Strengthening Character Development Practices at the Y

At the Y, the word “character” reflects a commitment to positive youth development through evidence-based programming and the core organizational values of honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility. In 2016, the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) launched the Character Development Learning Institute (CDLI) to advance youth character development practices across its network of local associations. The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation provided a $20 million grant to support the new effort. The grant bolsters a four-year launch period intended to build an enduring institute that will strengthen the Y’s well-established youth character development work.

The CDLI is national in scope, engaging local Y associations and partner organizations as living laboratories to discover, test, and disseminate best practices for character development. The CDLI emphasizes four domains of program influence that are central to Y character development efforts; each was assessed and validated by Hanover Research, an independent firm, in 2015.  Together, these domains contribute to the Y’s systemic approach to fostering positive youth development:

  • Adult practice – recognizing that young people take most of their character cues from the way adults interact with others and talk about situations that illustrate character

  • Program services and delivery – improving existing youth programs by infusing more character development practices

  • Environments – ensuring that the physical and social environments for program delivery reflect the Y’s definition of character and values

  • Evaluation – tracking relevant indicators for students and practitioners, including relational outcomes, to inform improvement

In early 2017, the CDLI selected 32 Ys to participate in a first phase of activity, equipping them to translate what emotional management, empathy, personal development, responsibility, and relationship building look like in practice today. These social-emotional learning (SEL) skills are adapted to the Y context from the well-regarded work of the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality and other resources in the field.

In August 2017, the CDLI convened these 32 Ys to review the latest research on character development and assess how adult practitioners working in out-of-school-time settings can apply new lessons learned effectively. A keynote presentation highlighted the importance of SEL and the Y imperative to embed it into high-quality programming across all youth development offerings. Breakout sessions provided collaborative space for Ys to develop strategies, enhance capabilities, and exchange information gained through examining their practices.

The CDLI is preparing to transition to a broader pilot in early 2018. The pilot will involve 64 Ys to identify the adaptions needed to imbed the five key SEL skills in youth development practices. Eight associations involved in the translate phase will be selected to act as local “hubs” that support Ys in their region.

A third phase beginning in late 2018 is designed to take the effort to scale, involving hundreds more Ys in strengthening character development through effective out-of-school programming.

Through the Character Development Learning Institute, the national network of Ys is well positioned to close the gap between theory and effective practice that will benefit millions of young people in communities across America.