The YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) defines character development as “the process through which youth develop and integrate a set of values, skills, attitudes and behaviors that allow them to navigate successfully and responsibly in learning, work and life.” Character development is increasingly a focus of out-of-school time (OST) programs for youth across the country (Smith et. al., 2016). A growing body of research also supports an emphasis on character development in OST, with documented benefits to social and emotional well-being, behavioral health, and academic performance (Jones et. al., 2017), as well as economic success (Lippman et. al., 2015). However, while the field has learned a great deal in the past decade about what makes for an effective youth program, we know much less about how to equip staff and volunteers who lead youth programs to effectively promote character development in youth.

In 2016, with a $20 million grant from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, Y-USA began a multi-phase process to fill that knowledge gap by developing the Character Development Learning Institute (CDLI). The CDLI is an initiative that was co-created with youth program leaders in YMCAs (or Ys) across the country to improve their ability to integrate character development across a wide range of youth programs. During the first phase of the initiative, CDLI leadership determined that staff and volunteers would be most effective in promoting character development if they were equipped with skills and knowledge related to the following five adult practice areas: Empathy, Emotion Management, Personal Development, Relationship-Building, and Responsibility. The CDLI describes adult practices as the small, day-to-day interactions with young people that staff have throughout the regular implementation of a program (Jones & Bouffard, 2012); these five practice areas were identified following a review of the literature and expert consultation (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017; Park, 2009).