NADD Bulletin Volume IX Number 4 Article 1

Complete listing

Competency-based staff development Creating a Competency-Based Staff Development System

Karen Craven

The purpose of this article is to give some guidance and tips on creating a staff development system for community based organizations providing supports to people with disabilities. We'll focus on identifying what staff needs to know (competencies) and how you know they know it (demonstrations). We'll also share some basic training methods and adult learning principles to use when delivering the training. Finally, we'll offer some advice on how to check to see if the trainees really learned the material.

What is competency based training?

The key factor in competency-based training systems is that trainees demonstrate that they have a skill rather than simply check off that they have received training on a topic (Acosta-Amad & Brethower, 1992; DuBois, 1993). Clearly stated outcomes spell out what the trainee is expected to do, and each learner has an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a task. In a more traditional approach to training the focus was on attending a training session and perhaps passing a written post-test with a satisfactory score (Albin, Buckley, & Lynch, 1992). With competency-based training, each trainee is expected to demonstrate a level of proficiency on the job (or in a job-like setting) to prove that they have the skills they need.

There are several proven benefits to competency-based training (e.g., Burch, Reiss, & Bailey, 1987). There are benefits both for employers and employees. For a thorough review of research on this important topic, please refer to published review articles focusing on issues in training and management (Burgio & Burgio, 1990; Cullen, 1988).

Benefits to employers

Competency based training helps in recruitment and hiring by providing clear job expectations to candidates. This method of training increases consistency of training and outcomes within an organization. Competency based training creates common ground among rehabilitation programs for organizing and sharing training. Also, it provides structure for performance reviews. Finally, it increases management's confidence in skill levels of staff. As one administrator said, "I don't wake up in the middle of the night worrying, did I tell them how to&ldots;" (Craven, 2002).

Benefits to employees

There are many benefits for employees as well. Competency based training provides clear picture of what an individual needs to be able to do. Staff knows what is expected of them. It provides a variety of ways for staff to demonstrate competency. Success is not dependent on test taking. Competency based training serves as a foundation from which advanced training can be developed. The list of competencies can be built on and added to as staff develop in the organization. Finally, it increases self-confidence of staff.

Developing a Competency Based Training Program

In developing a system for staff development, the following questions about training need to be addressed: (a) what do we train? (b) who will do training?, (c), how will information be presented and what materials are needed?, (d) when will training happen?, and (e) did trainees "get it"? (This is the key difference with competency-based systems.). The following flow chart shows the steps in developing such a system.

Step 1. Identify the competencies needed by staff.


The first step in the process of creating a staff development plan is to clearly identify what staff need to know and do in your organization. This is an important step that must include the people who already do the job well, customers (people receiving services), and supervisors (Craven, 2002). An example of a thorough set of competencies for direct service workers in the human services is The Community Support Skill Standards from Human Services Research Institute (Taylor & Bradley, 1996). This tool identifies skill standards and performance indicators in twelve broad areas including participant empowerment, communication, community living skills and vocational supports. Another example of competencies for direct support staff is the Oregon Core Competencies (Craven, 2000). This document identifies basic skills and demonstrations for staff in residential and employment programs supporting individuals with developmental disabilities. The core competencies cover the areas of health, safety, rights, values and mission. Lists of positive behavior support competencies have been published (Baker, Albin, Craven, & Wieseler, 2002). Many NADD training materials would easily lend themselves to this effort.

Step 2. Determine acceptable demonstrations.

Once you know what staff need to know, the second step is to determine how you can tell if they know it or not - the demonstration of mastery. For each competency there should be a list of tasks or activities that the trainee can demonstrate. An example of a competency and corresponding demonstration in the area of values is presented in Table 1. Methods for checking the competencies will be described Step 6.


Step 3. Decide on best materials, methods and staff for training.

The competencies and demonstrations describe where the training is going. The training plan is the process for getting there. The trainers are key to your success. They should be engaging and knowledgeable in their topic area. Trainers may be from outside your agency or in-house staff, professional "trainers" or co-workers, young or old. Look around your organization. Figure out who is the best person to teach different topics. For example, the best person to teach about integration and choice may not be the same one to teach medication administration or symptoms of depression. Perhaps someone who is receiving services will be the most effective person to teach about choice or other core values. Consider the internal staff resources. Are you really tapping into existing staff talent and skills? Is there staff in your organization who could be groomed to be trainers in particular areas? Don't underestimate the talent within. An opportunity to shine and share expertise on a topic may be just the thing that an OK staff person needs to turn into a star.

In figuring out the best way to present material, there are unlimited options. The tools you select will partly depend on what your objective is in the training. Start with the end in mind. What does staff really need to be able to take away from each training session? If staff only needs an awareness of something (someone has a legal guardian, for example) your approach will be quite different than if they need to perform a complex task such as operating machinery. The diagram below shows methods that are appropriate for awareness, knowledge, or skill level learning


Remember, what counts is learning, not training. If we quickly dump lots of information on the new staff, much of which is forgotten (DuBois, 1993) we are really wasting, not saving, valuable time. Using other methods of training that involve the learner more but may be more time consuming will get us better results in the long run through increased competency, fewer errors and less retraining. Passive learning experiences are known to produce poor outcomes across the range of learners (Englemann & Carnine, 1991). It is important as well to vary the diet. The more variety you have in your training, the more likely you are to "catch" the learner and make an impact. Consider using a mix of printed material, role-plays, group tasks, problem solving activities, questionnaires, games, question & answer sessions, and any other fun and creative things you can develop. Table 2 offers guidelines for selecting training methods and materials.


Step 4. Provide training and feedback.

No matter what approach you use (large groups, 1:1 training, formal classes, on-the-job training) you will be most effective if you use active training that involves the learners and makes them discover information for themselves (Jensen, 1995). Involve them physically and emotionally. Be sure you allow opportunities for learners to practice the new skill or attitude and get specific and immediate feedback. Merely dumping information on someone does not constitute training. We all need practice with feedback (Carr, 1992; Hart, 1991; McArdle, 1993; Reay, 1994).

When providing the training it is important to consider learning styles - of the trainer and the learners. There are three basic learning styles called visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (feeling) (Jensen, 1995; Howard, 1999). Most of us learn from all three modes, but one is typically strongest in each person. Table 3 presents brief descriptions of the three learning styles.


As a trainer, it is important to understand your own primary learning style. Why? Most people tend to train in the style that is most comfortable to them. For example, if you are a visual learner you most likely train your staff by giving them lots of written information. If you do only that, you could be missing the primary learning style of over half of the people you train. Besides knowing your own preferred style, you must pay attention to the learning style of your trainee. If you know what it is, defer to that style whenever possible. Often, however, you will not know. Then what? The best way to provide training is to include as many learning styles as possible in any given training event. For example, if you are teaching someone to operate machinery such as specialized equipment or production machinery use all modes. Tell them how to operate it; show them how; let them try and give feedback; and give written instructions as back up. When new skills are not immediately used, training becomes less effective (Arco & Birnbrauer, 1990; Delameter, Connors, & Wells, 1994; Engelmann & Carnine, 1991; Jensen, 1995).

When thinking of kinesthetic learning we tend to think of action and touch. But don't forget "feelings." Emotions make powerful connectors for learning. If we think back to our earliest memories, they usually involve powerful emotions, either wonderful or terrible. If you want trainees to remember things, don't underestimate the power of "feelings" in the training (Howard, 1999). For example, having an individual with disabilities participate in training about rights, values, or abuse is going to be more powerful and memorable than reading policies and procedures. Relating concerns about mental health to personal experiences of trainees will produce a similar positive effect.

When presenting new information, it is also important to consider how adults learn (Wlodkowski, 1985). Pay attention to the adult learning principles when planning and presenting all training. Staff will learn more easily and retain more information if you keep the following concepts in mind when teaching: (a) trainees should be physically and mentally ready (able and willing) to focus on the information, (b), learners see the learning as having personal value (meets their goals), (c) material relates to their past experiences, (d) they can see how the information can be applied in their lives (solve their problem), (e)and trainees feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting with new knowledge and skills.

Staff needs to know what's in it for them and how this new information or skill will make their lives better. Answer their question, "Why do I need to know this?" Explain up front how the training will help them solve a problem or do their job better. It's also important to build on existing knowledge and relate the new information in a meaningful way to things they already know. For example, new staff may have never considered the importance of providing choice to people with disabilities. But they can certainly relate to their own experiences of having or not having control in their jobs or homes.


Simulate the work environment while training whenever possible. Staff will be able to perform best on the job when the training conditions closely match the environment in which they will need to perform. For example, if staff typically need to deal with distractions when running a program or distributing medications, you will want the trainee to practice the skill a few times in a situation that resembles those conditions. Remember, someone may be able to perform well in a classroom or a quiet office, but forget all they know if the conditions are more difficult (Smith, Parker, Taubman, & Lovaas, 1992).

New staff are also probably nervous and anxious about the new job and all the things they need to learn. They may be afraid of failure, of being embarrassed, of not being smart enough. If they are scared, they are not in a good "learning state". Adults learn best when they feel comfortable and safe. Consider what you can do to reduce the fear factor and increase the confidence level of the new person. The more positive an environment you can create, the more likely the staff person is to succeed.

Space out your training on-site so that you allow the trainee time to practice, ask questions, and get plenty of feedback. Although you feel a time crunch, haste really makes waste if you try to fill up someone's head with lots of information as fast as possible. It may seem to make the trainer's job go quicker, but retention will be minimal.

Most of what our staff really learn, they learn on the job. Studies show that employees learn 90 % of their knowledge or skills through OJT (On-The-Job Training) (Carnevale and Gainer, 1989; Jacob & Jones, 1995).

All organizations have some kind of OJT system in place, whether they know it or not. Often, however, it is unstructured and happens haphazardly. It can be as informal as "follow Joe around" or "watch Sally". Because of time or other pressures, important steps may be forgotten or simply skipped. The following are with "unstructured" OJT: (a) training may be informal and unplanned with inconsistent outcomes, (b) there are no training criteria or training records, (c) managers are often expected to train and do their own work at the same time, (d) training takes place during work and sometimes takes lower priority as work still has to be completed, (e) the trainer may know the job but have few or poor training skills, and may see training as an imposition on his or her work time, and (f) training may represent an accumulation of bad habits, misinformation, and possibly unsafe shortcuts commonly used by the employees

It is not surprising that such an unstructured approach could lead to errors and low productivity. In order to avoid these common pitfalls it is important that OJT be structured. This means that, just like in classroom training, there is a planned process with specific outcomes. In this case an experienced employee trains the new employee in the actual work setting. Whether teaching someone in a classroom or in the work setting, one can follow a simple, 3-step basic teaching strategy: Model, Lead, and Test. This is a simplification of Direct Instruction (Engelmann & Carnine, 1991). In Model, show the learner the skill. In Lead, let the learner try it and lead them through with prompts, cues and feedback. You may have to repeat this step several times depending on the complexity of the task. In Test, have the person do the task without assistance. This checking is done during the training session. One must still check competency later on in the work setting to be sure the learner retained the information.

Step 5. Do observations in work setting and document outcomes.


We need to be sure that staff transfers what they learn to the real work situations. Therefore, don't just check off that staff received training. Check that they have the skill and apply the knowledge on the job. This is the critical piece of a competency-based training system. It's also the part most of us miss, or forget, or fail to complete as we run out of time. You have already spelled out (through measurable objectives) what you will be looking for. The challenge now is to do this systematically and document it.

Who should do the observations? This could be the manager, supervisor, key experienced staff, or the clients themselves. In some organizations the trainer and the observer are the same individual but this has been known to cause some trouble. If you can, have different people do the training and checking for a given skill. Clearly identify who is responsible for checking off what competency. Some organizations are having the individuals who receive services play a large part in staff competency assessment. It is particularly important in situations where supports are provided in remote locations such as supported living or supported employment and people are isolated. You may need to adapt your assessment tools or techniques for some individuals and provide them with training and support, especially in the beginning.

How do you test for competency? This varies depending on the skill. Here is a list of five general ways of determining competency. First, skill can be assessed on-site observation by trained observers. These could be supervisors, co-workers, and people with disabilities. Second, individual performance records can be checked, such as incident reports, log notes, time sheets, medication administration records, or production records. Third, comments from others describing behavior can be used, including managers, employees, support staff, clients, family members, or case managers. Fourth, simulations are a useful method of assessing skill, including assignments, projects and simulations of events that may only occur irregularly (like disaster drills). Fifth, you can interview using open-ended questions to find out about attitudes and beliefs. Why did you do it that way? What would you do if...? How do you feel about that? Why do you feel that way?

Depending on the skill, try to observe staff a few days or a week after training. That will show if they have been able to really learn and apply the information. Testing in a classroom situation does not really tell us if someone will retain information long term or if they know how to apply it to work. Avoid written tests as much as possible (medication administration is one exception.) Also, many of us do not "test" well.

When checking an item off on the competency check list we recommend that the observer initial the form, the trainee initial the form, and that it is dated. That way, everyone is in agreement that the staff person can do the job. It is a great confidence booster when the new staff person can say and document "I know this stuff!"

What about on-going performance? Skills need to be regularly reviewed and checked. Obviously, just because a person can do the job correctly doesn't mean he or she always will do the job correctly. On-going performance is determined by a multitude of factors including supervision, management practices, work environment, motivation, etc. What the competency check list assures you is that the staff person learned the skill and can perform to a certain standard.

Step 6. Do staff meet standards?


Once a trainee demonstrates the competencies that you identified as necessary, he or she is ready to work. Provide regular feedback and coaching around the skills as needed. But remember - competency checking is not a pass/fail thing. It's more of a pass/haven't-passed-YET sort of thing. Checking the skill level can help you identify where you missed with your training and what areas need to be addressed again.

A few final training tips

People learn best when they are given some advance warning of what they will be taught. To prepare staff for learning, give them materials ahead of time. Provide an outline or agenda prior to the session. Review objectives at the beginning of the session and tell them what you are going to do. If possible, have trainees meet with their supervisor or team members to clarify expectations.

Try to schedule learning sessions of no more than two to four hours per day. Allow time and space for practice between sessions. Build in frequent breaks. After a session of an hour or so, take a break and do something physical like walking around or exercises. This generates neurotransmitters in the brain to help fix the memory. If you must do all-day sessions, allow trainees to read material in advance and practice and review afterward.

Many teachers say laughing is good for learning. It lowers stress and creates a positive "learning state" for trainees. Laughter also increases the flow of the brain's neurotransmitters that are needed for memory formation. Always make sure the humor is in good taste and not made at anyone's expense.


Try to actively engage people's emotions while learning. Feelings are critical to the learning process and help us remember information. Curiosity, anticipation, and suspense are excellent "learning states".

One of the best ways for trainees to retain material is to "handle it" or manipulate it so that it is their own. You might have your learners: take notes, generate their own examples or case studies, do practice exercises, create diagrams or flow charts, role play, or present the information to someone else.


For further information, contact Ms. Craven at:




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