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Program Profile: Social Decision Making/Problem Solving Program

Evidence Rating: Promising - One study Promising - One study

Date: This profile was posted on January 06, 2014

Program Summary

This is a prevention program targeted at violence, substance abuse, and related problem behaviors through developing an individual's social and decision-making skills. The program is rated Promising. The program was found to significantly reduce the stressors associated with a student’s transition into middle school.

Program Description

Program Goals
The Social Decision Making/Problem Solving (SDM) program, originally known as the Improving Social Awareness-Social Problem Solving Program, was developed in 1979 as a collaborative effort among professionals from a wide variety of disciplines, including teachers and school administrators of Middlesex Borough, N.J.; psychologists and researchers from the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University; and the Community Mental Health Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The program's ultimate goal was to prevent violence, substance abuse, and related problem behaviors by teaching social, emotional, and decision-making skills that students would utilize throughout their lives.

Program Theory
The SDM program uses an extended version of the Interpersonal Cognitive Problem-Solving (ICPS) framework. The ICPS framework is founded on the belief that interpersonal cognitive problem-solving skills are an essential component of one’s adjustment throughout his or her life. Proponents of the ICPS framework argue that through means-ends thinking (a central aspect of the ICPS framework), individuals choose how to interpret and respond to problematic situations they encounter (Elisa 1986). Drawing on the ICPS framework and other research, the SDM program emphasizes that even though a child’s behavior and peer acceptance are influenced by numerous factors, there are specific behaviors that can predict acceptance or rejection within a peer group. The SDM program enhances these specific behaviors through the training and practice of important social and decision-making skills throughout the program’s curriculum.

Program Components
Given its preventive aim, the SDM program seeks to alleviate the stress that arises during the elementary to middle school transition (stress that can disrupt or interfere with the development of expected academic achievements and interpersonal behaviors). In an effort to lessen this stress, students in the SDM program are asked to:

  • focus on their feelings and the feelings of others in problematic situations
  • think about their goals and develop solutions to achieve these goals, while also keeping in mind potential consequences
  • focus on how they would implement their solutions
  • develop confidence in their ability to overcome problematic situations, while also understanding that even the best solutions do not always lead to resolutions

The SDM program takes place during the school year and is structured around a specific curriculum. The curriculum includes three sets of social-problem solving skills: interpersonal sensitivity, means-ends thinking, and planning and anticipation. Interpersonal sensitivity focuses on an individual’s feelings in problematic situations, articulating those feelings, and developing a goal for the situation. Means-ends thinking strives to develop alternate ways to reach an individual’s goal in the situation, while also developing consequences for each goal. Finally, planning and anticipation focuses on carrying out the solution, anticipating potential obstacles, and using the knowledge gained from the present situation to plan for the future.

The SDM program is organized into three phases: the readiness phase, the instructional phase, and the application phase. The readiness phase focuses on developing students’ self-control skills, as well as their group participation and social awareness skills. The instructional phase includes an eight-step problem-solving procedure and stresses the importance of initiative in producing positive resolutions, both of which take place during the first half of the year. Finally, the application phase, which takes place during the second half of the school year, utilizes the skills developed during the instructional phase and integrates them into the students’ social and affective realms.

Readiness Phase
The readiness phase has two specific units that are taught to students: a self-control unit and an improving social awareness unit. Within the self-control unit, students are taught the personal skills that impact their ability to self-regulate, control their emotions, and communicate. Specially, this unit stresses the importance of listening, following directions, and taking turns. The social awareness unit teaches students the skills necessary to function effectively within a group. Within the social awareness unit, students are taught characteristics that are accepted by others, such as positivity and appreciation. Overall, both units not only introduce these skills, but assist students with applying these skills in real-life situations (Bruene–Butler 1997).

Instructional Phase
The instructional phase of the program consists of 20 lessons, conducted twice a week, averaging about 40 minutes per lesson. The first two lessons discuss problem situations and the importance of developing skills to handle these situations more easily. The next 16 lessons consist of two lessons on each of the eight problem-solving skill areas. The final two lessons provide children the opportunity to utilize these problem-solving skills in a specific situation. Each lesson is conducted by a teacher using a scripted curriculum. The main goal of this phase is for students to develop decision-making and problem-solving processes, while understanding that these processes can be applied to a variety of situations.

Application Phase
The application phase of the program consists of two main parts. First, teachers are instructed to mediate conflicts between students by facilitating children’s problem-solving thinking rather than intervening and providing their own solution; this is known as life space intervention. Secondly, teachers incorporate the problem-solving skills into the everyday classroom curriculum. For example, students record problem situations they encountered, skills they used in the situation, and how the situation turned out. The class then discusses the situation and focuses on how there are certain skills that help in various situations. The application lessons are held approximately once a week and teachers are encouraged to use the life space intervention as often as needed.

Evaluation Outcomes

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Study 1
Using the two summary scores, Problem Frequency and Problem Intensity, provided by the Survey of Middle School Stressor assessment, Elias and colleagues (1986) measured the ability of the Social Decision Making/Problem Solving (SDM) program to reduce the difficulties students have in coping with the stressors associated with transition into middle school.

Overall, the SDM program was found to significantly reduce the stressors associated with a student’s transition into middle school. Significant differences were found on both Problem Frequency and Problem Intensity between all three groups (p < .05). Furthermore, the full SDM training program was favored over the partial training condition, and the partial training condition was favored over the no treatment condition.
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Evaluation Methodology

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Study 1
To assess the effectiveness of the Social Decision Making/Problem Solving (SDM) program, Elias and colleagues (1986) used a quasi-experimental design to measure the program’s impact when children were faced with a stressful life event. Three levels of the intervention were compared:

  1. children receiving the full SDM program (the instructional phase occurred from October to December 1979, and the application phase occurred from January to May 1980)
  2. children receiving the instructional phase only (which occurred from January to May 1980)
  3. children who entered middle school in the previous year (1978–1979) without having received any portion of the intervention

The study was conducted in a primarily blue-collar, multiethnic town in central New Jersey. Specially, the study participants included 158 fifth graders (80 boys and 78 girls) from all four of the town’s elementary schools, whose parents provided parental permission, all of which tested 1 year above grade level on standardized tests. The study used a delayed control design, with two of the elementary schools beginning with the instructional phase at the beginning of the school year, and the other two schools implementing the instructional phase only in the second half of the year. The study noted that no significant differences were found among the four elementary schools used in the study.

The effectiveness of the SDM program was investigated using the Survey of Middle School Stressors, which measured the children’s transition from elementary to middle school. This assessment included several parts. During the first part of the assessment, students were asked questions about their feelings towards middle school and their ability to adjust. In the second part of the assessment, students were asked to rate their middle school on a 7-point scale of adjectives, such as interesting to boring, or afraid to unafraid. Finally, during the third part of the assessment students were presented with 28 situations that typically lead to distress or upset feelings, such as forgetting a locker combination or finding their way around a larger school. The students were then asked to rate whether each stressor was not a problem, a small problem, a medium problem, or a large problem since starting middle school. Overall the Survey of Middle School Stressors provided a summary of two categories: Problem Frequency, defined as the number of stressors rated as small, medium, or large problems; and Problem Intensity, which included the number of stressors labeled as large problems.

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There is no cost information available for this program.
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Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Study 1
Elias, Maurice J., Michael Gara, Michael Ubriaco, Peggy A. Rothbaum, John F. Clabby, and Thomas Schuyler. 1986. “Impact of a Preventive Social Problem Solving Intervention on Children’s Coping with Middle-School Stressors.” American Journal of Community Psychology 14(3):259–275.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Elias, Maurice J., Michael Gara, Thomas Schuyler, Leslie R. Branden-Muller, and Michael A. Sayette. 1991. “The Promotion of Social Competence: Longitudinal Study of a Preventive School-Based Program.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 61(3):409–417. This study was reviewed but did not meet criteria for inclusion in the overall program rating.

Bruene–Butler, Linda, June Hampson, Maurice J. Elias, John F. Clabby, Jr., and Thomas F. Schuyler. 1997. “The Improving Social Awareness, Social Problem–Solving Project.” In George W. Albee and Thomas P. Gullotta (eds.). Primary Prevention Works. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 239–67.

Elias, Maurice J. and Roger P. Weissberg. 2000. “Primary Prevention: Educational Approaches to Enhance Social and Emotional Learning. Journal of School Health 70(5): 186–190.

Elias, Maurice J., Roger P. Weissberg, Kenneth A. Dodge, J. David Hawkins, Philip C. Kendall, Leonard A. Jason, Cheryl L. Perry, Mary Jane Rotheram–Borus, and Joseph E. Zins. 1994. “The School-Based Promotion of Social Competence: Theory, Research, and Practice.” In Robert J. Haggerty, Lonnie R. Sherrod, Norman Garmezy, and Michael Rutter (eds.). Stress, Risk, Resilience in Children and Adolescents. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 268–316.

Elias, Maurice J. and John F. Clabby. 1988. “Teaching Social Decision Making.” Educational Leadership 45(6): 52–55.

Elias, Maurice J., Linda Bruene-Butler, Lisa Blum, and Thomas Schuyler.  1997. “How to Launch a Social & Emotional Learning Program.” Educational Leadership 54(8): 15–19.
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Related Practices

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Following are practices that are related to this program:

School-Based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs
Designed to foster the development of five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies, in order to provide a foundation for better adjustment and academic performance in students, which can result in more positive social behaviors, fewer conduct problems, and less emotional distress. The practice was rated Effective in reducing students’ conduct problems and emotional stress.

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:
Effective - One Meta-Analysis Juvenile Problem & At-Risk Behaviors - Multiple juvenile problem/at-risk behaviors
Effective - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Internalizing behavior
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Program Snapshot

Age: 9 - 11

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Black, American Indians/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, White, Other

Geography: Suburban

Setting (Delivery): School

Program Type: Classroom Curricula, Conflict Resolution/Interpersonal Skills, Leadership and Youth Development, School/Classroom Environment

Current Program Status: Active

Listed by Other Directories: Model Programs Guide

Program Developer:
Linda Bruene-Butler
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
151 Centennial Avenue, Suite 1140
Piscataway NJ 08854
Phone: 732-235-9275
Fax: 732-235-9280

Program Developer:
Maurice Elias, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Rutgers University
53 Avenue E,Tillett Hall
Piscataway NJ 08854-8040
Phone: 848.445.2444
Fax: 732.445.0036

Training and TA Provider:
Erin Bruno
Senior Training and Consultation Specialist
Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care
151 Centennial Ave. Suite 1140
Piscataway NJ 08901
Phone: 732.235.9276
Fax: 732.235.8383