self-Development
  • Advocacy
  • Vocational, Educational and Career Support
  • Crisis Prevention and Intervention
  • Organizational (employer) Participation
  • Documentation

Over the last decade, three additional competency areas have emerged:

  • Relationships and Friendships
  • Person-Centered Goals and Objectives
  • Supporting Health and Wellness

A national validation study conducted by the Research and Training Center on Community Living (RTC/CL) (Larson et al., 2007) validated the importance of adding the Relationships and Friendships, and Supporting Health and Wellness competency areas to the CSSS.

Training Models

Competency-based training is being used increasingly in community human service settings. While there is more to accomplish, there are many exciting advances. For instance, several states, including California, Oklahoma, and Illinois, have moved toward statewide competency-based training programs where a standardized curriculum is used to deliver training during the initial period of a DSP’s employment. Other states, such as North Dakota, Indiana, Georgia, and Minnesota are using community colleges and other postsecondary education systems to deliver competency-based training to DSPs.

The College of Direct Support , an Internet-based, multimedia training program, has built its competency-based training curriculum on the CSSS. It has the essential elements of a competency-based training curriculum, including a comprehensive transfer of knowledge from classroom to workplace component. This competency-based, online training has resulted in more skilled DSPs throughout the world. The College of Direct Support is currently used in the United States by nearly 65,000 DSPs who cumulatively have been assigned over 2 million lessons. Australia has also recognized the need for the high quality competency-based training and credentialing, and the College of Direct Support is being incorporated into the Australian credentialing program.

Staff development and training are what yield increased wages; without high quality, competency-based training, there will likely be little progress toward adequate wages for DSPs. The direct support profession must learn from other professions such as nursing, social work, substance abuse, and child care that have connected training, education, and credentialing to career advancement and wage increases. To that end, in July 2006 the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) launched the first national voluntary credential for Direct Support Professionals, with competency-based training requirements based on the CSSS competencies as its cornerstone. This credentialing will help ensure that people who pursue careers in direct support share a common knowledge base and skill set. It will further ensure that DSPs make a commitment to practice according to the NADSP Code of Ethics. In other words, the job will no longer be left to chance. DSPs will be required to show mastery in the nationally-validated competency areas through skill demonstration on the job and through a portfolio of work samples.


Direct Support Professionals have long been overlooked and undervalued. Yet, an individual with disabilities enjoys a higher quality of life when supported by competent, consistent, and reliable DSPs. Looking back over the past decade of advancements in workforce development, competency-based training and education have been among the fastest growing and changing elements in human services. With this recognition, the field is both energized and challenged to continue to move forward in an effort to provide all DSPs with competency-based professional development opportunities they need to become recognized, appreciated, credentialed, and well-paid professionals with a career path in community human services.


  • Larson, S. A., Doljanac, R., Nord, D., Salmi, P., Hewitt, A. S., & O’Nell, S. (2007). National validation study of competencies for front line supervisors and direct support professionals: Final report. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Research and Training Center on Community Integration.

  • Taylor, M., Bradley, V., & Warren, R. (1996). The community support skill standards: Tools for managing change and achieving outcomes. Cambridge, MA: Human Services Research Institute.