Written by Director of Certification and Accreditation Dan Hermreck

How do you know if a direct support professional (DSP) is competent? How can you tell if they provide high-quality support? One of NADSP’s roles is to provide a path to national certification for DSPs around the country. When a DSP applies for NADSP Certification, NADSP must make a determination about their competence. We must determine if this DSP has the knowledge, skills and values needed to provide high quality support, and we make that decision by comparing the work the DSP has submitted to the standards established in national competencies and the NADSP Code of Ethics.

As you may know, NADSP has offered DSPs a voluntary, national certification program since 2007. The original version of the certification process involved evaluating the applicant based on the contents of a professional portfolio.  DSPs seeking NADSP certification submitted a portfolio containing examples of their work. This work was reviewed by a dedicated group of portfolio reviewers who determined if the work described in the portfolio met the standards for certification. Portfolios typically took about a year to build, and the review process typically took about 3 months.

When this process worked well, it worked very well. NADSP received hundreds of portfolios over the years, and often the work they showcased was outstanding. Reviewing a really good portfolio was a great experience for a reviewer. It was an opportunity to read about the great things that were possible when people had access to high-quality direct support. You got a sense that people had better lives as a result of the direct support work being described in those portfolios.

The only problem with this portfolio-based system was that it did not work for most DSPs. It took a tremendous amount of time to produce the portfolio, and DSPs are often very busy people without much time to spare. The portfolio-building process also tended to work best when DSPs received a great deal of support from their employer. Having a supportive mentor and a cohort of DSPs to share the experience were often key to a DSPs success. Just as DSPs struggled to find the time, the organizations employing them often had difficulty providing the needed resources and support.

In 2017, NADSP looked back at the last 10 years of certification and decided we needed to provide an alternative to the portfolio-based system. We wanted to create a certification program that was workable for more DSPs. We held multiple meetings that resulted in the new NADSP E-Badge Academy. The E-Badge Academy is similar to the portfolio-based process in that we ask for examples of DSP work that would meet national standards.  The difference is that we ask for that work in smaller pieces submitted over time rather than as one massive portfolio to be reviewed in its entirety. While an entire portfolio can take up to 3 months to review, an individual badge submission can be reviewed and returned to the applicant within 3 business days.

When DSPs who have experienced the portfolio-based certification process are exposed to the E-Badge Academy, they often describe the E-Badge Academy as being “easier”. I think I understand what they mean by that.  The E-Badge Academy is definitely less intimidating than the portfolio, and the E-Badge experience is designed to be less stressful. I think it comes down to the fact that when we were designing the E-Badge Academy we had the benefit of ten years of experience with the portfolio-based system. However, we are still comparing DSPs work to national standards. The amount of work needed and the quality of work required have not been lessened, and I would argue that the E-Badge Academy is just as rigorous a measure of competence as our traditional portfolio-based process.

Comparison of Accredited Education Hours

When it comes to hours of accredited education, it might seem like the E-Badge Academy requires less. A DSP-I portfolio must include 100 hours of direct and indirect instruction tied to an NADSP-accredited curriculum.  This total could include both hours of direct learning (either online on in a classroom) and indirect learning (discussions, cohort meetings, mentor meetings, and portfolio construction). In practice most applicants for DSP-I certification via portfolio submission were fairly evenly split between direct and indirect hours, with about 50 hours of direct instruction and about 50 hours of indirect instruction.

In the E-Badge Academy we made the decision to only track the hours of direct instruction. We do not ask for records of meetings or the time spent assembling a portfolio (since there is not a portfolio to assemble in the E-Badge Academy). We decided that 50 hours of direct instruction would be roughly equivalent to what we were seeing in the portfolios.

Comparison of Skills Demonstrated

The competencies that are used in all of our certification programs are made up of skill statements.  These are the specific, measurable objectives that describe the skills that DSPs use in their work. So how many different skills does a DSP need to demonstrate for a DSP-I certification?

In a DSP-I portfolio each of the four work samples included was required to demonstrate two of these skill statements, meaning a DSP-I portfolio would show that a minimum of eight skill statements had been met.

The requirements for DSP-I certification through the E-Badge Academy are a little different. Fifteen badges must be earned to achieve DSP-I certification.  One badge is earned by committing to following the NADSP Code of Ethics, and another 3 can be earned through the completion of training hours in NADSP-Accredited programs. It’s also possible to earn a badge by attending NADSP’s Annual Conference (just one of the many reasons you should consider attending). Let’s say that a DSP got all five of these badges, that would leave ten badges that required the demonstration of a skill statement (each core competency badge is tied to a single skill statement). That means a minimum of ten skill statements must be demonstrated to earn DSP-I in the E-Badge Academy, two more than would be required in a portfolio. That trend continues at the DSP-II and DSP-III levels, the E-Badge Academy requires more skill statements to be demonstrated than the traditional portfolio-based process.

You can see the details in this document which compares the two programs. The portfolio-based certification process and the E-Badge Academy are like two routes to the same destination. No matter which path they took, a direct support professional who has been certified by NADSP has demonstrated the knowledge, skills and values needed to provide high quality support at the point of interaction.

You can watch companion webinar to this blog post by clicking here. 

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