Promoting Character Development in Youth Programs through Professional Development for Staff and Volunteers

Research BriefYouth & Young AdultsJul 15 2020

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).


In addition to the CDLI’s commitment to enhancing the capacity of youth program staff and volunteers, CDLI leadership also committed to sustainable change. To support sustainability within the CDLI itself, they set out to determine whether experienced Ys (referred to as hubs) could effectively guide their peers from other Ys through the process of enhancing the five adult practices within their own organizations. To better understand what it takes to ensure long-lasting changes within local Ys, CDLI leadership examined the role that organizational capacity—including things like financial stability and community partnerships—might play in infusing character development within organizational policies and practices such as hiring and training of staff and volunteers.

This brief summarizes the results from Child Trends’ evaluation of the CDLI, drawing from interviews, program observations, and surveys of staff and volunteers from many of the 208 Ys that participated in the final phase of the CDLI (see Appendix 3 for a summary of Ys in each phase). Child Trends has served as the evaluation and research partner for the CDLI since 2017, when the CDLI debuted its framework for a small cohort of Ys in what they called the “Translate phase” (Redd et. al., 2017; Stratford et. al, 2018; Redd et. al., 2019; Lantos et al., 2019). The data presented here were collected from fall 2019 to spring 2020. Following a brief summary of key findings, we provide background on the CDLI, describe the study methods, and offer detailed findings on the outcomes of the study. To learn more about the lessons learned in implementing the CDLI across four successive cohorts, please visit this link.