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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.