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The System: A Multilevel Social Service Simulation

The System: A Multilevel Social Service Simulation by  Gregor V. Sarkisian

Author(s): Gregor V. Sarkisian


Community psychology practice competencies emerged in an effort to provide guidance to the field of community psychology and training programs seeking to provide students with meaningful opportunities to develop a depth and breadth of practice skills. As a teacher of community psychology practice over the past eleven years, the author has consistently faced challenges in teaching the Ecological Perspectives, listed as number 1 under Foundational Principles – “The ability to articulate and apply multiple ecological perspectives and levels of analysis in community practice” (Dalton, & Wolfe, 2012, p. 10). This paper describes a multilevel social service simulation exercise as a teaching tool for community psychology practice competencies within an academic setting. The simulation focuses on Ecological Perspectives and the role of Social Power Dynamics in Systems Change. Suggested curricular content is also included to follow the simulation debriefing.


Download the PDF version for the full article, including all tables, figures, and appendices


Simulations provide participants the opportunity to learn material through enacting a scripted experience with varying degrees of improvisation. They also allow for the exploration of complex systemic and group dynamics as a means of priming students for new experiences (e.g., See Wolff & Sarkisian, 2013, for a community coalition simulation) and paradigms such as the ecological perspectives and the role of social power dynamics in systems change.

One of the difficult tasks for making this paradigm shift is the ability to make space for ecological levels (e.g., micro, meso, macro) beyond one’s physical location and type of activity. The typical bias of students when first exposed to this shift is a tendency to focus exclusively on a micro, individual or intra-psychic level. Understanding the ecological levels of analysis can serve as a building block to learning how the principles of ecology operate across levels. An understanding of the ecological perspective can also serve as a building block in developing a critical awareness of the role of social power dynamics in systems change. While these building blocks can best be achieved through experience over time, the social service simulation described below has been found by the author and his students to be an effective tool for a training level of Exposure in ecological perspectives, social power theory and systems change.


The development of this exercise occurred over ten years through the author’s own praxis experience as a children’s social worker and then as a doctoral student in community psychology. In the early 1990’s, after first being exposed to community psychology, the author worked as a child protective service worker in South Los Angeles which provided many opportunities to experience systems changes and interface with social system players – clients, workers, supervisors, administrators, service providers, etc. In the mid 1990’s, the author was in his doctoral program developing his understanding of both ecological perspectives and social power/empowerment through course- and fieldwork. The author participated in the Community Action Poverty simulation (, now owned by the Missouri Association for Community Action (2002), as part of a psychology and public policy course late in his doctoral program. While the author found the exercise to be greatly beneficial for the purposes of raising awareness to the circumstances of living in poverty and the difficulties in meeting basic survival needs, he believed it could be further developed to better reflect ecological perspectives and systems change. He developed The System: A Multilevel Social Service Simulation and since its initial development in 2005, the author has run this simulation ten times with Master’s level students and five times with Doctoral level students training in community psychology practice.

The System

The overall goal of this experiential learning exercise is to provide participants with a shared experience and then incorporate curricular content for ecological perspectives (i.e., levels of analysis and principles of ecology) (Vincent & Trickett, 1983; and Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010) and social power (Lukes, 1974; & Gaventa, 1980; Pilsuk, McAllister & Rothman, 1996) into the context of the participants’ shared experience. Finally, because the nature of the exercise involves negative impacts to clients, data from the California Child Welfare System (Casey Family Programs, 2012; California Department of Social Services [CDDS], 2014a; CDSS, 2014b) are utilized to reinforce the ecological perspective and provide participants with factual information on the impact of social service systems on clients. The specific learning objectives include providing a common experience of:

  1. The variety of activities that exist at different ecological levels of analysis within social service systems;
  2. How change can occur from one ecological level to another in social systems; and,
  3. How the three dimensions of social power can manifest into human behaviors in social systems.

How the System Works

In this social service simulation, participants are divided into three groups – clients, workers and supervisors. Each group operates to get their needs met – supervisors translate state law into agency-prescribed procedures that workers must follow in service provision, workers provide services to clients using agency-prescribed procedures, and, clients complete tasks to meet their needs for survival – all through scripted roles. The materials include enough supplies for a total of 12 participants - 4 participants in each group. However, the simulation has been run with as little as 8 participants and as many as 20.

The simulation focuses on how a fictitious State Assembly Bill at the macro level forces change at the meso (adoption of new procedures by workers) and micro (interactions between workers and clients) levels. The specifics of the fictitious Bill are as follows:

Assembly Bill (AB) 637, the Welfare Service Improvement and Parent Safety Act.

This bill represents the State Assembly’s attempt to reorganize resources within the social service system while also cutting 45% of its total budget. AB 637 creates two major changes in how benefits are distributed to clients: (1) All cash benefits to clients will be cut from $800 to $400 dollars a month. The $400 in savings will be diverted to training and the development of a specialized unit of social workers to assist youth in transition out of foster care; and, (2) Bus passes will only be issued to clients with court-ordered drug testing upon proof of a negative drug test in the form of documentation issued by the Corp Comp Drug Testing Company. Clients with a positive drug test will lose their bus pass privileges for a minimum of 1 month and will only be issued a bus pass in the future upon presentation of a recent negative drug test. Clients who do not have court-ordered drug testing are not affected by this change.

At three points in time after the simulation begins (2, 4, & 6 minutes), system changes are initiated by supervisors, impacting workers then clients. The simulation runs until clients have completed all of their tasks or when it becomes clear that clients cannot accomplish any additional tasks (typically 45 minutes after the simulation begins). Clients and workers remain unaware of the fictitious Bill until after the simulation is over through debriefing.

Instructions to Facilitate and Debrief the Simulation

The facilitator should possess expertise in mediating and diffusing conflict as well as advanced organizational skills to run the simulation smoothly. Appendix I includes detailed instructions for facilitating this simulation – preparation (including number of participants & materials), beginning the simulation, briefing participants by group before the simulation, and the facilitator role during the simulation.

Appendix II includes a checklist and all of the materials needed to conduct the simulation with a total of 12 participants. These include: Materials checklist, role scripts, referrals to parenting and anger management, welfare checks of $400 and $800, bus passes, drug tests results, and social service station signs.

Appendix III includes instructions for debriefing after the simulation and curricular content with discussion questions using material from the simulation and the state of California child welfare system to reinforce learning ecological perspectives and the role of social power in systems change.


Community psychology practice competencies are often difficult to learn through a lecture and discussion format. This article describes a simulation to teach Ecological Perspectives and the role of social power in systems change as an alternative to traditional teaching approaches. The simulation is followed by a debriefing and curricular content on ecological perspectives and social power with illustrative examples from the simulated experience and factual examples from the California child welfare system. However, factual examples could be substituted if one is facilitating the simulation in a different region or state or country.


I would like to extend a special thanks to Linda Spence, M.S.W. Her expertise in professional training and multiple rounds of feedback supported the development of this simulation exercise to be facilitated by a broader audience. This exercise was inspired by a Poverty Simulation owned by the Missouri Association for Community Action (“MACA”).  The kind permission of MACA for the right to publish this exercise is gratefully acknowledged.  The Poverty Simulation may be licensed from MACA at:


California Department of Social Services (2014a). Chronology of Child Welfare Services. Retrieved 25/05/2016 from:

California Department of Social Services (2014b). Facts at a Glance. Retrieved 25/05/2016 from:

Casey Family Programs (2012). Child Welfare Financing (2012). Retrieved 25/05/2016 from:

Cornell Empowerment Group. (1989, October). Empowerment and family support. Networking Bulletin, 1(1), 1-23.

Dalton, J. & Wolfe, S. (2012). Competencies for community psychology practice: Draft for review. The Community Psychologist 45(4), 7-14.

Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and participation. In Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (pp. 3-32). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A Radical View. London: The Macmillan Press LTD.

Missouri Association for Community Action (2002). The Community Action Poverty Simulation. Retrieved 05/2016 from:

Nelson, G., & Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community Psychology: In Pursuit of Liberation and Well-Being (2nd Ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. [ISBN: 978-0-230-21995-3]

Pilsuk, M., McAllister, J., & Rothman, J. (1996). Coming together for action: The challenge of contemporary grassroots community organizing. Journal of Social Issues, 52(1), 15-37.

Vincent, T. A., & Trickett, E. J. (1983). Preventive interventions and the human context: Ecological approaches to environmental assessment and change. Preventive Psychology: Theory Research, and Practice, 67-86.

Wolff, T. & Sarkisian, G. V. (2013). Community coalition simulation: Experiential learning of community psychology practice competencies. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 4(4), xx-xx. Retrieved 12/5/2016, from (

Download the PDF version for the full article, including all tables, figures, and appendices


Gregor V. Sarkisian Gregor V. Sarkisian

Gregor V. Sarkisian, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Master of Arts in Psychology Program and teaches in the Applied Community Psychology Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA. Email: Corresponding address: Antioch University Los Angeles, 400 Corporate Point, Culver City, CA 90230. 

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my location (United States) December 08, 2023

It's interesting to see how the simulation incorporates curricular content and factual information to enhance participants' understanding. Overall, this article offers a valuable approach to experiential learning in community psychology.

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Keywords: Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Service Simulation, Social Power, Ecological Perspectives