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.


We can confidently say that the three pillars upon which critical hours programming rests are positively and concretely influencing social and academic outcomes for children and youth who take part in them. While research in this area in still fairly new, it has thus far identified “Skill Development”, “Positive Relationships” and “Safe and Supportive Spaces” as profoundly interconnected elements which are essential to a high quality “bell to bell” experience for children and youth. As research moves forward, it will hopefully continue to follow-up on participants, so that we might determine the longevity of the effects of this type of program, and hopefully see that participants have remained strong and able students, as well as confident and well-adjusted individuals.

Skill Development

Evidence-based critical hours programs foster both the social and academic skills of participants. Child and youth engagement in programming was identified in several studies as being a key indicator common to the optimal development of both sets of skills. When students are engaged in high quality after school activities, they experience higher levels of intrinsic concentration and motivation which push their academic and social development forward and maximize their outcomes in these areas. Most studies classify high quality programs as those which offer “SAFE” (structured, active, focused and explicit) programming and activities.1

Safe & Supported Spaces

The second pillar which supports critical hours programming is known as “safe and supportive spaces”; the environments in which children and youth spend their time “bell to bell”, when they are most vulnerable. Based on existing literature in this area, afterschool programs provide two different kinds of “safe and supportive spaces”: safe in the sense of a stable emotional climate, and safe as pertains to the socio-demographic situation of the program space.

Positive Relationships

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.

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