CDLI’s mission and approach


The mission of the CDLI is to ensure that youth cultivate the character skills and traits necessary to reach their full potential. The CDLI defines youth character development as the process through which youth develop and integrate a set of values, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that encourage them to flourish in learning, in work, and in life. The CDLI will advance positive youth development through a collaborative, program-agnostic, and deliberate process that builds on research-informed adult practice areas and integrates these practice areas in youth programs serving youth ages 5-18. Advancing adult practices in out-of-school-time settings includes assessing, verifying, adapting, scaling, and sharing best adult practices within the Y Movement.

The process to develop the CDLI follows Y-USA’s established model to implement interventions across the Y Movement, across the following three phases:


  • The Discovery Phase was completed in 2016. Through a literature scan, as well as case studies of three exemplar Y sites, five evidence-informed and promising adult practice areas shown to support the development of character in youth were identified: (1) emotion management, (2) empathy, (3) relationship building, (4) responsibility, and (5) personal development.


  • In the Testing Phase, the primary question we wanted to answer was “Can the identified adult practice areas be implemented within different kinds (size, location, program type) of Ys?.” To answer this question, 32 sites were selected to translate the practice areas from working definitions to actual strategies and tactics in their sites. As the CDLI progressed, the adult practice areas continued to be reviewed by our research partners and to be developed with participating Ys. Now that the adult practice areas have been translated and further refined, a pilot has begun with 96 youth-serving programs across 64 Y associations to learn and develop how Ys successfully implement character development.


  • Once the adult practice areas have been sufficiently tested, the CDLI will enter the Dissemination Phase. In this two-year phase, we want to address how to share the adult practice areas with success across the Movement more broadly. Y-USA will identify an additional 225 to 325 Ys to participate in direct CDLI training and implementation assistance. The training materials and CDLI resources will also be accessible to an additional 200 to 350 Ys.

CDLI Guidebook


We are pleased to provide this guidebook, which is a tangible outcome of the YMCA’s renewed character development efforts. The Character Development Learning Institute (CDLI), a four-year project supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, focused on building the character development skills and practices of youth development leaders who work with youth ages 5–18 in a variety of out-of-school time settings.


CDLI Executive Summary


With your partnership, YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) is systematically collaborating with select Ys to rapidly discover, test, and disseminate best adult practices that will positively influence millions of youth across our Movement and the world. Your partnership is helping to bridge research and practice – an effort that requires committed individuals like you to learn how critical practices can be implemented by youth development practitioners with intentionality, leading to positive youth outcomes.