Investing in Your Direct Support Professionals – Pebble in the Pond

Organizations that provide support to people who experience disability need to invest in a well trained workforce. Direct Support Professionals, armed with the insights and values that are at the heart of the mission of community based services are the key to meeting that mission. Without it a provider agency can remain stuck in a cycle of just getting by; meeting just the minimum standards of care, health and safety and may even err in sustaining diminished lives for the people who are supposed to benefit, resulting in more harm than good. In New Hampshire, Direct Support Professionals are offered a solid base of exposure to values-base approaches through the on-line Relias training sessions. However, this training is only the beginning. Face-to-face instruction with opportunities for dialogue, peer support and dynamic activities that challenge the assumptions that arise from culture is an essential second step. One such program that has proven results is the DSP Certificate program offered on our community college campuses. In central NH the New Hampshire Technical Institute has sponsored this program and it has been piloted at Antioch College and in the Portsmouth region.


“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” – H.H. the 14ths Dailai Lama

A DSP with a strong set of skills and insights into the values of a person-centered approach can be a powerful force for change. They’re prepared to pay attention to aspects of their work and the people they serve in such a manner that the world initially seems new. They are prepared to be effective learners and allow the people they serve and those who know them best to be their teachers. They learn how to explore what is “important to” the person and think about bringing that into balance with the previously dominant focus on only what is determined to be “important for” them. However, the laws of thermodynamics in the physical world also have parallels in the social dynamics of an organization. Entropy describes the process of degradation, running down and the trend to disorder in our universe. Using the analogy of the pebble in the pond; the pond eventually goes still. This happens only if the leadership fails to continue to add energy to the essential task of intentionally designing processes that allow for the competencies to grow, become complex and eventually enter into the realm of habit. Without such determined leadership, DSPs that completed values training return to their work settings facing the same challenges and pressures that they left. Even if their previous coping and problem-solving approaches lead to the same results, an unchanged culture reinforces them and without structured opportunities that increase their influence to question and challenge what they experience they will turn to a path of least resistance. There are ways to make this not happen.


The concept of using culture shifts, new processes and promoting new skill acquisition to accomplish a strategic shift in an organization is not new to those in leadership positions. If you have committed the critical resources of time and money to training staff in person-centered skills it must have been in service to a higher level goal. In other words, if a renewed focus on placing the person at the center of how the organization functions is not accomplished some important opportunity to function effectively in the future will be lost. The leader, then, must be in it for the long haul and that means a full commitment to seeing the organization through the stages of “exposure”, “competency” and finally to “habit”. It also means that there needs to be an honest discovery process to determine where the organization’s system is falling short and needs to change at all levels. Your DSP staff will leave the certificate program with new insights and the basic set of skills of values-based thinking to try them out in their daily work and to teach co-workers what the deployment of those skills entail. They can change their own behaviors in many ways that don’t require permission from their immediate supervisors. This is what is referred to as “Level I” change. The word must go out to supervisors that this type of exploration is permitted and encouraged. The word also must go out that the organization is committed to identifying any practices that could become more person-centered but for certain agency policies or procedures that prevent or complicate them. Best practices for high functioning organizations always imbed this goal into structured continuous quality improvement systems. One approach is to recognize the DSP who has completed the more extensive face-to-face program of training as “coaches” to others in their work settings. Recognize them as an important investment in the broader agency goals and mission. Consider implementing structured monthly or bi-monthly meetings where these coaches meet with members of the leadership team and are facilitated to identify specific recommendations for changes in policies and procedures to promote better practices. This continuous quality improvement strategy must be more than just a matter of mechanics. It must reflect the core principles of person-centered thinking itself. Smull, Bourne & Sanderson, in the 2009 publication on “Becoming a Person Centered System” wrote that “(t)he message that ‘we all need to change’ rather than ‘you need to change’ is a powerful one. We must all see ourselves as change targets before we can become change agents. The representatives from all system partners need to be the same people across time, they must attend consistently. They must be actively engaged in listening, in discovering, in sharing and in problem solving.”

Tuition for the DSP Certificate course can be funded through a combination of employer dollars, matching grants and the personal funds of the DSP themselves. Having ownership in their own professional development is not foreign to a Direct Support Professional. Everyone that we have sent through this valuable course have expressed their willingness to do so. There is a will but there must also be a way that the cost is proportionate to their salary. Agency investment is also not foreign to how any organization handles their human resources programs. Make that investment count. Create a welcoming environment that recognizes their ability to make new contributions. Your agency will be better for it.

1 comment

  1. Brilliant commentary on the value of direct support workers not only to the people they serve but to their companies (or families) they work for. In a 1995 report written by the President’s Committee on People with Intellectual Disabilities, it states “Indeed, an experienced, well trained and motivated workforce may be the single most important factor in the delivery of quality service”. We workers need a solid education on a wide range of topics and encouragement from our organizations to push boundaries and advocate for social justice with the people we serve. We are important members of the team and anyone who understands that will be using best practices in creating an organizational culture that advances a society rich in diversity, tolerance and compassion. Just ask any DSP what they need to feel strong, committed and valued and then listen and act on what they say…they might just be the ones (right alongside the people they support) to change the world for the better!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Firstperson Services

Person Centered Thinking New England

Star In Her Eye

raising a rare girl

Sometimes a Lion

Reflections of a Recovering Political Appointee

Community Circles

Stronger Together When Everyone is Included

Whole Communities

Stronger Together When Everyone is Included

Plus Black Blog

+ individual style for inspiring women +

Positive Energy Group

We are a group dedicated to bringing you real advice to make a positive impact on your life.

APA Annual Convention

News from the APA Annual Convention, July 31-Aug. 4, in Honolulu

Autobiographical Reflections

Inspiration & life lessons learned raising a son, who happens to have Down syndrome, and two daughters, who happen to be twins

%d bloggers like this: