Programs that Work
Social Decision Making / Problem Solving
Healthy and Safe Children
Children and youth not engaging in violent behavior or displaying serious conduct problems
Children not experiencing anxiety or mood disorders, such as depression
Age of Child
Early Childhood (0-8)
Middle Childhood (9-12)
Type of Setting
Community-Based Service Provider
Type of Service
Type of Outcome Addressed
Substance Use and Dependence
Evidence Level (What does this mean?)
The Social Decision Making/Problem Solving (SDM/PS) program was originally developed in 1979 as the Improving Social Awareness—Social Problem Solving Program. SDM/PS is a universal program, meaning it can be provided to any students, rather than targeting those with special characteristics. The program aims to help students acquire social and decision-making skills and to develop their ability to effectively use those skills in real-life and academic situations. More specifically, the program seeks to develop children's self-esteem, self-control, and social awareness skills, including identifying, monitoring, and regulating stress and emotions; increasing healthy lifestyle choices; avoiding social problems such as substance abuse, violence, and school failure; improving group cooperation skills; and enhancing the ability to develop positive peer relationships.
Students in grades K-8
The first evaluation of SDM/PS (Elias, 1983) used a quasi-experimental design to study the program's impact on a sample of boys in special education classes at a residential treatment center for emotionally and educationally handicapped children. Most of the children were referred from homes in which there were absent, neglectful, abusive, or physically disabled parents. In their communities, these boys were typically considered difficult to manage at home and showed academic and behavior problems in school. The 109 participants ranged in age from 7 to 15 years, and the sample was 50 percent African American, 30 percent Caucasian, and 20 percent Hispanic. Fifty-two boys participated in the SDM/PS treatment group, and they were not selected randomly. The treatment involved showing ten videotapes that depicted children working through problem situations, and two different tapes were shown each week for five weeks. The videotapes were followed by discussions led by teachers and aides. (This early version of the SDM/PS program did not involve the "readiness" phase that is a component of the current program; see Implementation Detail). Fifty-seven boys made up the comparison group, and were drawn at random from the same or similar living units as the treatment group participants. Self-report data and measures of student behavior as assessed by teachers and counselors were taken three months prior to program implementation, at pretest within two weeks before program implementation, at posttest within two weeks of program completion, and at follow-up two months after program completion. Teachers were aware of which students had participated in the SDM/PS treatment group.
A second study of SDM/PS was reported by Elias et al. (1986). The quasi-experimental design used a sample of 158 fifth-grade students from all four elementary schools in a predominantly white community of 15,000 residents in central New Jersey. Ninety-eight percent of the total possible sample participated, including 80 boys and 78 girls, who at baseline scored an average of one year above grade level on standardized academic tests. The introduction of SDM/PS was staggered, with two of the schools implementing the program before the other two schools. A control group was also used, consisting of children entering middle school (sixth grade) during the year preceding the study. Thus, comparisons were made among three groups: (1) No training (1978-1979); (2) Full training (instructional phase Oct.-Dec. 1979, application phase Jan.-May 1980); and (3) Partial training (instructional phase only, Jan.-May, 1980). The instructional phase of SDM/PS consisted of 20 lessons averaging 40 minutes each, conducted twice per week. The application phase of SDM/PS consisted of teachers implementing specific problem-solving activities in the classroom, as well as teachers' use of "life space intervention," in which they attempted to mediate conflicts between students by facilitating children's problem-solving thinking rather than intervening and imposing their own solutions to the conflict. Student outcomes were assessed at the beginning of sixth grade on the self-reported Survey of Middle School Stressors, which included questions about adjustment to middle school and frequency and intensity of responses to 28 stressors (e.g., having many different teachers, having more homework, being approached to smoke or drink, etc.).
Key Evaluation Findings
The study by Elias (1983) reported:
- Immediately after completion of the program, treatment group children were rated by their teachers as more clearly improved in their ability to exercise emotional and behavioral self-control than were comparison group children, as shown by significant differences during instances of temper outbursts and being visibly upset.
- In addition, comparison group children showed a significant increase in loss of control under pressures of testing or other distressing conditions, while treatment group children showed no such tendency.
- Two-month follow-up scores on counselor ratings found significant effects on four of the nine child behavior scores. In relation to the comparison group, treatment group children were rated as significantly less detached and less socially isolated, and they showed a decrease in overall personality problems, as well as a marginal improvement in their ability to delay gratification. In the classroom, treatment group children showed a marginally significant increase in self-reliant learning when contrasted with comparison group children.
- For 11 school stressors on the list of 28, the children receiving full SDM/PS training reported the stressor in question to be significantly less of a problem than did children receiving partial training. These included stressors such as the logistics of adjusting to middle school, coping with peer pressure, and adjusting to academic requirements.
- For summary scores of problem frequency and problem intensity, significant differences were found among the three groups on 14 individual stressor items. The overall pattern of differences indicates that children in the full training group experienced significantly fewer stressors than children in the partial training group, and that both treatment groups reported significantly fewer stressors than did comparison group students.
Public and private elementary schools
The research, development, and expansion of the SDM/PS program and evaluation were funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Middlesex County (NJ) Board of Freeholders, and in-kind contributions from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and Rutgers University.
The UMDNJ provides implementation assistance and professional development for the SDM/PS program. Professional development services include one-day on-site workshops ($140 per teacher including curriculum materials or $1,500 per group per day plus trainer expenses); on-site follow-up services ($1,500 per day plus expenses) including optional classroom observation and feedback and consultation on program planning, implementation, evaluation, and coordination with other curricula; advanced training; and training for teams of administrators and supervisors. Costs of program materials are $80 per 25 students and include teacher manuals, parent materials, and lesson sets for each grade.
The SDM/PS lessons are believed by program developers to be most effectively taught in at least one dedicated classroom session per week (two for special education students), but since prosocial, critical thinking and life learning skills are relevant to many subject areas, the approach can be incorporated into regular classroom lessons if desired.
Parent participation and support in the SDM/PS program is considered a helpful and important factor for program success, and a wide variety of outreach activities and materials are available from the UMDNJ, such as local cable video programs, books, and "refrigerator notes." Other recommended school-based parent outreach activities include evening sessions that provide dinner and child care, bagel breakfasts during which parents join a classroom session in which children share what they are learning, present student work through role play and videos, or participate in a "back-to-school" night to introduce parents to the skills their children will be learning.
SDM/PS is a curriculum-based program that is provided in three developmental phases.
(a) The first phase is the "readiness" phase, which targets self-control and social awareness skills. Lessons and activities target skills such as listening, following directions, resisting provocation, avoiding provoking others, self-monitoring stress and emotions, and group/social awareness skills such as how to select friends and show a caring attitude toward others. These skills are a primary focus when the program is first introduced into a school.
(b) The "instructional" phase teaches students an eight-step social decision-making strategy to help students maintain clear thinking in social problem situations.
(c) The "application" phase helps children to use their newly acquired skills in real-life interpersonal and academic situations, through guided practice, role-playing, skill modeling, and the use of hypothetical social problem situations. Teacher-facilitated questioning and discussion, as well as cooperative group projects and writing assignments, further integrate the techniques.
SDM/PS is taught and implemented in classrooms by regular classroom teachers. The UMDNJ offers training opportunities to individual schools and/or school districts. At the school district level, training can be tailored to suit each district's local needs. The SDM/PS program staff provides a two to three day in-service training for a team of up to 30 teachers, administrators, and support personnel. Participants are provided with all of the curriculum materials, classroom posters, and worksheets needed to implement the program immediately following training.
To help ensure that the program becomes an integrated part of the school's curricula, an on-site SDM/PS leadership team is formed to plan and guide the program toward institutionalization. The leadership team consists of a small group of representative teachers, the school principal, and other key resource staff such as a guidance counselor. A half- or full-day of leadership and management training for the leadership team upon the conclusion of the regular training workshop is strongly recommended.
Training for individual teachers or counselors is also available if the number of people to be trained is too small to warrant district-level training. Training sessions cosponsored by the UMDNJ and Rutgers University are held several times per year, and information can be obtained by contacting Linda Bruene at (732)-235-9280.
Issues to Consider
This program received a "promising" rating. The studies of the SDM/PS program were quasi-experimental in design, but they used reasonably well-matched comparison groups and statistical methodology to assess program impacts. When compared with children in control groups, SDM/PS program participants were found to experience significant decreases in depression (boys only), increases in emotional and behavioral control, and decreases in violent behavior and conduct problems.
While the SDM/PS evaluations have demonstrated the program's effectiveness across several realms, it should be noted that the studies have been limited to New Jersey, that the program as evaluated was implemented in the early 1980s, and that the program developer served as an author on both of the studies.
New Jersey (Cape May Special Services School District, Jersey City, Highland Park, Westwood, Montvale, Bloomfield, Orange, and The Children's Institute in Verona). Illinois (St. Charles).
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
University Behavioral HealthCare
Behavioral Research and Training Institute
151 Centennial Ave.
Piscataway, NJ 08854
phone: (732) 235-9280
fax: (732) 235-9277
The SDM/PS program is housed at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). More information can be obtained at the program's Web site:
In addition to training, other UMDNJ services include on-site consultation, support, technical assistance, program manuals and toll-free phone consultation.
Additional SDM/PS program manuals are published by Research Press, and are available at http://www.researchpress.com.
Elias, Maurice J., "Improving Coping Skills of Emotionally Disturbed Boys Through Television-Based Social Problem Solving,"
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry,
Vol. 53, No. 1, 1983, pp. 61-72.
Elias, Maurice J., Michael Gara, Michael Ubriaco, Peggy A. Rothbaum, John F. Clabby, and Thomas Schuyler, "Impact of a Preventive Social Problem Solving Intervention on Children's Coping with Middle-School Stressors," American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1986, pp. 259-275.