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.
The emotional stability and positive climate which are at the heart of high quality critical hours programming are evidently related to the building of social and emotional and even academic skills within those environments. For an afterschool program to be considered safe in this sense, it must have several essential components: staff turnover should be low,17 staff training and ongoing supervision (the capacity to address academic questions, but more importantly, participants’ personal problems) should be strong and evidence-based,18 and authority displayed by staff should be progressive, with lots of opportunity for participant autonomous choice.19 Further, program participants should experience a generally positive and respectful emotional and relational climate,20 and the program environment should provide mental and emotional stimulation and challenge.21
Study findings indicate that when many or all of these elements are present in a given program, they will heighten and secure participants’ engagement in that program. As stated in the section above, children and youth’s heightened engagement in critical hours programming leads to optimal development of their social, emotional and academic skills. Further, the affective and relational environment of a program, which will be explored in greater detail in the following section, is a great predictor of positive outcomes for critical hours program participants.
The “Safe and Supportive Spaces” pillar also engenders socio-demographic security, for all children, but particularly for at risk children, in low income neighbourhoods in urban centres. Children are vulnerable when left alone in their time outside of school – afterschool programs provide a safe, structured space where these children can be engaged in constructive activities during these risky hours. The Social Development Model contends that children learn patterns of behavior, prosocial or antisocial, based on their social environment and will replicate these behaviours, making a high quality afterschool program beneficial in that it helps 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.22
A study by Vandell, Shernoff et. al on engagement in afterschool activities, in which they monitored participants within and outside of program hours, revealed that children and youth who attend critical hours programming spend more time involved in academic and arts enrichment, organized sports and physical activities, community service, and homework while they are at the program than their non-attending peers. Further, they spent less time eating and watching TV while at the program than elsewhere. Participants’ positive behaviour patterns were complemented by high ratings of positive social behaviors from teachers and increased achievement on school tests, meaning that the safety of the space provided by critical hours programs is directly related to improved outcomes for children and youth who take part.23