The Circle of Courage is a model of positive youth development first described in the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk, co-authored by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern. The model integrates Native American philosophies of child-rearing, the heritage of early pioneers in education and youth work, and contemporary resilience research. The Circle of Courage is based in four universal growth needs of all children: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.
Anthropologists have long known that Native Americans reared courageous, respectful children without using harsh coercive controls. Nevertheless, Europeans colonizing North America tried to "civilize" indigenous children in punitive boarding schools, unaware that Natives possessed a sophisticated philosophy that treated children with deep respect. These traditional values are validated by contemporary child research and are consistent with the findings of Stanley Coopersmith who identified four foundations for self-worth: significance, competence, power, and virtue. These are summarized below:
In Native American and First Nations cultures, significance was nurtured in communities of belonging. Lakota anthropologist Ella Deloria described the core value of belonging in these simple words: "Be related, somehow, to everyone you know." Treating others as kin forges powerful social bonds that draw all into relationships of respect. Theologian Marty observed that throughout history the tribe, not the nuclear family, always ensured the survival of the culture. Even if parents died or were not responsible, the tribe was always there to nourish the next generation.
Competence in traditional cultures is ensured by guaranteed opportunity for mastery. Children were taught to carefully observe and listen to those with more experience. A person with greater ability was seen as a model for learning, not as a rival. Each person strives for mastery for personal growth, but not to be superior to someone else. Humans have an innate drive to become competent and solve problems. With success in surmounting challenges, the desire to achieve is strengthened.
Power in Western culture was based on dominance, but in tribal traditions it meant respecting the right for independence. In contrast to obedience models of discipline, Native teaching was designed to build respect and teach inner discipline. From earliest childhood, children were encouraged to make decisions, solve problems, and show personal responsibility. Adults modeled, nurtured, taught values, and gave feedback, but children were given abundant opportunities to make choices without coercion.
Finally, virtue was reflected in the preeminent value of generosity. The central goal in Native American child-rearing is to the teach the importance of being generous and unselfish. In the words of a Lakota Elder, "You should be able to give away your most cherised possession without your heart beating faster." In helping others, youth create their own proof of worthiness: they make a positive contribution to another human life.
The Circle of Courage was first introduced in the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk published in 1990 by National Educational Service, now Solution Tree. A revised edition with an introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was published in 2002. The Circle of Courage has been applied world-wide in schools, treatment settings, and family and youth development programs. It spawned the Reclaiming Youth movement and is the basis of a dozen books which are available form Reclaiming Youth International at its website www.reclaiming.com. The model was adopted by policy leaders in the new democratic South Africa, this led to a formal training program to put the Circle of Courage principles into practice. The Response Ability Pathways or RAP training is now provided by certified trainers in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
The Circle of Courage began as a collaboration of three professors who were then colleagues at Augustana, a liberal arts institution located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Dr. Larry Brendtro is a licensed psychologist and special educator who had formerly been president of Starr Commonwealth serving troubled youth in Michigan and Ohio; he continues to serve as Dean of The Starr Commonwealth Research Council. Dr. Martin Brokenleg has graduate degrees in educational psychology and theology and currently is Professor and Director of Native Ministries at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia. Dr. Steve Van Bockern is Professor of Education at Augustana where he heads a Reclaiming Youth Institute. They can be contacted by e-mail at courage at reclaiming dot com.