Abstract

Although frontline supervisors are responsible for on-site management, supervision, and training of direct support professionals, research on the nature, content, and skills of the frontline supervisor role is rare. In this paper we describe results of 12 job analysis and three validation focus groups constituted to describe core competencies for supervisors in organizations providing community supports for people with disabilities. The focus groups involved 146 participants, including 97 direct support professionals, 40 frontline supervisors, and 7 managers who supervise frontline supervisors. The focus groups identified 14 competency areas in which frontline supervisors need to be proficient. In each competency area, between 4 and 26 specific competency statements were identified (a total of 142) along with 340 performance indicators.

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities increasingly live, work, and participate in recreation opportunities in communities of their choice (Bradley, 1994; Prouty, Smith, & Lakin, 2002). Growing numbers are living self-determined lives as full citizens, including exercising control over their own services (Abery, 1994; Conroy & Yuskauskas, 1996). The benefits of these growing opportunities, however, are by no means universal. Substantial variations have been documented in the experiences of community residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities (Stancliffe, 1997; Stancliffe, Abery, & Smith, 2000; Stancliffe & Wehmeyer, 1995; Wehmeyer & Bolding, 1999). Research and reports of direct experience by service agency administrators identify the attitudes, knowledge, and skills of direct support professionals as a central element in variations in community living experiences (Burchard & Thousand, 1988; Lakin, 1988). As such, considerable attention has been given to improving the capacity of service organizations and the larger systems of which they are a part to recruit, train, and support direct support professionals. Frontline supervisors play a critical role in these functions and are, therefore, essential to realizing the goals, purposes, and potential of community services (Barry Associates, 1999; A. Cohen, 2000; Hewitt, Larson, & Lakin, 2000; Lakin, Bruininks, Hill, & Hauber, 1982; Larson, Lakin, & Hewitt, 2002; Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities, 2000; Test, Solow, & Flowers, 1999).

In recent years, several factors have heightened attention to the challenges of providing a direct support workforce that is equal in number and skill to the task of providing the community services needed by people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. These factors have included exposés on the low quality of community services in certain communities (Boo, 1999; McEnroe, 2001). More often, however, the factors drawing attention to the direct support professional workforce have come from growing challenges retaining current direct support professionals, difficulties in recruiting new personnel to fill direct support professional vacancies, growing demands for even more staff due to the growing demand for community services, changing entry level education and experiential backgrounds of new direct support professionals, and increasing skill demands and responsibilities associated with working in smaller settings with less access to on-site supervisors and professionals (Hewitt et al., 2000; Larson et al., 2002; Larson, Lakin, & Bruininks, 1998; Prouty et al., 2002). As a result of these enormous challenges, there is an emerging interest and appreciation of the important role and essential skills of persons who provide frontline supervision to direct support professionals in community service settings. This comes, in part, from the obvious role of frontline supervisors in supporting effective performance of the direct support professionals they supervise, but also from evidence of the effects of their skills and actions on other important outcomes, such as the retention of direct support professionals (Larson et al., 1998). Not only have settings with relatively inexperienced frontline supervisors been found to have higher direct support professional turnover rates, two of the most frequently cited reasons by direct support professionals for leaving their positions relate to effective supervision: (a) difficulties in getting along with co-workers and (b) conflicts with their supervisors (Larson et al., 1998). Clearly, addressing the recruitment, retention, and training as well as performance challenges for direct support professionals requires substantially more attention to identifying and preparing people to perform effectively the essential duties and roles of frontline supervisors.

Significant efforts have been made to identify the skills needed by direct support professionals and to develop training programs to facilitate the development of those skills. Several studies have described specific competencies or training needs for direct support professionals related to narrowly defined and specific job duties and tasks regarding interventions or treatments, for example, implementing a behavioral program or daily living skills training (Berstein & Ziarnik, 1982; D. Cohen, Patton, & Melia, 1986; Forrest, 1982). Others have identified common core competencies required of direct support professionals but have not completed a comprehensive job analysis (Fiorelli, Margolis, Heverly, Rothchild, & Krasting, 1982; Larson, Hewitt, & Lakin, 1994). Investigators in three studies have completed comprehensive job analyses to identify direct support training needs (Jacobs, Nichols, & Larsen, 1969; Hewitt, 1998; Taylor, Bradley, & Warren, 1996). Similar to the efforts to identify competencies for direct support professionals, efforts to identify frontline supervisor competencies are an essential first step needed to facilitate development and delivery of effective training and support for frontline supervisors. Unlike the efforts to identify a nationally validated set of core competencies for direct support professionals, there has not been a systematic analysis of the skills required by frontline supervisors in community settings. In the present study we describe the findings of an investigation to respond to that gap through a comprehensive statewide analysis of the frontline supervisor role in one Midwestern state.

Method

Focus group techniques were used to conduct and validate a job analysis of the competencies required of frontline supervisors to work effectively in community services to support the community inclusion, self-determination, and other contemporary support goals for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Three groups participated: (a) direct support professionals, whose primary job responsibility is to provide support, training, supervision, and personal assistance (e.g., self-care, home-care, community integration) to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities; (b) frontline supervisors, whose primary responsibility is to supervise direct support professionals; they may provide some direct support to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in community services, but these responsibilities account for less than 50% of their work hours; and they may also hire and fire direct support professionals and have responsibilities in more than one program location; and (c) managers, whose primary job responsibility is to supervise frontline supervisors.

Sample

Focus group participants

A total of 146 sample members participated in this study: 97 direct support professionals, 40 frontline supervisors, and 7 managers. Participants were recruited from each of the regions in which state-operated community services (e.g., small group homes supporting 4 to 6 people each and community vocational supports) were provided. In each region, sampling was controlled to ensure representation of several characteristics: age, gender, years of experience in the field, public or private sector employment, residential or vocational setting, and part time or full time employment status. Participants were drawn from a pool of workers who were considered “excellent” employees by their supervisors.

A demographic survey that was developed and used in several prior research projects was completed by all focus group participants (e.g., Larson et al., 1998; Larson, Hewitt, & Anderson, 1999). The majority of focus group participants (72%) worked in residential settings, another 24% in vocational settings, and 4% worked in both or in another type of setting (see Table 1), χ2 (4, N = 144) = 2.27, p < .05. Almost 90% of participants worked in state-operated community services. Direct support professionals and supervisors mostly came from state-operated programs; all of the managers came from private community settings, χ2 (2, N = 146) = 59.8, p < .001. Both the public and private sector participants worked in a variety of service models, including small Intermediate Care Facilities/Mentally Retarded (ICF/MR) settings (most with 4 to 6 residents), supported living settings (with 4 or fewer residents), site-based vocational programs, and community employment programs. A few of the public employees worked in state-operated ICF/MR settings with between 20 and 50 residents that closed in the months following the study.

Table 1

Participant Characteristics

Participant Characteristics
Participant Characteristics

Overall, 76% of participants were women, with direct support professionals most likely to be women and managers least likely to be women, χ2 (2, N = 145) = 9.2, p < .01. Almost half of the direct support professionals (45%) had a high school education or less, whereas 68% of frontline supervisors and 100% of managers had at least a bachelor's degree. The three groups were all significantly different from each other in terms of total years of education, F(2) = 50.0, p < .001. Almost half of the participants (45%) were between 36 and 45 years old.

Participants had worked in their current positions for an average of 65 months, their agency for 139 months, and in services to persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities for 179 months. State employees had worked in the field significantly longer than private sector employees (188 months vs. 107 months), F(2) = 13.2, p < .001.

Study participants supported persons with a wide range of intellectual and functional limitations. Two thirds (66%) of the people receiving support from study participants were adults between the ages of 25 and 48. None were children (under 18). Seventy-five percent of study participants served one or more individuals with profound mental retardation; only 35% served persons with mild mental retardation. Slightly more than half supported people with moderate (51%) or severe (60%) mental retardation. More than three quarters of focus group participants reported supporting at least one individual who did not verbally communicate, had challenging behavior (78%), or needed assistance using the restroom (77%). About two thirds (66%) reported that they supported at least one person who required assistance walking.

Validation Group Participants

A total of 27 individuals, including 15 direct support professionals, 7 frontline supervisors, and 12 managers or administrators participated in the validation component of this study. Of these 27 participants, 11 worked in private sector residential or vocational organizations and 16, in state-operated community services. Most of the individuals who participated in the validation groups were selected from participants in the job analysis workshops. A few managers and administrators were included specifically for the validation groups.

Mission, Vision, and Values Orientation

This project was guided by a steering committee consisting of state Department of Human Services administrators, public and private organization training directors, and researchers. This steering committee began its work by developing a consensus statement about mission, vision, and values that would guide the specification of supervisor competencies. Because the ultimate goal of frontline supervisors is to facilitate effective performance by direct support professionals, a foundational statement of such performance was required. The mission, vision, and examples of the value statements developed to guide the project are listed here.

Mission and Vision

Community services help people with disabilities live as valued, contributing, and self-determined members of their community. Such services help communities to recognize, provide, and use their capacities to include all of their members. They provide exemplary service and supports for consumers and direct support personnel through continued evaluation and ongoing systemic change. Four types of values were identified:

Participant values

Twenty-one value statements describing how it would be known that people were living as valued, contributing, and self-determined members of their community, including the following:

  • People are empowered to live self-determined lives.

  • People are free from abuse and neglect.

  • People are satisfied with services, supports, and personal life situations.

Direct service professional values

Fourteen value statements that help direct support professionals to uphold the participant values, including

  • Direct support professionals are aware of rights, responsibilities and consequences of their actions.

  • Direct support professionals are flexible and willing to try new things.

  • Direct support professionals value and nurture partnerships and relationships with consumers, co-workers, team members, and community members.

Workplace culture values

Fourteen value statements that help organizations to uphold the participant values, including:

  • Organizations help direct support professionals in their quest for a better way to support people.

  • Organizations consider the role of the team to help and empower direct support professionals to do their jobs.

  • Organizations create opportunities to honor the work and enhance the status of direct support professionals.

System values

Eight value statements help systems to uphold the participant values, including:

  • Systems balance requirements for initial technical expertise with content of subsequent training.

  • Systems support organizations in developing better ways to support people.

  • Systems build the capacity of organizations to support persons by emphasizing local resources, supports and participation, broad community responsibility, community connections, and welcoming roles of community.

Focus Group Process

Twelve job analysis focus groups were conducted for this study. Nine of the focus groups were attended only by direct support professionals. Three others were attended by frontline supervisors and managers. The focus groups were organized into two main components: (a) the “values and visions” exercise and (b) identifying, evaluating, and categorizing the job duties of frontline supervisors.

Values and Visions Exercise

The values and visions exercise was designed to stimulate focus group participants to think about ways to promote excellence in service provision through person-centered and change-oriented leadership. The mission, visions, and values statements were provided to each participant for review and reflection. The focus group leader facilitated open discussion about the intent and meaning of the statements. Participants completed a simple values and visions thought exercise, in which they reflected on everyday activities, decisions, and occurrences in their own lives and, then, the extent to which the people they support enjoy the same opportunities and freedoms (e.g., sometimes eating junk food for dinner, having a job in which a regular paycheck is earned, sometimes staying up past midnight to watch a movie). Once completed, discussion was held regarding the differences between their responses about their own lives and those about the people they served. This exercise assisted participants to think about differences between the ideal of how supports to people with disabilities “should be” and the reality of the everyday lives of people with disabilities and how the systems of supports contribute to the gap between the ideal and the real.

Job Analysis Exercise

The second component of the focus group work was a job analysis of the role of frontline supervisors in community support services. This process involved a modified developing curriculum process (Wiant, 1993). The development of a curriculum process is designed to elicit information from people who do a certain job and others who have a direct experience with people in that job, about the specific tasks and duties that must be performed effectively to achieve desired outcomes. In this study, the desired outcomes as defined in the mission, vision, and values statements were presented at the beginning of the focus groups. In the developing a curriculum process, the development of effective training programs is supported through the identification of specific tasks, duties, and competencies required of a person in a given position.

Members of each focus group discussed a common set of questions designed to identify the specific tasks, duties, and competencies required of frontline supervisors; for example, What do you (or the frontline supervisors with whom you work) do on your job every day? Describe the specific tasks you did on your job (or that you saw the frontline supervisors with whom you work do) over the past month, week, and day. What should an excellent frontline supervisor do on his/her job to achieve the mission, vision, and values? Participants were first asked to write their responses on index cards and were prompted to list every task and duty they could think of for which a frontline supervisor was responsible or should be responsible to achieve the articulated mission, vision, and values. Once participants had written down every task and duty they could think of, they were directed to affix each card on the wall. Next, they were asked to help the facilitator identify the duplicated listing of tasks and duties. Once duplicates were eliminated, the participants were asked to cluster the various tasks around common themes. When the clustering was completed, the broad clusters and specific tasks and duties were named and reviewed. Participants were asked as a group to identify any other themes or specific tasks or duties that were missing. These additional items were added to those that had been previously identified. Once all of the clusters and tasks were identified, each participant was asked to prioritize the most important clusters and tasks by individually identifying the top one third of the clusters and the three most important tasks within each cluster.

Integration of Individual Focus Group Data

The results of the focus group job analyses were integrated and synthesized by project staff to identify common themes. The clusters and job tasks identified across the 12 focus groups were combined, and the number of prioritization votes each task and cluster was given were summed. Exact duplicates in any cluster or across clusters were combined. Clusters and tasks within each cluster were ranked in order of the number of prioritization votes they received across all focus groups. The developing a curriculum methodology (Wiant, 1993) was used as a guide in the analysis and synthesis process.

Validation Focus Groups

Three additional focus groups (one each of direct support professionals, frontline supervisors, and managers) were conducted to review the cluster areas and related tasks, duties, and competencies derived from each of the individual focus groups and the integration process. The validation focus groups assured that the draft job analysis was relevant and important as well as providing a comprehensive outline of the areas and specific skills needed to perform the role of frontline supervisor so as to achieve the mission, vision, and values previously described. The validation group participants were broken into small groups to evaluate the combined frontline supervisors' job analysis cluster areas and related tasks and to identify any duplicate or missing tasks.

After the validation focus groups were completed, project staff members reviewed and integrated the recommended changes to the combined cluster and task document. A final review of the document was completed by project staff to identify and remove any duplicative tasks across clusters. This final version of the job analysis cluster and task list was used by project staff to develop the competency statements and performance indicators for the frontline supervisor. Once developed, these competency statements and performance indicators were reviewed and edited by several recognized external experts, in addition to project staff members.

Results

In this project, 14 broad competency areas were identified that frontline supervisors in community support settings must be prepared to perform. Each competency area subsumes numerous specific job tasks and duties required of frontline supervisors to “help people live as valued, contributing, and self-determined members of their communities.” Based on the integrated perspectives of 146 frontline supervisors, direct support professionals, and managers working in 12 job analysis and 3 validation focus groups, competency areas were both identified and prioritized. In order of priority, the resulting competency areas were (a) enhancing staff relations; (b) providing and modeling direct support; (c) facilitating and supporting consumer support networks; (d) planning and monitoring programs; (e) managing personnel; (f) leading training and staff development activities; (g) promoting public relations; (h) maintaining homes, vehicles, and property; (i) protecting health and safety; (j) managing finances; (k) maintaining staff schedules and payroll; (l) coordinating vocational supports; (m) coordinating policies, procedures, and rule compliance; and (n) performing general office work.

Within each of these 14 broad competency areas, focus group participants developed several statements related to competent performance of the specific tasks and duties of effective frontline supervisors. Table 2 presents each of the 14 competency areas and the general description of the area developed by the job analysis focus groups. Also identified is the total number of competency statements developed in each area (as well as the number of specified performance indicators).

Table 2

Competency Areas for Frontline Supervisors

Competency Areas for Frontline Supervisors
Competency Areas for Frontline Supervisors

Each competency statement reflects a specific job duty or task required of a frontline supervisor who works in a community setting supporting individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The number of competency statements identified for each broad area varied in number from 4 to 26. In all, 142 competency statements were developed to describe the skills of competent frontline supervisors. In addition to the competency statements, indicators were specified that could be used to determine effective performance of each of the competencies. The number of performance indicators identified for each competency area varied from 10 to 58. The total number was 340. The number of performance indicators per broad competency area is shown in Table 3, as are examples of the competency statements and associated performance indicators. (A full listing is available in print by contacting the first author and over the Internet at http://rtc.umn.edu/wddsp/flsupcom.html [Hewitt, Larson, O'Nell, Sauer, & Sedlezky, 1998].)

Table 3

Example Competency Statements and Performance Indicators

Example Competency Statements and Performance Indicators
Example Competency Statements and Performance Indicators

Performance indicators were developed to illustrate ways in which each competency could be assessed. Nine types of performance indicators were developed: (a) direct observation (the manager observes the frontline supervisors completing this task or demonstrating the skill as part of normal work routine), (b) demonstration of skill (the manager asks the frontline supervisor to demonstrate a task or skill so he or she can see the supervisor in action, such as observing the supervisor teaching a direct support professional to administer medications), (c) document review (the manager reviews written records or documents), (d) portfolio product (the manager reviews materials initiated and prepared by the frontline supervisor that demonstrates competence), (e) discussion (the manager engages in a discussion with a frontline supervisor regarding a certain task or skill), (f) consumer/family member report (the manager seeks input from consumer, family member, or community member regarding frontline supervisors' competence), (g) peer report (the manager seeks input from a frontline supervisor's peer regarding competence), (h) direct support professional report (the manager seeks input from direct support professionals about frontline supervisor's competence), and (i) written test (frontline supervisor's performance on a written test related to task or skill).

Discussion

Applications of the Findings

In this study we identified skills and competencies needed by frontline supervisors in community residential and vocational programs supporting individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Identifying the competencies for frontline supervisors is an important step toward meeting four important, interrelated goals: (a) developing, improving, and implementing effective educational and training programs for frontline supervisors; (b) defining the aspects of the role and function of the frontline supervisor to create organizational and job structures that support these roles; (c) improving the performance of those who perform this role to improve responsiveness and quality of services and supports; and (d) creating a cadre of frontline supervisors who are able to play an effective role in addressing critical issues related to the recruitment, training, and retention of direct support professionals.

The potential use of these identified competencies and tasks are numerous. They can be used to assist frontline supervisors and other interested people in better understanding the roles and responsibilities of contemporary frontline supervisors. They can be utilized to develop a realistic job preview for perspective frontline supervisors, enabling them to concretely see the expected tasks of this specific job. The identified competencies can be employed by organizations in designing better systems of support and training, including both agency-based training and postsecondary educational programs. They can also be useful in assessing the skills of existing frontline supervisors and in supporting the development of needed skills for direct support professionals who are likely to move into frontline supervisor positions. The results of the job analysis may assist organizations in the development of frontline supervisor job descriptions and performance reviews. In such applications, organizations will need to review the full list of 142 competencies to select those that are relevant to frontline supervisor roles in their organizations, eliminating those that are not relevant, and adding additional competencies that are needed in their organization.

Key Challenges

The direct support professionals and frontline supervisors who participated in this study expressed strong opinions that clearer job expectations and role definitions were required and that better educational and training programs were needed for frontline supervisors. The role of frontline supervisors clearly extends far beyond protecting health and safety; coordinating policies, procedures, and rule compliance; and providing direct care. In fact, although three of the top six competency areas involve the interactions between frontline supervisors and individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities directly or indirectly (i.e., providing and modeling direct support, facilitating and supporting consumer support networks, and program planning), the other three involve the interactions between the frontline supervisors and direct support professionals (i.e., enhancing staff relations, managing personnel, and leading training and staff development activities). For frontline supervisors who have been promoted from direct support positions, unless they were specifically trained in the specialized skills of staff relations, personnel management, and staff training, it is unlikely that they will have the competencies they need to be effective in their jobs. Therefore, it should be no surprise to organizations that do not provide adequate training and support to frontline supervisors when they experience difficulties with finding, supporting, and keeping direct support professionals. Systems of personnel development support need to better attend to the skills demanded of people providing frontline supervision.

Participants in this study also reported that holding a frontline supervisor responsible for more than one location or program caused difficulties because frontline supervisors were asked to supervise and support people with whom they had only limited contact, especially those in part-time, weekend, and/or varying schedule and on-call roles. Organizational structures that require frontline supervisors to work in more than one program location, in light of the complexity of the expected tasks and duties identified in this study, may be overwhelming to some and would make it more difficult for them (especially those who are relatively inexperienced) to excel in all competency areas. This observation is supported by study participants who described their frontline supervisor positions as being impossible, chaotic, overwhelming, and extremely stressful (Larson et al., 1998). The growing complexity of this position may lead to undue burnout and high turnover rates. In fact, several previous studies have identified turnover rates for frontline supervisors of nearly 30% (Hewitt, Larson, & Lakin, 2000; Larson et al., 1998).

Solving this challenge may require a change in organizational structure so that frontline supervisors can develop needed skills without being so overwhelmed. One option would be to develop systems in which on-site direct support professionals designated as lead workers take on increased responsibilities either in the areas of providing and modeling direct support, facilitating and supporting consumer support networks, and program planning or in the areas of supporting and training other direct support professionals. Another option is to create an advanced frontline supervision job classification with higher levels of competence in staff relations, time management, and staff management required to work in those roles. Those supervisors will also need specialized tools and resources to support their work in multiple sites (e.g., cell phones, personal digital assistants, laptop computers, roaming internet access). This approach is important, especially for supporting people in their own homes because the numbers of direct support professionals in those settings are likely to be too small to require or want an on-site supervisor in each home.

Limitations and the Need for Additional Research

There are several limitations to this study. First, the results of this job analysis reflect those skills and competencies needed for frontline supervisors in one Midwestern state. Further validation of these findings on a national scale would be needed to more broadly generalize these findings. Second, most of the participants in the initial job analysis focus groups worked in state-operated community services. This may serve as a threat to the validity of the findings for private sector organizations. However, there were private agency representatives at many of the focus groups, and private sector organizations were well-represented at the validation workshops.

Future research is needed to assess the extent to which the competencies identified in this study are applicable across states, service setting types, and organizational structures. Research should also be conducted to evaluate which types of performance indicators are most useful in assessing which of the competencies. Studies of these topics would verify the generalizability and usefulness of this effort to codifying our understanding of the multiple roles and responsibilities of frontline supervisors. Of course, as with any values-based product, the competencies will need to be updated or refined as the values and visions that drive community supports are refined. Future research efforts are also needed to examine the extent to which frontline supervisor skill in the competencies described by the focus group participants is related to outcomes such as turnover of direct support professionals and to the quality of supports for individuals with disabilities.

Conclusion

For over 25 years, there has been substantial ongoing attention to issues of recruitment, training, and retention of direct support professionals who work in community settings. We are now beginning to appreciate that for direct support professionals, it is the frontline supervisor who defines the job, provides the training, mediates the stresses, creates the culture, helps people find the personally satisfying rewards of direct support work, and establishes a well-functioning work environment. The present study provides a tool (the list of competencies and performance indicators) that makes it possible to develop a systematic approach to prepare frontline supervisors to carry out this role.

This project was funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (Contract No. OWSS-H55-31048330) and U.S. Department of Education, National Institutes on Disability Rehabilitation Research (Agreement No. H133B980047).

Table 2

Continued

Continued
Continued
Table 3

Continued

Continued
Continued

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Author notes

Authors: Amy S. Hewitt, PhD ( hewit005@umn.edu), Research Associate; Sheryl A. Larson, PhD ( larso072@umn.edu), Research Associate; K. Charlie Lakin, PhD, Senior Research Associate, John Sauer, MSW, Coordinator, Susan O'Nell, BA, Coordinator, University of Minnesota, Research and Training Center on Community Living, 204 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Dr. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455. Lori Sedlezky, MSW, Coordinator, Arc Hennepin-Carver, 4301 Hwy. 7, Ste. 140, Minneapolis, MN 55416