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Social Decision Making/Problem Solving Program

Ages 5-14

Rating: Level 3


The Social Decision Making and Problem Solving Program (SDM) is a social and emotional learning program that assists students in acquiring social and decision-making skills and in developing their ability to effectively use those skills in real-life, with the aim of preventing violence, substance abuse, and related problem behavior. It is a primary prevention program conceptually rooted in research from public health, child development, clinical psychology, cognitive sciences, and organizational and community psychology. The program provides a framework in which students have the ability to learn, reinforce, and practice applying skills necessary to develop social competence. SDM is intended for use with all students (regular and special education) in kindergarten through eighth grade, regardless of ability level, ethnic group, or socioeconomic level. The program has been successfully implemented in urban, suburban, and rural settings nationwide.

SDM is designed to become a strategic part of the teaching process, affecting behavior, academic learning, and the socioemotional life of the school setting. The formal lessons are most effectively taught in at least one classroom session per week (two for special education students), but the SDM approach permeates teaching across several content areas. Because the program provides a foundation of prosocial, critical thinking and life-skills learning for all students, it is often a useful structure for organizing existing school programs. In many sites, social decision-making has been incorporated into a school’s annual plans for student learning objectives.

The curriculum-based program occurs in three developmental phases:

  • Self-control and social awareness. These lessons and practice activities target such skills as listening, following directions, resisting provocation, avoiding provoking others, and self-monitoring stress and emotions. This phase also targets such group/social awareness skills as how to select friends and show caring. These skills, referred to as the “Readiness Phase” of the curriculum, are a primary emphasis in the early elementary grades or when the program is first introduced into a school.
  • Social decision-making. As the students gradually master the self-control and group/social awareness skills, the instructional attention begins shifting to teaching the students an eight-step “clear thinking” strategy to help in social problem situations.
  • Application of social decision-making. Teachers are trained to design application activities to help students transfer what they have learned in the program to real life and academic areas. Infusion of these skills into academic, personal, and social situations occurs throughout the full curriculum sequence, yet this is a particularly popular emphasis of instruction during the upper elementary and middle school grades.

Before implementing the program with students, classroom teachers are trained in specific questioning strategies to facilitate student decision-making and to promote the children’s cognitive development. Teachers provide students with roughly 40-minute lessons twice a week. Lesson activities include guided practice, role-playing, skill modeling, cooperative group projects, and writing assignments.


SDM has been extensively evaluated during the years since its implementation. The primary development site was a lower middle– to middle-class suburban community in central New Jersey. The first of these evaluations was conducted in 1978–80. The program was assessed using a quasi-experimental, delayed control design. The children involved were 158 fifth grade students (80 boys, 78 girls) from four elementary schools. Since all fifth graders received at least partial training in SDM, a control group of students entering middle school the previous year was used as a comparison group. The three resulting conditions were a) no training, b) 2-year instructional and application stages, and c) 1-year instructional stage only. The instructional phase consisted of 20 lessons conducted twice a week for 40 minutes each. The application phase consisted of using problem-solving skills within a group and within the classroom during the school day. Both activities were simulated real-world examples provided by the classroom teacher. The primary outcome measure for this evaluation involved the assessment of the child’s transition to middle school, using the Survey of Middle School Stressors, and the assessment of problem-solving skills, using the Group Social Problem Solving Assessment.

Six years later, a follow-up study was conducted to assess the residual effects of the intervention. Children in grades 9–11 who had experienced up to 2 years of the program in the last 2 years of elementary school (grades 4 and 5) were the focal point of the study. The study design involved the comparison of three cohorts of students. Two of the cohorts—the experimental (E) group—received social decision-making and problem-solving lessons. The program was administered to the two experimental cohorts at two different levels of fidelity. One cohort—the control (C) group—had not experienced the intervention. All participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that included the National Youth Survey of antisocial and delinquent behavior and the Youth Report Survey.


Results of the evaluation suggest that children receiving the program improved their social decision-making and problem-solving skills relative to control groups. The overall pattern of results suggests that those students who participated in the 2-year (instructional and application) training in social decision-making and problem-solving while in the elementary school program developed improved skills in self-control, interpersonal sensitivity, problem analysis, and planning and also increased their knowledge of detailed problem-solving concepts, when compared with controls. Students trained also showed real-life application of the skills, demonstrating more prosocial behavior in school and greater ability to cope with stress upon transitioning to middle school, when compared with control youngsters.

Students who were tested again in high school showed greater positive, responsible, and prosocial behavior and decreased antisocial, self-destructive, and socially disordered behavior compared with controls who did not receive the program. Moreover, gender differences were present for the control group that did not receive the training. Higher levels of self-destructive, identity, and alcohol-related problems characterized boys who did not receive the training, whereas girls reported higher usage of tobacco.

Risk Factors


  • Lack of guilt and empathy
  • Life stressors
  • Poor refusal skills
  • Victimization and exposure to violence


  • Family management problems/Poor parental supervision and/or monitoring
  • Sibling antisocial behavior


  • Dropping out of school
  • Inadequate school climate/Poorly organized and functioning schools/Negative labeling by teachers
  • School suspensions
  • Truancy/Frequent absences


  • Association with delinquent and/or aggressive peers
  • Peer alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drug use
  • Peer rejection

Protective Factors


  • Healthy / Conventional beliefs and clear standards
  • Perception of social support from adults and peers
  • Positive / Resilient temperament
  • Self-efficacy
  • Social competencies and problem-solving skills


  • Effective parenting
  • Opportunities for prosocial family involvement
  • Rewards for prosocial family involvement


  • High quality schools / Clear standards and rules
  • Opportunities for prosocial school involvement
  • Presence and involvement of caring, supportive adults
  • Rewards for prosocial school involvement
  • Student bonding (attachment to teachers, belief, commitment)


  • Clear social norms / Policies with sanctions for violations and rewards for compliance
  • Prosocial opportunities for participation / Availability of neighborhood resources


  • Good relationships with peers
  • Involvement with positive peer group activities


  • Department of Education
  • Drug Strategies


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., Michael A. Gara, Thomas F. Schuyler, Leslie R. Branden–Muller, and Michael A. Sayette. 1991. “The Promotion of Social Competence: Longitudinal Study of a Preventative School-Based Program.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 61:409–17.

Elias, Maurice J., Michael A. Gara, Michael Ubriaco, Peggy A. Rothbaum, John F. Clabby, Jr., Thomas F. Schuyler. 1986. “The Impact of a Preventive Social Problem–Solving Intervention on Children’s Coping With Middle School Stressors.” American Journal of Community Psychology 14:259–75.

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.


Linda Bruene–Butler
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, University Behavioral Healthcare, Behavioral Research and Training Institute
151 Centennial Avenue, Suite 1140
Piscataway, NJ 08854
Phone: (732) 235-9275
Fax: (732) 235-9280
Web site:

Technical Assistance Provider

Maurice Elias
Department of Psychology, Rutgers University
53 Avenue E, Livingston Campus
Piscataway, NJ 08854–8046
Phone: (732) 445-2444