The 3 Pillars of Critical Hours Programming

Over the last decade, we have seen a significant rise in the number and importance of after-school programs, or “Homework Clubs,” for elementary and middle-school aged children. These programs fill the critical hours between when children and youth finish school, and the end of their parents’ work day. They rest on three foundational pillars which provide them with objective and direction, and are measures by which we can evaluate their success. The pillars are:

  1. Skill development;
  2. Safe and supported spaces; and,
  3. Positive relationships.

In examining existing literature on how each pillar affects child and youth experiences in the hours “bell to bell”, we are able to determine that high quality critical hours programming is uniquely suited to further academic, social, and emotional outcomes for children and youth, and in so doing, supports the development of well-adjusted individuals, and strong students.

Skill Development

Critical hours programs foster the social and academic skills of participants. When students are engaged in high quality after school activities, they experience higher levels of intrinsic concentration and motivation.

Social & Emotional Skills

After-school programs are key spaces where students expand their socio-emotional learning horizons. Self-esteem, self-regulation, psychosocial adjustment, empathy and school bonding are some of the emotional faculties which are critical indicators of positive development and successful outcomes, and are also a focus in after-school programs.2

Academic Skills

Although critical hours programs are not strictly scholastic, they support their capacity to improve academic outcomes for participants. Activities which consist of academic enrichment or homework and requires children and youth to develop skills which are invaluable to academic success, such as persistence, focus, and sustained attention and engagement.3  

Safe & Supported Spaces

The second pillar which supports critical hours programming is known as "safe and supported spaces". Critical hours programming provides two different kinds of "safe and supportive spaces": safe in terms of a stable emotional climate and in terms of program space.


For critical hours programs to be considered safe it must have several components:

  • Staff turnover should be low,4
  • Staff training and ongoing supervision (the capacity to address academic questions, but more importantly, participants’ personal problems) should be strong and evidence based,5 and
  • Authority displayed by staff should be progressive, with lots of opportunity for participants autonomous choice.6

Children are vulnerable when left alone in their time outside of school. Critical hours programs provide a safe, structured space where these children can be engaged in constructive activities during these risky hours. High quality critical hours programs help children and youth establish positive, healthy behaviours which they will carry with them through their teen years and hopefully for the remainder of their lives.7

Positive Relationships

The third pillar of critical hours programming is Positive Relationships. Evidence shows that the primary reasons children return to the programs is because of the relationships they build there. More than attendance it is the peer-peer and child/youth-adult relationships that positively influence social and academic outcomes for participants.

Peer-Peer Relationships

Positive relationships with peers increases participant engagement, social competency, and relationships with peers. On peer bonding in critical hours, programs show “an increase in prosocial development in youth when peer social support is present. As peer social supports increase, prosocial behaviour and self-esteem increase while conduct disorder, emotional problems, hyperactivity and indirect aggression all decrease.”9

Child/Youth-Adult Relationships

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 but two studies found that they are in fact the singular most important program factor to enhance social and academic outcomes for youth.10

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