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11 Steps to Implementing a DSP Peer Mentoring Program

Retaining direct support professionals (DSPs) is a seemingly never-ending challenge for organizations that serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Agencies are always looking for ways to help new hires understand and get excited about the job, engage their employees, and recognize the experience of their veterans. A DSP peer mentoring program is a great way to increase employee engagement and retention.

By allowing your best DSPs to become peer mentors and giving them a modest pay raise, you provide a step up on the career ladder. And you’re also providing new hires with much-needed guidance and support.

More than a third of new DSPs quit within the first six months. A peer mentoring program can increase the likelihood that your DSPs will stay with your organization by:

  • Easing the transition from training to the work setting
  • Reducing a new employee’s anxiety about their job
  • Giving a new employee a safe place to express concerns and get feedback
  • Teaching problem solving, critical thinking, and clinical skills
  • Creating opportunities for social engagement between employees

Steps to Implementing a DSP Peer Mentoring Program

Getting a DSP peer mentoring program up and running takes work and commitment from people at every level of your organization. While the program isn’t free, it costs a lot less than recruiting and training new DSPs.

Step 1: Get buy-in from every level of the organization

A DSP peer mentoring program requires an investment of time and money, so it is important that everyone in your organization understands the value of the program and is committed to its success. It is especially important that the people who make decisions and control the resources are on board — administrators, managers, executive-level leadership, and your board of directors. If they are involved from the beginning, they are more likely to continue to support the program as it goes through evaluations and revisions.

Managers and front-line supervisors can make or break the program, so their buy-in is also critical. If they talk negatively about it to the people they supervise, the program will be unable to get off the ground. And of course, you want to let your current DSPs know about the benefits of the program and get their input during the development process.

Step 2: Create a peer mentorship committee

This committee will be in charge of designing and implementing the DSP peer mentoring program and monitoring its results. Include people from all parts of your organization on the committee — leadership, DSPs, supervisors, and individuals who receive services.

Appoint a program facilitator to lead the committee. A natural choice would be the person who is already responsible for the hiring and training of new DSPs or is especially passionate about the idea. The facilitator will be the one who pushes along the development of the program, oversees the implementation, monitors its success, and addresses any problems.

Step 3: Develop your mission, goals, and outcomes

Your peer mentorship committee oversees this process. Creating the right mission for the program is critical because it will determine how you define success.

Let’s say, for example, your mission is to “Improve the quality of life of the people you serve.” Then one of your goals might be to provide excellent, consistent person-centered services. Your outcome measures might focus on the satisfaction of the people you serve, how consistently staff were available to cover all shifts, and whether or not each individual’s goals were met.

On the other hand, if your mission is to “Develop a workforce committed to the organization’s values,” you would need to break those values down into measurable components to create your goals. Depending on what those goals are, your outcome measures might focus on retention of highly committed staff and employee engagement.

Make sure that your outcome measures are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Step 4: Develop your DSP peer mentoring program

After they have established the goals of the program, the committee then needs to build it. Here are a few questions the committee will need to answer:

  • How long will a mentor-mentee pairing last? Four months is the minimum time necessary for the program to be effective; six months is ideal.
  • How often should the mentor and mentee meet? At least one hour a week is recommended. The committee may want to require the mentor and mentee to set up a regular meeting time. If you decide that they should meet in one of your offices or facilities, make sure they have privacy so the mentee can speak freely about any concerns.
  • What training are you going to provide to the mentors? In addition to training on the program itself, they may need training on leadership or communication topics, like coaching, constructive criticism, or conflict resolution. The committee may decide to mandate some trainings and leave others up to the discretion of the DSP peer mentoring program facilitator.
  • How will you support the mentors? Ongoing support is critical for the success of the program. The facilitator should touch base with the mentor every week to see how the mentor-mentee relationship is developing and to discuss any potential problems. It is also a good idea to have all the mentors get together once a month to talk about how things are going and troubleshoot challenges.
  • Who will be eligible to be a mentee? Will the program be available to all new hires and/or current employees who are struggling?
  • What will be the size and scope of your program? If you have a large organization, you might want to begin with a pilot program at one location to iron out any kinks before launching the program organization-wide. You also need to decide whether to include all new hires or only selected individuals.

In addition, the committee should develop a mentor-mentee agreement. This conveys the commitment by both parties to participate in the program and outlines their roles and responsibilities. The agreement should also include the frequency and schedule of interactions.

Step 5: Develop mentor training

Begin your training by clearly outlining the goals for the DSP peer mentoring program and the outcomes you are seeking to achieve. Express appreciation for the mentors’ willingness to share their expertise and their commitment to improving the organization’s services. Drive home the point that a positive attitude can make or break the program.

Focus your training on leadership, communication, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills. Teaching interpersonal skills will give your mentors the techniques they need to develop relationships. These skills come naturally to some people, but those who struggle may still make great mentors; they may just need a little more coaching. Communication skills training can help mentors identify communication blockers and communication enablers. Another great method for training is to simulate mentor-mentee sessions.

Make sure your mentors can identify when they need to get additional guidance from supervisors or administrators. They need to know when a conversation should remain confidential and when an issue needs to be shared with others in the organization.

Step 6: Develop a budget

There are four components to the budget of your DSP peer mentoring program:

  1. Mentor wages and benefits — Are you going to give mentors an increase in their hourly wages or an annual bonus? Certainly, an increase in their hourly wage is the most effective way to drive home the message that your organization values the peer mentorship program and the experience of your mentors. You also need to consider the amount of time you expect the mentor and mentee to spend together. Finally, account for the wages of the members of your peer mentorship committee and the time they will put into development and oversight of the program.
  2. Program facilitation — Will you have a meet-and-greet session for your new mentors and mentees? Will you provide food or refreshments during committee meetings? What other supplies will you need?
  3. Training costs — Your program facilitator will need to provide training to your mentors when they first enter the program and develop recurrent, ongoing training. The facilitator will need to monitor the program and check in with the mentors regularly to determine what additional training would help mentors be more effective.
  4. Incidental costs — This might include marketing costs, such as flyers to let your current DSPs know about the program and other small expenses.

The costs generally come to about $1,000 for each mentor-mentee relationship over a four- to six-month mentorship. That is less than half of what it costs to replace a DSP.

Step 7: Host an orientation for your managers and front-line supervisors

Once you’ve developed your plan, host an orientation for supervisors so they understand how the program works and how it will help them do their jobs more effectively. They need to see that the mentor can be an asset for helping them manage the DSPs they supervise. Engage the supervisors in helping you identify DSPs who would make good mentors.

Step 8: Find your mentors

Market your program to all staff members in your organization. Let them know about the goals and benefits of the program. The recruitment process should be transparent.

When choosing your mentors, look for the following qualities:

  • They embody the mission of your organization.
  • They have a minimum of one year of experience.
  • They have a solid knowledge of policies and procedures.
  • They have a history of good performance evaluations.
  • They have a positive rapport with co-workers and those receiving services.
  • They demonstrate strong problem-solving and communication skills.
  • They have a record of dependability.

Step 9: Pair up your mentors and mentees

This is the responsibility of the program facilitator. They should consider the communication styles, learning styles, personality characteristics, and hobbies and interests of the mentors and mentees in order to make matches that are more likely to be successful.

Encourage the mentor to reach out to the mentee before the onboarding process begins. The mentor should express enthusiasm about the mentee joining the organization and explain that they will be working together. You may also want the mentors to attend the first day of onboarding.

Step 10: Monitor implementation

The program facilitator needs to monitor the implementation of the program closely to detect and address any issues. This is an ongoing process — the facilitator should regularly monitor the program to ensure that it is being implemented appropriately and to identify any barriers to success that may not have been considered previously. Facilitators are also responsible for holding the mentors and mentees accountable for attending their regular meetings.

Step 11: Evaluate the results

How results are evaluated will depend on the outcomes the committee identified. Some tools for evaluating results include turnover rates, exit interviews, and surveys of your employees and the individuals you serve. Evaluate the cost-effectiveness of your program. Look at the expenses and see if the program came in on budget. Bring your program committee together to review the results and consider changes to the program and the budget.

Your DSP peer mentoring program committee should continue to conduct evaluations of the program regularly — at least every quarter — as long as it is running. This will give them a chance to explore new ideas and identify problems before they undermine your program.

Barriers to Success for a DSP Peer Mentoring Program

Common barriers to success of a DSP peer mentoring program include:

  • Lack of commitment from company decision-makers
  • Lack of support from other stakeholders, such as supervisors and administrators
  • Inadequate training and support for mentors
  • Lack of transparency in the mentor recruiting process, which can breed resentment in your DSPs who are not mentors
  • Poor mentor selection
  • Lack of resources

Make sure there is no confusion between supervisors and mentors. The mentors should not be involved in conducting formal evaluations or documenting performance problems. While mentors may have the “inside scoop” on their mentees’ performance, attitude, and challenges, they should not be involved in any supervisory or management processes.

Make sure your supervisors honor the mentor-mentee’s meeting schedule! It may be tempting to pull a mentor away from their mentoring activities when you need them to fill a shift. But doing so will undermine your program and send the message that the mentor-mentee relationship is not important to management.

The Value of a DSP Peer Mentoring Program

Ultimately, the reason to implement a DSP peer mentoring program is to add value to your staff and organization.

This includes making it easier for your DSPs to onboard, grow, and do their jobs; creating a better organizational culture that makes employees want to work for you, thus increasing retention rates; reducing the organizational cost of DSP turnover.

With a properly planned and executed DSP peer mentoring program, all of this is possible. By investing in and adding value to your staff, they will invest and add value back into your organization.


Best Practices for Supporting DSP Career Growth

Our DSP career growth white paper discusses strategies your organization can use to help grow the careers and skills of your DSPs. From onboarding and orientation to continued education opportunities, learn how to help your DSPs succeed.

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