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Learn About Being a Direct Support Professional

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What does a direct support professional do?

Direct support professionals assist individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They help with everyday tasks such as housekeeping, meal preparation, attending appointments and running errands. Depending on the patient’s condition, these support professionals may also administer medications, develop a behavioral management plan and maintain medical records.

  • Teach patients life skills 
  • Maintain a safe living environment that adheres to state codes and regulations
  • Offer counseling and crisis intervention
  • Assist individuals with money management, housekeeping, personal hygiene and other routine needs
  • Provide transportation to social outings, doctor’s appoints and other activities
  • Maintain regular paperwork including fiscal reports, behavioral assessments, medication logs, casework notes and daily activity logs

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Average salary

Salary information has been compiled from direct support professionals all over the  United States to determine the average earnings for this job. 

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $11.75 per hour
  • Some salaries range from $7.25 – $19.00 per hour

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Direct support professional requirements

Direct support professionals handle a diverse range of tasks and need a well-rounded skill set to keep up with the challenges of the job.

Education

Most employers require a minimum of a high school diploma. Continuing education is not necessary, but an associate or bachelor’s degree in a related field such as social work can make you a more attractive candidate.

Training

On-the-job training is common for direct support professionals. Employers typically offer a training program that covers occupational safety, CPR and behavior management. 

Some states require that employees complete a direct support professional training program or pass a challenge test instead of training. For example, California requires that direct support professionals complete two training segments of 35 hours each or pass an associated test to forego one or both segments. The Illinois Department of Human Services requires that direct support professionals complete a 120-hour training program within 120 days of their hire date.

Certifications

Certification is not a national requirement, but employers often prefer candidates who are certified direct support professionals. The National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) maintains a national certification program for direct support professionals and provides three levels of certification:

  • DSP-Registered: This credential is helpful for those just entering the profession. After registering with the NADSP, you can begin the training necessary to become certified in different areas.

  • DSP-Certified**: **While DSP registration doesn’t require assessments or training, earning your certification involves completing additional coursework and providing proof of experience. You can pursue two levels of this certification.

  • DSP-Specialist: At the highest tier is the DSP-Specialist certification, which is available to those who have completed specialized training to assist individuals with disabilities. To earn this title, you will have needed to become DSP-Registered and DSP-Certified.

Skills

Direct support professionals must have strong people skills to work with patients who have varying types of disabilities. Patience, attention to detail and compassion are all critical in this role. The following skills are essential for a successful career as a direct support professional.

  • Organization: Direct support professionals must maintain accurate, detailed records of their patients’ appointments, medications and activities. Organization is essential to ensure that all critical tasks are completed and documented.

  • Communication: Direct support professionals must communicate with coworkers, other healthcare professionals and their patients. Strong communication skills help them build a rapport with patients to better assist them.

  • Observation: Helping patients achieve their goals for health, wellness and behavioral development is an important part of being a direct support professional. Keen observation equips these professionals to properly assess the patient’s progress.

  • Administrative skills: Maintaining files and records helps direct support professionals properly track patient activities and development. These individuals must be good at filing, data entry, chart-keeping and basic computer tasks.

  • Composure under pressure: Patients that need help from direct support professionals may present behavioral challenges. It’s important for these support professionals to maintain composure and approach crisis situations calmly.

  • Dependability: The role of a direct support professional is crucial for patients that rely on this care. Employers must be able to rely on their support professionals to show up on time and reliably complete all assigned tasks.

  • Interpersonal skills: Compassion and kindness are distinguishing factors that elevate talented direct support professionals over others in their field. Strong interpersonal skills help these employees connect meaningfully with their patients.

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Direct support professional work environment

Direct support professionals typically work in residential care facilities or patients’ homes. Here, they provide daily help with tasks such as cooking meals, doing laundry and cleaning the home. They may also spend time at physicians’ offices accompanying patients to appointments or out running errands and attending social activities with their patients.

Depending on the needs of the patient, a direct support professional may work with just one individual every day, or they may travel to multiple residences helping several patients.

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How to become a direct support professional

There are several steps, starting with an education, required to become a direct support professional. They need to show several key skills.

  1. Get your high school diploma and driver’s license. Most employers require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED for direct support professionals. A driver’s license is important for this position since the job often involves transporting patients to appointments and activities.

  2. Get certification. Many employers require direct support professional certification from NADSP. CPR and first aid certification are usually required or strongly preferred.

  3. Develop administrative skills. Familiarize yourself with basic computer programs, like word processing software. Basic computer literacy and administrative skills are important for direct support professionals. You can get many of these skills through community college classes or free seminars at local libraries.

  4. Show your soft skills. Employers want direct support professionals who are compassionate, patient and strong communicators. Gain work or volunteer experience that shows these skills. 

  5. Build a strong resume. Draft a resume that highlights the skills listed above. Emphasize work experience that involves hands-on activity with patients or customers, such as a volunteer position assisting patients in a hospital. As you’re describing your previous job duties, highlight your organizational skills, administrative abilities and any experience working with individuals who have behavioral or developmental disabilities.

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Direct support professional job description example

Our residential care facility is seeking a direct support professional to assist residents with their daily tasks and activities. This includes preparing meals, administering medications, providing light housekeeping and assisting patients with personal hygiene. Our direct support professionals also provide transportation to doctors’ appointments and organized social outings. Candidates must be in good physical health, have a valid driver’s license and maintain CPR and First Aid certification.

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Related careers

If you’re interested in a career that allows you to help others, consider some of the following jobs similar to that of a direct support professional.

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