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How to empower students to take action for social change, follow these four steps to help students develop a sense of agency over social problems..
Young people are increasingly aware and concerned about the problems our world is confronting, from climate change to racial disparities in society. When facing social problems, how can educators transform a child’s sense of helplessness toward hope and action?
Educators must not allow our adolescents to languish in the face of social problems and injustice. In James Baldwin’s 1963 Talk to Teachers , he reminds us of this charge: “Our obligation as educators is to entrust in our students the abilities to create conscious citizens who are vocal about reexamining their society.” It is the moral imperative of public education to foster student agency to nurture an engaged citizenry.
At the Rutgers University Social-Emotional Character Development Laboratory’s Students Taking Action Together project , we have developed a social problem-solving and action strategy, PLAN, that makes it possible for teachers to transform students’ sense of hopelessness into empowerment. It allows students to investigate a particular social problem to get to the root cause, then design an action plan to challenge the dominant power structure to make change. It emphasizes considering the issue from multiple viewpoints to develop a solution that is inclusive and viable.
Below, we’ll describe the four components of PLAN and demonstrate how to use PLAN to empower students in grades 5-12 to take action. We hope these strategies can help you encourage your students to be more deeply engaged with today’s problems and inspired to take social action.
P: Create a Problem description
Problems are an inherent part of our daily lives, and one of the key problem-solving skills is the ability to define a problem.
To define a problem, students working collaboratively in groups of four or five start by reviewing background sources, such as articles, speeches, and podcast episodes, and then draft a problem description . They can discuss the following questions to frame their thinking. Not all questions will be answered, yet the discussion will guide and stretch their thinking to begin defining the problem:
- Is there a problem? How do you know?
- What is the problem?
- Who is impacted by the problem?
- What are the issues from each perspective/party involved? What is the impact on the different individuals/groups involved?
- Who is responsible for the problem? What internal and external factors might have influenced this issue?
- What is causing those responsible to use these practices?
- Who were the key people involved in making important decisions?
To illustrate this process, let’s use the example of a recent issue: Texas’s refusal of federal funding to expand health care under the Affordable Care Act for all citizens of the state. For this issue, students might write the following problem description:
Along with Texas, 13 other states have refused to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid for citizens under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). State refusals can be attributed to a variety of factors. State lawmakers fear the loss of support from voters and their political party if they accept the federal funding to expand access to health care for lower-income communities and communities of color. Public perceptions of expanding social programs and the political costs of supporting bi-partisan reform also play a role. Political obstructionism harms all citizens, causing people to go without needed medical care and perpetuating inequalities in public health.
L: Generate a List of options to solve the problem and consider the pros and cons
Organizing for change is a skill that can be taught, even though problem solving in the political arena may feel novel and uncertain for students. Stress that while there is no guarantee of a positive outcome as they tackle a problem, brainstorming effective and inclusive solutions can help stimulate deeper awareness and discussion on the need for change. According to Irving Tallman and his colleagues , this process teaches students to apply reasoning to anticipate how solutions may play out and, ultimately, arrive at an estimate of the probability of a specific result.
That’s where the second step of PLAN comes into play: listing the possible solutions and considering the optimal plan of action to pursue. Students will revisit the background sources that they consulted during step one to consider how the actual current-event problem has been addressed over time and reflect on their own solutions. We encourage you to facilitate a whole-class discussion, guided by the following questions:
- What options did the group consider to be acceptable ways to resolve the problem?
- What do you think about their solution?
- What would your solution be?
- What solution did they ultimately decide to pursue?
For example, here are some solutions that students may generate as they brainstorm around health care funding in Texas:
- Launch a letter writing campaign to Senators and Congressional representatives communicating that obstructionism of federal funding to expand health care hurts all citizens and public health.
- Develop a social media-based public service announcement about the costs of refusing federal funding to expand health care, tagging state Senators and local Congressional representatives.
- Team up with a public health advocacy organization and learn about how to support their work in key states.
Students would then weigh the pros and cons of each solution, as well as apply perspective-taking skills to consider the needs and interests of all relevant stakeholders (e.g., government officials, insurance companies, and patients) to select what they deem to be the most effective and inclusive option. In evaluating the pros and cons of all of the solutions presented above, they may determine:
- Solutions have direct routes to communicating to politicians and have a wide audience reach.
- Solutions build student’s advocacy skills and can send a clear message to lawmakers.
- Solutions enable students to rehearse the skills of correspondence, networking, and communicating their ideas and plans with outside agencies.
- Solutions require substantial time for additional research.
- In some solutions, students may not be addressing issues in the state they live.
- In the letter-writing solution, letters lack a broad reach and the identified state(s) may already be developing reasonable alternatives to accepting federal funds to expand health care access.
- The solutions will require efforts to be sustained over time and will demand additional time in or beyond the classroom to orchestrate.
This essential problem-solving skill will support students in making objective, thoughtful decisions.
A: Create an Action plan to solve the problem
After students select what they assess to be the most effective solution, they collaborate with one another to develop a specific, measurable, attainable goal and a step-by-step action plan to implement the solution. Together, researchers refer to this as the solution plan.
For example, the goal might be to develop a one-minute public service announcement about the costs of a state’s refusal to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid under the ACA.
The step-by-step solution plan should align with the goal to resolve the problem and increase positive consequences, while minimizing potential negative effects. Your students should keep the following in mind when developing their plans:
- Make steps as specific as possible.
- Consider who is responsible for implementing each step.
- Determine how long each action step will take to execute.
- Anticipate any challenges that you may face and how you will address them.
- Identify the data that you can collect to determine whether or not your action plan was successful.
Below is a sample action plan that students may develop to meet their public service announcement goal:
- Convene a group of students to conduct research on the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid and the states that have accepted federal aid and those that refused federal aid.
- Conduct research by interviewing school nurses, county health commissioners, and the state’s Department of Health for additional content.
- Collaborate with visual arts teachers and students to design and develop the video, and course-level teacher to review the video.
- Post the social media public service announcement on YouTube and share on social media, tagging the appropriate audiences.
N: Evaluate the action plan by Noticing successes
The final step of PLAN involves evaluating the success of the action plan, using the evidence collected throughout in order to notice successes. As a whole class, students consider how similar problems were solved historically, as compared to the success of their plan. They also consider aspects of the plan that went well and those that could be improved upon moving forward. Connecting to past examples of social action affirms the understanding that you don’t always get it right in the initial push for change, and that the legacy and knowledge of incomplete change is passed from one generation to the next.
A Sample Lesson
To check out how to infuse PLAN using a historic event, check out our ready-made lesson on Fredrick Douglass’s 1852 Speech: "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" .
Noticing successes is essential to instilling confidence in students to exercise their voice and choice by organizing for and taking social action. Research suggests that problem-solving skills help buffer against distress when people are experiencing stressful events in life. With PLAN, we have discovered that equipping our students with problem-solving skills is a strong predictor of student agency and social action . By teaching a deliberate social problem-solving strategy, we nurture hope that change can be made.
In her 2003 Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope , bell hooks reminds us of the transformative power to upend the dominant power structure by bridging the gap between complaining and hope and action: “When we only name the problem, when we state a complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take away hope. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”
It is not enough to witness and criticize injustice. Students need to learn how to overcome injustice by developing solutions and gaining a sense of empowerment and agency.
About the Authors
Lauren Fullmer, Ed.D. , is the math curriculum chair and middle school math teacher at the Willow School in Gladstone, NJ; instructor for The Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools—a partnership between Rutgers University and St. Elizabeth University—adjunct professor at the University of Dayton’s doctoral program, and a consulting field expert for the Rutgers Social-Emotional Character Development (SECD) Lab.
Laura Bond, M.A. , has served as a K–8 curriculum supervisor in central New Jersey. She has taught 6–12 Social Studies and worked as an assistant principal at both the elementary and secondary level. Currently, she is a field consultant for Rutgers Social Emotional Character Development Lab and serves on her local board of education.
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- Published: 09 May 2023
Understanding tactical responses to social problems through the lens of regulatory scope
- Riana M. Brown ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-2713-2009 1 &
- Maureen A. Craig ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7436-8452 1 , 2
Nature Reviews Psychology volume 2 , pages 440–449 ( 2023 ) Cite this article
- Human behaviour
- Social policy
People may address societal problems either by engaging in collective action, aiming to change underlying structural systems, or by engaging in prosocial behaviours, aiming to help those affected. In this Perspective, we draw on construal level theory and regulatory scope theory to understand how people might choose to mitigate social problems. Specifically, we propose that people pursue solutions that alleviate the suffering of those affected by the problem (consequence-focused solutions) when they focus on lower-level or more psychologically proximal features and that they pursue solutions that address the underlying causes of the problem (cause-focused solutions) when they focus on higher-level or more psychologically distant features. Thus, people’s preferences for different solutions might be explained by understanding how people view the underlying problem. This framework explains the different ways people seek to address perceived social problems, providing insights into when and why people devote their time and energy to pursuing different forms of social action.
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The authors thank K. Fujita, T. West, E. Knowles and Y. Trope for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.
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Using Psychology to Address Social Problems
Dr. wolff and dr. glassgold speak on psychology's problem solving ability..
Posted October 24, 2020
Psychology affects every aspect of our lives. How can we use this on an individual, communal, and structural level to address social problems?
Joshua R. Wolff , Ph.D. (he/him) is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology (Psy.D. Program) at Adler University in Chicago, IL. Dr. Wolff co-chairs the APA Division 44 (Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation & Gender Diversity) Subcommittee on Higher Education Accreditation & Policy. Dr. Wolff’s research and publications center on the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in religious university settings, higher education policy, and social determinants of health.
Judith Glassgold, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and an expert in applying psychology to problems of public policy, focused on mental health. She is a consultant to national civil rights organizations on legislative efforts to improve mental health at the federal, state, and local levels. She is a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.
Jamie Aten: How would you personally define psychological training pathways?
Joshua Wolff and Judith Glassgold : Professional psychology spans multiple settings and serves very diverse groups of people. Thus, psychological training must also be diverse and give students the training they need for multiple career pathways. Professional psychology needs to expand opportunities for students to go beyond traditional health settings. This means that we need to think broadly about where our students get 'real world' experience — not just in traditional settings (e.g., hospitals, university research labs), but in settings and domains that haven’t been as well explored or may still be underutilized.
Examples that come to mind include forensic settings (jails, prisons), community non-profit organizations, government agencies, K-12 schools, workplace, military and veterans, and early childhood centers. Training also needs to span teaching our students how to communicate beyond academic and medical settings, but also with mainstream media, politicians, and the public.
JA: What are some ways these expanded opportunities can help us live more resiliently?
JW and JG : Psychology affects every aspect of our lives — the ways we make decisions, our motivation , how we feel, how we connect to other people, what types of job responsibilities we enjoy, etc. Thus, psychologists can be useful and improve a person’s quality of life in almost any setting.
We need to think about this on an individual level (e.g., how do we help the person who comes to my office for mental health treatment?), on a community level (e.g., how do we encourage everyone in my city or state to prevent the spread of COVID-19 ?) and structural level (what policies encourage or reduce health and wellbeing?). This means that psychological research needs to think in innovative ways to address social problems that build resiliency in a broad range of settings.
We also need to be better at quickly sharing the results of our research so that the data is useful to the people and communities that might benefit from it the most.
JA: What are some ways people can influence psychological policy?
JW and JG : We find it exciting that there are lots of ways to influence policy! For example, this can be at the institutional level where you advocate for changes to your curriculum or learning. I have seen students get engaged by running for their Student Government Association and making a big impact in their college or graduate school program. This can also be at the systems and structural level — this might include sending an elected official an email about a topic you care about, attending a town hall, joining efforts within professional associations, meeting in person with elected officials or their staff, seeking employment in government or media, and running for office.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – thus, advocacy is diverse, and everyone can engage in different ways. One tip though is ‘don’t go it alone’ (i.e., find other people who share your interests and want to influence policy together).
JA: Any advice for how we might use this knowledge to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
JW and JG : There are several recent studies that demonstrate that many individuals are struggling, especially those grieving the loss of friends and families, individuals from ethnic minority communities, and essential workers, College and graduate students are experiencing a lot more stress and worry right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic as important life transitions are disrupted. This includes financial stress, worry about loved ones, and social isolation due to remote learning. Thus, I try to remind individuals that it is ‘normal’ to feel discouraged, down, or different right now. I want to keep reminding them that they are not alone in feeling this way because so many of us are in the same boat together.
One option is to stay connected through virtual resources that focus on wellness. Many health insurance companies, state and local governments, clinics, and non-profits are now offering free or low-cost mental health and substance use care for virtual, and telehealth sessions. Now is a great time to speak with a mental health professional to get extra support if that is something you have been thinking about or may need (though always check with your insurance first, since plans and coverage can vary widely!).
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
JW : I recently co-authored a report on the impact of COVID-19 on psychology training and education. We sampled a diverse group of leaders within Divisions, affiliates, and a committee of the American Psychological Association (APA). I’m really proud of the Report because people shared some very important concerns, and also identified ways that we can advocate and better support students. You can obtain a free copy of the Report here .
JG : My academic institution committed itself to focusing on social justice during the 2020-2021 academic year. I have made my course relevant to the stresses and issues that we are currently facing in society. For example, my mental health policy class includes material relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic and health equity. I focus on the important research on social determinants of health that can build resilience , slow the pandemic through proactive behavior change, reduce discrimination , and increase equitable policies. Graduate students seem engaged in making a positive difference in areas as diverse as increasing resources for people with neurodiversity , reducing institutional violence, support for immigrants, children’s mental health during the pandemic, and equitable school policies.
Glassgold, J.M. ,& Wolff, J.R (2020). Expanding Psychology Training Pathways for Public Policy Preparedness Across the Professional Lifespan. American Psychologist, 75(7), 933-944. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000696
Jamie Aten , Ph.D. , is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
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Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development pp 1399–1403 Cite as
Social Problem Solving
- Molly Adrian 3 ,
- Aaron Lyon 4 ,
- Rosalind Oti 5 &
- Jennifer Tininenko 6
- Reference work entry
Interpersonal cognitive problem solving ; Interpersonal problem solving ; Social decision making ; Social information processing
Social problem solving is the process by which individuals identify and enact solutions to social life situations in an effort to alter the problematic nature of the situation, their relation to the situation, or both [ 7 ].
In D’Zurilla and Goldfried’s [ 6 ] seminal article, the authors conceptualized social problem solving as an individuals’ processing and action upon entering interpersonal situations in which no immediately effective response is available. One primary component of social problem solving is the cognitive-behavioral process of generating potential solutions to the social dilemma. The steps in this process were posited to be similar across individuals despite the wide variability of observed behaviors. The revised model [ 7 ] is comprised of two interrelated domains: problem orientation and problem solving style....
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Adrian, M., Lyon, A., Oti, R., Tininenko, J. (2011). Social Problem Solving. In: Goldstein, S., Naglieri, J.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_2703
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