How Our Training Model Improves Staff Retention and Client Outcomes

December 10, 2015
Ann M. McCreedy
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Our training investment has paid off in staff satisfaction and retention, improvement in the quality of staff interventions, and progress toward our goal of building a co-creative environment with clients.

N Street Village understands that our staff efficacy and retention depends on investing in the professional development of our staff.

Up until 2008, employees could apply for up to US $5,000 in education assistance from the organization to pursue training, certifications, or degrees that would advance their careers. After the downturn in the economy, N Street Village discontinued this assistance program and leveraged the strengths of our homegrown resources by developing an internal training program offered monthly to all staff.

Founded in 1972, N Street Village is a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit that offers a safe, empowering community for women facing homelessness, poverty, and related challenges such as mental illness, addiction, and chronic health problems.

At the time of the 2010 annual count of D.C.’s homeless population, we were providing services to approximately 46% of the adult, single homeless women in the city. In 2009 we provided safe shelter or housing to 162 women and provided daytime support services to an additional 720 women. In 2010, 70.4% of the women served reported receiving a mental health diagnosis, and 42.7% reported a history of substance abuse.

Training program format and methods

Ongoing training programs are linked to employee retention. According to research by Srinivas (2008), staff training is related to retention only when it’s part of an ongoing program offered to regularly update workers’ skills.

N Street Village staff can depend on our regular training schedule. The 90-minute sessions are offered every second Tuesday and Wednesday of each month. We offer an evening training and an afternoon training to accommodate staff on all three shifts. The training program requires an investment in staff time for planning and execution.

The program is coordinated by our clinical services coordinator, who is a licensed independent social worker, and our director of programs, who has a master’s degree in business administration. Together they spend between two and four hours planning and a total of seven hours executing the two monthly trainings. Most of the time, the trainings are led by these two individuals, but several times each year, other staff are called on to lead trainings in their areas of expertise.

For example, this year, three staff who are registered addictions counselors will lead the training on substance abuse recovery and relapse. Another staff member will lead a training on microaggressions related to racism. Staff generally appreciate the opportunity to share their areas of expertise with their peers and demonstrate leadership in a way that their day-to-day responsibilities may not afford them.

Backbone of training

The theme of the trainings is Building Productive and Healthy Helping Relationships. The content of the trainings is informed by M. Bogo’s 2006 work titled Social Work Practice: Concepts, Processes and Interviewing, and by the principles of CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training. From Bogo’s work, we obtain the three tenets to creating healthy and productive helping relationships, and these tenets act as the backbone of our training program.

The three tenets are:

  1. Focus on the client.
  2. Strive to be self-reflective and develop dynamic self-awareness.
  3. Aim to think, speak, and act in an intentional way.

The training program also provides opportunities to reinforce the principles of Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training.

Training frequency

We offer a full-day CPI training class and a half-day refresher course each year. However, a review of many of the CPI principles happens naturally during our monthly trainings. During debriefing of role-plays and/or training videos, participants provide feedback on staff’s nonverbal, paraverbal, and verbal intervention skills. For example, during our most recent training, two staff participated in a role-play about engaging a client with a major mental illness in the intake process for our agency.

Role-plays and reinforcing training principles

After the role-play, a staff member who had observed the role-play offered feedback to her peer, saying that her peer’s nonverbals and paraverbals were very supportive, but that she found the way her peer had phrased a sentence very triggering, and she suggested an alternative way for her peer to communicate the same message.

Staff reinforcing the principles with each other is at least as effective, if not more so, as the formal Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® trainings we offer twice annually.

The trainings follow a similar format each month. We open by asking the group for feedback on the previous month’s training, what was useful to them in their work, and whether they have any constructive feedback for improvement. For the first year we offered the training program, we solicited feedback using a written evaluation form at the end of each training, but we discontinued the written form when we realized that we got more meaningful feedback through discussion with the group. Depending on the topic of the training, there may be a brief introduction to the topic in lecture format lasting 10–15 minutes.

Next, we often as a group watch a video related to the topic, and then break into small groups to discuss our observations about the material and how it applies to our work.

The videos we’ve incorporated have been varied. We’ve used professional training videos depicting behavioral health workers engaging with individuals with major mental illnesses. We’ve gotten feedback that staff like and learn more from the videos that offer examples of professionalism and excellence rather than videos of poor client engagement.

We’ve also used popular music videos like “Hurt” by Johnny Cash when we’ve talked about empathy and client engagement. By keeping an open mind, we’ve found inspiration for training in a variety of media.

After or instead of a video, we ask participants to role-play common situations with clients. Some participants are sometimes initially reluctant to participate in role-plays, but there are always volunteers willing to go first, and usually other participants will join in after someone else breaks the ice.

We dedicate one month a year to role-playing scenarios submitted by staff of situations they’ve experienced. The staff who submit the scenarios are not necessarily the people who act out the role-plays in the training. They have the opportunity to observe how someone else would have handled the situation.

After the role-play is completed, the individuals who were acting in the role-play have the first chance to share their reflections about how they felt. Then the audience has the opportunity to affirm good work and suggest ways they might have done it differently. One of the take-aways from role-plays is that there may be several methods to get to the same positive outcome.

To close the training, we reiterate the key points of the training and offer participants an opportunity to reflect on what they learned.

Co-creation: involving clients in staff training

One unique element of our training program is the involvement of clients in the training.

Clients participate in the training and describe what productive and healthy helping relationships look like from their perspective.

In A Place for Some Kind of Flowers, Conklin (2007) concludes that women who are experiencing homelessness need to be the leaders in their co-creative effort to end their homelessness. He identifies that this co-creation will require an evolution within the social services process.

Staff will need to be trained about this new model, and a key element is to “include among the trainers those who are actually expert on the matter: the women who have used or are using the service infrastructure. Without this inclusive, co-creative component, the training risks perpetuating oppression, and change within the service delivery system will become implausible.” (Conklin, 2007, p.77)

In order to maintain confidentiality of all clients in the community, clients and staff agree not to discuss any real-life situations they have had, but rather to focus on what can be learned from the shared experience of watching the video and/or role-play. It has been our observation that staff and clients often take note of different elements of the same scene. Both clients and staff have ah-ha moments when they learn something from each other and look at an interaction in a new way.

The idea of including clients in the training program was initially controversial within our staff team.

In hindsight, we could have learned from Gates’s (2007) strategies to support successful integration of peers in the trainings. She suggests that the organization’s leadership needs to “create an understanding among all staff and clients in the community about the peer role and the policies and practices which support the peer contribution to services . . .” (Gates, 2007, p. 305).

We didn’t lay the groundwork as Gates suggested. As a result, several staff members expressed anxiety about the clients they worked with on a regular basis being present during training. Even though no real-life situations were referenced during the training, a few staff experienced the clients’ feedback as if it was a critique of their work. Additionally, we received the feedback that staff were unable to focus on their own learning because they had to be mindful of  their clients’ perception of them in the training environment.

If we could go back and do it differently, a month before the first training was to occur with clients, we would have talked with staff about the clients’ roles and the format of the training, and offered staff an opportunity to express their concerns. We might have avoided some of the push-back we received from staff if we had prepared them ahead of time for the inclusion of clients.

We continue to include clients because we believe the benefits outweigh the concerns. We will be most effective as an organization when our clients are the leaders in the co-creation of the solutions to their problems. In addition to participating in trainings, clients are involved in co-leading process groups, welcoming and orienting new clients, sitting on panels when prospective staff are being interviewed, and in many other ways. We still have far to go in creating a fully co-creative environment; however, creating a co-learning environment increases transparency to the client community, and the clients offer a unique perspective that is impossible to re-create in any other way in the training environment.

Co-learning with clients also challenges our staff to reflect on the power dynamics in their client relationships and to consider how they can help their clients become the leaders in their working relationships.

When a staff member expresses discomfort with something a client says during training, it offers a great opportunity to debrief during supervision to determine why it bothered the staff member and what it might suggest about the staff member’s working relationship with that client. This process of self-reflection supports the second of our three key tenets for creating healthy and productive helping relationships: Strive to be self-reflective and develop dynamic self-awareness.

Additionally, we use good judgment about which clients are included in co-learning environments. We serve clients with a wide range of mental illnesses, trauma histories, and other concerns. We select clients who are able to adhere to the ground rules of not talking about specific situations from their lives, and are able to follow the format of the training and offer their feedback about the videos or role-plays.

We also want to ensure that the topic of the training would not feel overwhelming to the clients based on where they are in their recovery. The clients we invite aren’t all “model citizens” in the community. We want a variety of perspectives, including voices of discontent, to be included in the conversation.

Training is worth the investment

Our internal training program has resulted in staff satisfaction with the organization. 

Staff often recall client situations and how the training material influenced their response in a positive way. Our feedback from staff is that the trainings are valuable, and this is reinforced by the fact that several come in on their days off to participate in the trainings.

The organization has benefited over time from the trainings through staff retention.

We have 31 direct service staff. The newest person has been with us for 21 days, and our most veteran staff member has been with the organization since 1995. On average, our current workforce has been with the organization for 652 days (as of December 27, 2010). In January 2008, before our training program started, our workforce averaged 360 days with the organization. While there have been several factors that have contributed to this, we believe that the training program has been a critical factor in our improved retention rates because our staff feel supported and equipped to be successful in their work.

We also benefit from training when we look to promote from within.

Four out of five of our current program managers were promoted from direct service positions. The trainings help develop the skills of the direct service staff so that when a position opens, we don’t need to look externally to find qualified candidates.

Our training program garners positive public perception of our organization.

We’ve presented to a group of over 60 area nonprofits about our internal training program, and have provided pro bono consulting to a nonprofit agency in our area that's trying to build a similar program. The opportunities to share information about our training program may make a difference in the quality of care being delivered across the continuum of care in our area, and help our organization become better known as a leader in the community.


Creating and maintaining an internal training program requires an investment of staff time and energy. For N Street Village, the investment has paid off in staff satisfaction and retention, improvement in the quality of staff interventions, and progress toward our goal of building a co-creative environment with clients.


  • Bogo, M. (2006). Social work practice: concepts, processes, and interviewing. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Conklin, P. M. (2007). “A place for some kind of flowers” perspectives on the end of homelessness among older women: An exploratory study using a Freireian lens. Smith College School for Social Work, Northampton, MA.
  • Gates, L. B., Akabas, S. H. (2007). Developing strategies to integrate peer providers into the staff of mental health agencies. Adm Policy Ment Health & Ment Health Serv Res, 34, 293–306
  • Srinivas, S. (2008). Employer-Sponsored training and job retention of mid-career employees. Journal of Business and Economics Research, 6(11), 89–97.

About the Author

Ann McCreedy serves as the Director of Programs at N Street Village, a community of empowerment and recovery for women in Washington, D.C. She holds a master’s in business administration from The George Washington University and is a Certified Instructor of CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program. She is also the Vice President of the Board of Directors for Open Arms Housing, which provides permanent supportive housing for women with major mental illnesses.

Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, March 2011. © 2011 CPI. Certified Instructors, log in to read more JSM articles.

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