The 3 Pillars of Critical Hours Programming

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.

Social-Emotional Skills

Research has highlighted afterschool programs as key spaces where students expand their socio-emotional learning horizons. They offer more flexibility than academic classrooms and curricula, making them platforms which prompt students’ development of a sense of autonomy and the development of profound interpersonal relationships. Social competencies which are honed in such a setting include individual goal-directed behavior, collaboration and teamwork. 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 afterschool programs. As to sense of autonomy, afterschool programs offer a variety of evidence-based activity options which are age appropriate, and provide children and youth with the “just right” challenge. These activities provide enrichment for participants in areas including arts and culture, sciences, physical fitness, and many others. Because there is no singular program focus, such as for a karate lesson, a dance class, or a classroom, students have the opportunity to develop several skills simultaneously. The longitudinal study of afterschool program quality by Pierce, Bolt and Vandell found that the range of choice available to them incites the development of confidence in oneself, and thus the ability to take the most from the activity and confidently form rapports with others.

Several studies around high quality critical hours programs in Canada and the U.S. have determined that they decrease problem behaviours and negative attitudes in participants. Chief among discouraged antisocial behaviours are substance abuse and delinquency, and negative attitudes that are diverted include boredom, apathy and alienation. Consequently, where students are involved in structured activities with their peers and caring adults who lead the program, studies found that participants are likely to experience “positive phenomenological states” which expand their behavioural repertoire, and incite displays of prosocial attitudes and behaviours. Significant positive attitudes displayed by program participants include understanding and perspective taking, positive attitudes about themselves and their school, and the capacity to entertain healthy interactions with others (peers and adults). Prosocial behaviours which program students have identified as being products of participation in afterschool programs are: standing up for and providing emotional support to others, helping others to develop skills, complimenting and encouraging others, and being inclusive.

colourful books in a bile, with a mug with smiley faces on it

Academic Skills

Although critical hours programs are not strictly scholastic or evaluative in nature, study findings strongly support their capacity to improve academic outcomes for participants, which likely stems from the heightened development of student social skills as well as the structured nature of the activities offered to children and youth outside of school hours.


The programs found to have the greatest impact on academic outcomes were those which offer participants “SAFE” activities. This type of activity, which can consist of academic enrichment or homework, but which is not always scholastic in nature, requires children and youth to utilize a higher degree of concentration on the task at hand, helps children and youth to develop skills which are invaluable to academic success, such as persistence, focus, and sustained attention and engagement. Another study further identified a diverse variety of structured, age-appropriate activities as being an important indicator of whether a program will influence academic outcomes, particularly as children get older – Grade 3 and above.


In Durlak and Weissberg’s meta-analysis of 73 afterschool programs in the U.S., they concluded that students attending programs during critical hours earned markedly higher grades and test scores than non-participants. Further, their study explicitly compared programs that offered SAFE activity options versus those that did not, and found that students participating in the former demonstrated a 12% increase in academic percentile points over students in the latter group. The Promising Afterschool Program School Programs study found that there was a general 12% increase for Grade 6 and 7 students who attended a program over those who did not, or did so rarely, and that this increase could be up to 20 percentile points higher for Grade 3 and 4 students. The researchers of this study noted that math gains were made by participants, despite most activities having little to no direct relation to math.


Shernoff’s study on the engagement indicator in critical hours programs found that middle school students who participated in structured programs for one year were found to have higher English grades than non-participants. Further, they found that the level of challenge students experienced when involved in critical hours program activities was an indicator for higher English grades, and that a higher level of challenge and a higher level of engagement in these activities was an indicator for higher math grades.


Lastly, Shernoff found that the acquisition of good work habits and invaluable scholastic skills, combined with the acquisition of social competencies and a reduction in negative or antisocial behavior, have the most significant positive impact the academic outcomes of at-risk children and youth. Findings from the Promising Afterschool Programs study also indicated that disadvantaged students who participated in evidence-based critical hours programming for two years ended up academically far ahead of their peers who had not taken part in such programs.