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Implementing A DSP Career Path At Wildwood Programs

Submitted By: Tracy L. Blowers, Wildwood Programs

Wildwood Programs rolled out the Direct Support Professional (DSP) Career Path in January 2020, after over a year of holding focus groups with DSPs and residential and day program leadership. There are three different levels of the DSP Career Path, with each having its own focus and specific criteria to earn a bonus.

  • DSP Plus (Level 1) – The focus is on becoming a solid DSP
  • Lead DSP (Level 2) – The focus is on developing a person-centered awareness by completing a PATH Project and additional education electives that expand one’s knowledge of the people we support. We’re introducing Level 2 this fall.
  • Senior DSP (Level 3) – The focus is on mentoring other DSPs and becoming a solid advocate for both DSPs and the people we support.

Each level has a corresponding rubric and DSPs submit their own one-page self-evaluation if they feel they have met the criteria for the bonus. DSPs are eligible for the bonus every 6 months, with two evaluation periods of January-June and July-December. At each level, the criteria are more robust than the last and the bonus is as well (Level 1 – $500 every 6 months; Level 2 – $750 every 6 months; Level 3 – $1,000 every 6 months).

Impact Of The Program

The DSP Career Path program is a significant added benefit of joining our organization compared to other human services agencies because there is a way for DSPs to quickly earn a bonus and increase their skills. Due to this, DSPs see a path for professional growth at Wildwood.

“The Career Path is not only beneficial to us DSPs, but to people receiving services as well. It helps us learn more about the people that we support and in this way, we can work more efficiently to enrich their lives.”

Katrina Stevens, Direct Support Professional

Although salaries aren’t robust, having a chance to earn a bonus every 6 months while increasing both knowledge and skills has provided DSPs with development opportunities in a way that there weren’t before – and it allow us to retain staff in a DSP Role longer because of this opportunity.

Steps To Implement A Similar DSP Program

Other organizations could implement a similar program through extensive planning and involvement of staff who will be impacted. Here are the specific actions Wildwood Programs implemented, which other agencies can apply to create their own DSP Career Path program:

  1. Assembled a Steering Committee made up of DSPs working in our residential and day programs along with agency leadership, to get their initial thoughts about what a career path could look like and what might be some challenges.
  2. Conducted a focus group made up of either DSPs or “boots on the ground” residential and day managers and supervisors to get their input on what would make a difference to them.
  3. Met with executive management many times to discuss the structure and funding of the DSP Career Path program.
  4. Created a DSP Career Path Team (made up of residential and day staff) to vet every piece of criteria, challenges, and discrepancies between the residential and day programs, so both programs could be aligned in their messaging and support. This group is still in place today and meets every other week.
  5. Held rollout meetings with all of the residential and day staff and created a shared drive that contains a description of the DSP Career Path, FAQs, etc. As things change, the information in this shared drive is updated and staff receives alerts.
  6. Introduced the DSP Career Path to new DSPs at the end of staff orientation.
  7. Formed a DSP Advisory Group to help us vet criteria and challenges, as well as help educate and motivate other DSPs.
  8. Continually meet every other week with DSP Career Path Team to vet questions, highlight what’s working, address challenges, etc.
  9. In January 2021, we made changes to the DSP Career Path based on the experiences throughout our first year.

“The Career Path makes me strive to be the best I can be. It helps me reflect on my strengths and weaknesses.”

Tina Halliday, Direct Support Professional

Challenges You May Encounter

One issue you may face in implementing a DSP Career Path program involves financing it long-term, so you may want to explore funding it through an endowment. It is also important to obtain buy-in and investment from DSPs. To proactively address this challenge, as detailed above, we formed a DSP Advisory Group made up of DSPs to get their input on criteria and processes. Finally, the DSP Career Path program needs to be simple to understand and administer, in order to ensure it is adopted across your organization and can sustain itself over time.

About Wildwood Programs

Wildwood Programs was created in 1967 when a group of parents found that their children did not fit neatly into existing programs. What began as a program for a handful of preschoolers has grown into an organization that provides comprehensive supports and services to over 1,300 people and 2,000 families every year. Children as young as three and adults enjoying their senior years receive supports and services in every life area in an environment where they are accepted, respected, and valued.

2021 National DSP Recognition Week

For 2021 National DSP Recognition Week, CQL and NADSP are sharing specific organization-wide initiatives that lift up and bolster direct support professionals (DSPs) throughout the entire year. These include significant, long-lasting, and meaningful actions that have far-reaching effects on DSPs. By sharing these initiatives, other human service providers can both learn about and replicate these efforts to build up the DSP workforce. This is also an opportunity to highlight the programs your organization has developed to strengthen DSPs.

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Since 1969, CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership has been a leader in working with human service organizations and systems to continuously define, measure, and improve quality of life and quality of services for youth, adults, and older adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and psychiatric disabilities. CQL offers accreditation, training, certification, research, and consultation services to agencies that share our vision of dignity, opportunity, and community for all people.