IMPROVING SOCIAL AWARENESS-SOCIAL PROBLEM SOLVING (ISA-SPS)

Principal Investigator: Maurice Elias

Level of Intervention: Universal

Target Population: Elementary and middle school children, age 6-14

References: Elias, Gara, Ubriaco, Rothbaum, Clabby & Schuyler, 1986; Elias, Gara, Shuyler, Brandon-Muller & Sayette, 1991; Bruene-Butler, Hampson, Elias, Clabby & Schuyler, 1997

Theory / Risk & Protective Factors:
ISA-SPS is based on the theory that children’s ability or inability to cope with stressful decision making situations is associated with a sequence of interpersonal behavior that may result in either positive social behavior or psychopathology or other poor outcomes. ISA-SPS specifically targets the increase in stressors associated with the normative childhood transition from elementary school to middle school. The program addresses this period of increased risk through a social problem solving curriculum intended to provide students with the decision making skills necessary to navigate difficult situations. Rooted in the theories of Piaget and Dewey, and expanding on the work of Spivack and Shure (1988, see elsewhere in this report), ISA-SPS also recognizes the importance of maintenance and generalization of skills as promoted in social learning theory.

Description of Intervention:
The ISA-SPS curriculum consists of three phases: the Readiness Phase, the Instructional Phase, and the Application Phase. The Readiness Phase promotes self-control, group participation and social awareness. The Instructional Phase teaches eight steps for social decision making and problem solving, with particular emphasis on affect, problem analysis and goal setting, means-ends thinking, and anticipation of obstacles. The Readiness and Instructional Phases consist of 20, 40-minute lessons provided twice per week. The lessons include a scripted curriculum with group sharing, skill presentation, stories or video vignettes that serve as catalysts for discussion, dialoguing, and role plays.

The Application Phase provides teachers with training and activities to promote formal and informal reinforcement and extension of the problem-solving skills into contexts that are particularly salient to the students. Teachers are trained to mediate real life conflicts in the school setting by facilitating children’s problem-solving thinking rather than stepping in and providing their own direction and solutions. The Application Phase is considered key to the intervention, and guidelines, training and ongoing consultation are provided for teachers, administrators and parents in encouraging children’s everyday use of social problem solving thinking and skills. Formal Application Phase lessons are held approximately once per week with data indicating most teachers utilize the application in real-life contexts about three times per week.

Research Subjects:
In a study of the immediate effects of the ISA-SPS intervention, 158 fifth grade students (80 boys and 78 girls) from a primarily poor, primarily white, blue-collar, multi-ethnic town in central New Jersey were assessed. A followup study examined 95% of the original sample 6 years later.

Research Design:
The 158 fifth grade students in the intervention group attended four elementary schools that were assigned to receive either the full intervention (2 schools) or the Instructional Phase only (2 schools). Students from the four experimental schools were then compared with a control group of students who had attended fifth grade in the previous year (and had received no intervention). Discriminant analysis of the four intervention schools showed no significant pre-test differences on measures related to the outcomes of interest.

In the follow up study, the 4 intervention schools were paired by fidelity of implementation into high or moderate fidelity groups, and again compared with a no-treatment control group six years after the intervention.

Outcomes:
In the study of the program’s immediate effects, adjustment to the stressors related to the transition to middle school was assessed using the Survey of Middle School Stressors. This instrument examines the presence of 28 situational stressors, which form summary indices related to frequency and intensity of stressful events. In a comparison between the full and partial intervention groups, multivariate analysis showed a significant intervention effect on both of the summary indices of Problem Frequency and Problem Intensity in favor of the full intervention. Further univariate tests showed significant differences favoring full intervention on eleven of the 28 individual stressors. In comparison of the two intervention groups with the control group, a dose-response interaction was found with significant effects on both Problem Frequency and Problem Intensity, with subsequent analysis showing that 14 of the 28 stressors were significant.

The followup study examined the intervention subjects six years after completing two years of the intervention. The National Youth Survey (NYS – Elliot, et al., 1983) and the Youth Self Report (YSR – Achenbach and Edelbrock, 1987) were the primary measures used. The YSR includes the Perceived Competence Scale for Children (PCSC), a measure of self efficacy. ANOVA showed that students who received the intervention scored significantly lower rates than controls on vandalism, physical aggression against parents or other students, and use of alcohol and tobacco. ANOVA on the psychopathology indexes found significantly higher levels of unpopularity and self-destructive/identity problems for control group boys than experimental group boys. Further analysis indicated the areas of greatest clinical significance were depression, self-destructive/identity problems, and delinquency.

Strengths & Limitations:
ISA-SPS is a universal preventive intervention that focuses on teaching individual problem-solving skills as a means of better preparing students to cope with the increased risk associated with the normal period of transition to middle school. The program’s focus is primarily on classroom-based curriculum delivery, although schoolwide training activities are used to increase maintenance and generalization. The study of post test effects used a quasi-experimental design comparing two treatment conditions (partial and full) to a control condition. It is unclear whether group assignment was random, and the control group was non-equivalent, although the two experimental groups were comparable on relevant indices. Though all measures were based on self-reports, the distal effects add to the significance of the findings. The program has been widely disseminated as part of the National Diffusion Network (NDN)

ISA-SPS has undergone continuous refinement and expansion since the initial studies referenced above. The program, now known as Social Decision-Making and Social Problem Solving (SDM-SPS) has been expanded to reflect the growing body of research on effective prevention practice, including a greater focus on changing school ecology. Although the characteristics of the sample in the initial study limit the generalizability of the findings, the program has seen a number of replications since that time which generally support the initial findings (Hampson, 1995).

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