Committee for Children Blog

Implementing Responsive Classroom and Second Step in an Elementary School

This Virginia school district implements and integrates these programs to help students develop important social-emotional skills.

social emotional learning, responsive classroom, implementation, CARES, child protection
By Mary Beth McCormac, School Counselor, Nottingham Elementary, Arlington, VA

Responsive Classroom (RC) and Second Step are evidence-based programs that focus on the strong relationship between academic success and social-emotional learning (SEL). Nottingham Elementary in Arlington, VA, uses these two programs together to help students develop important social-emotional skills.

The RC approach guides teachers in developing students’ academic mindsets and behaviors, perseverance, and learning strategies. We use the acronym CARES to outline the social-emotional competencies: 


Establish new relationships, maintain positive relationships and friendships, avoid social isolation, resolve conflicts, accept differences, be contributing members of the classroom and school communities, and work productively and collaboratively with others.


Take initiative, stand up for ideas without hurting or negating others, and seek help.


Take action and follow through on expectations; define problems, consider the consequences, and choose positive solutions.


Understand others’ states of mind and emotions, be receptive to new ideas and perspectives, appreciate and value differences and diversity in others, have concern for others’ welfare even when it doesn’t benefit oneself or may come as a cost to oneself.


Recognize and regulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to be successful in the moment and remain on a successful trajectory.

Our school uses the CARES model as the basis for schoolwide expectations and classroom rules. We use the concepts on our “Think Sheets”—worksheets a child must complete if the behavior continues to be unacceptable after a warning. The sheet asks the student to identify which CARES skill to practice to be a positive member of the learning community.

The RC program doesn’t offer any specific skill-based lessons, posters, or videos to teach CARES skills. We provide our teachers with specific children’s books at each grade level to read aloud at the beginning of the year to introduce and discuss CARES skills. In Kindergarten through third grade, teachers read a book for each skill, and in the upper grades, teachers read and discuss a single chapter book that addresses all the CARES skills. The librarian and I selected the books and ran draft lists by the classroom teachers. Our recommendations are in a table below.

Since we have found that common read-alouds are very useful for teaching social-emotional skills and behavioral expectations, we follow a similar process with bullying prevention. We provide books by grade level to be read aloud by the classroom teacher, an administrator, and the librarian informing students about bullying situations and the best response. These books reinforce the recognize, report, and refuse skills that are taught in the Second Step Bullying Prevention Unit.

All of the elementary counselors in our district teach the Second Step SEL curriculum. Second Step provides lessons that teach:

  • skills for learning (links to responsibility and cooperation in CARES)
  • empathy (reinforces what is taught about empathy as part of CARES)
  • emotion management (links to responsibility and self-control)
  • problem-solving (links to assertiveness and cooperation)
  • bullying prevention (links to assertiveness and empathy)

The counselor helps students make the connections between CARES and Second Step. For example, when I am teaching the Second Step unit on empathy, I bring a copy of The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig with me and discuss how the character’s feelings changed from feeling isolated and lonely to accepted as the story progressed. I also refer to the book when I teach the Second Step lesson on showing compassion because one character noticed how the main character felt and showed caring which led to a friendship. Since teachers have already read the book out loud, I don’t need to spend my class time reading the whole book.

The Second Step curriculum provides a key feature: evidence-based quality classroom instruction that is easy to deliver. I love the Home Links that explicitly show parents what I taught and provide ideas for how they can reinforce those skills at home through discussion and practice.

This year, our district bought the Second Step Child Protection Unit for all its schools. This gives us the research-based materials we need to teach the American School Counselors Association-recommended behavior standard of demonstrating personal safety skills. This is a behavior that is also addressed by the assertiveness and responsibility elements of the CARES model. We again added children’s books in the lower grade levels because children tend to remember the message of engaging books (e.g., Uncle Willy’s Tickles by Marcie Aboff in grade 1).

Second Step and RC give teachers and counselors the tools to make our learning community safe and welcoming and give our students important academic, social, and emotional skills. Second Step fills a gap for skills-based lessons that were researched and found to be effective. The Second Step lessons are compatible and complement the RC approach that teachers are implementing.


Learn more about the research behind our SEL, bullying prevention, and child protection curricula.