The third pillar of critical hours programming that emerges in the literature is the “Positive Relationships” that children and youth develop in high quality programs. A U.S. study by Deutsch and Jones on respect in the context of afterschool programming found that in fact the primary reason children return to afterschool programs is because of the relationships they build there,24 while a study by Rhodes and Roffman indicated that student participants who were interviewed considered the program to be a “second home.”25 While many relationships the child or youth may hold are affected by their program attendance (child-community, child-parent, child-school), two are of particular importance in positively influencing social and academic outcomes for program participants: peer-peer and child/youth-adult.
Peer to peer relationships established in critical hours programming are part of the basis upon which child and youth social and emotional skills, as explored in the research surrounding the “Skill Development” pillar, are developed and honed. Keeping in mind that engagement in the program is the key determinant of improved outcomes for program participants, Positive relationships with peers enhance participant engagement, and reciprocally, a greater degree of engagement enhances social competency, and in turn enhances relationships with peers. This positive cycle creates a web of support among peer program participants, and a common group identity, and in so doing, improves their social outcomes.
The effect of critical hours programs on the development of prosocial behaviours and the decrease of problem ones is highly influenced by peer socialization, specifically in contexts less formal than the classroom where there is more opportunity for flexibility in interactions. Findings in a study by Wright et. Al on peer bonding in critical hours program suggests “an increase in prosocial development in youth when peer social support is present. In particular, as peer social support increased, prosocial behavior and self-esteem increased as well … [while] conduct disorder, emotional problems, hyperactivity, and indirect aggression all decreased.” 26
The development of positive relationships between program participants and the adults who staff the programs can be complex due to various dimensions of social bonding involved, but two studies found that they are in fact the singular most important program factor to enhance social and academic outcomes for youth.27
In a review of the literature, program staff-participant relationships were described as “highly personal and relational,”28 “more intense than teacher-student relationships” because they are not impeded by an evaluative nature, and as such there is a lesser power dynamic,29 “peer-like, but still deserving respect.”30 In a study in which program staff and participants were interviewed on site, respect embedded in the context of supportive relationships emerged as an important order in participant-staff relationships. When children felt respected by the adults running the program, they were more likely to respect them in turn and also to be engaged in the structured enrichment activities, academic and non-academic that program staff was facilitating.31 When participant engagement level increases, their social outcomes improve, and so does their interaction with positive role models, which ultimately leads to improved social outcomes, such as “the long-term attainment of positive social adjustment.”32
Studies have shown that positive staff-participant relationships also concretely improve child and youth academic outcomes. As discussed above, children who attend program, and do so often, have up to a 20% increase in academic outcomes over their non-attending peers.33 A study by Gottfredson et al. on middle school students attending programs found that the most consistent student attendance occurs in programs where staff effectively creates strong emotional bonds with them.34 Further, the Pierce, Bolt and Vandell study on program quality study reported that children who participated in critical hours programs where staff-child/youth relationships were more positive displayed academic gains in both reading and math scores at the Grade 2/3 level over those who attended programs with less strong bonds being formed.35
Currently, positive relationships with staff stand as one of the most promising and also most challenging aspects of critical hours programming. While this pillar appears to have the strongest influence over social and academic outcomes for participants, it is also the area in which many programs are not considered “high quality”, due to high rates of staff turnover, and insufficient or ineffective staff training. This is something that must be further explored as critical hours programming research moves forward.