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What is the “Circle of Courage,” and how can you use it to enhance your teaching practice?

What is the “Circle of Courage,” and how can you use it to enhance your teaching practice?

This post is written by Julia Roberts, a member of the Edmentum Educator Network. The Network is a professional learning community dedicated to helping educators share ideas; learn from one another; and make genuine, peer-to-peer connections.

The Circle of Courage® is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle that to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. This unique model integrates the cultural wisdom of tribal peoples, the practice wisdom of professional pioneers with troubled youth, and findings of modern youth development research.

In Reclaiming Youth at Risk, authors Larry K. Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern explain how the Circle of Courage can transform your relationships with your students. This groundbreaking book is where I first learned about the Circle of Courage model with the important concepts for my students of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. The concepts in Reclaiming Youth at Risk help me understand how to create a positive classroom environment with a mutual sense of respect for teachers and students.

Image from Starr.org

There are four components to the Circle of Courage: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. Each of these areas provides important values, lessons, and concepts for students.

Belonging

Lakota anthropologist Ella Deloria described the core value of belonging as being “related, somehow, to everyone you know .” Some traits of healthy belonging include being attached, loving, friendly, cooperative, and trusting. I ask my students to think about the communities to which they belong. Our discussion focuses on the love and acceptance our students feel in their communities. One of my primary goals is for my students to feel secure and experience a sense of belonging in our classroom. This is especially important for youth who may have unstable home lives. 

Mastery

In Native American and First Nations cultures, children learn from their elders. Children are taught to observe the adults around them and strive for mastery but to avoid focusing on competition. Some traits of mastery we can encourage in our students include achievement, success, creativity, solving problems, staying motivated, being persistent, and competency. I ask my students what they have learned from the “masters” in their lives. This may include parents, grandparents, teachers, and bosses. We discuss whether the experiences were positive, negative, or both. 

Independence

In Native American and First Nations cultures, children are encouraged to make decisions, solve problems, and exhibit personal responsibility. Adults have been there to teach and provide feedback but children are given many opportunities to make their own personal choices. This helps build respect and self-discipline. We should encourage our students to be confident, assertive, and responsible leaders. It’s always interesting to ask your students whether they feel a sense of independence in their lives or if most decisions are made for them. Focusing on personal responsibility helps my students on their path to success.

Generosity

One of the most important core values in the Circle of Courage is the importance of being generous and unselfish. When students help each other, they develop their own sense of worth. By focusing on being caring, loyal, empathetic, and supportive, we teach the value of contributing to a larger group. I encourage my students to volunteer their time in the community, expecting nothing in return. Volunteering not only brings out the best in my students, but it also creates a powerful lesson about how to contribute to society. 

I find that modeling and teaching the concepts in the Circle of Courage helps my students become more cooperative, motivated, responsible, and empathetic citizens. It also fosters a positive classroom climate and reduces negative behaviors. 

For more information on the Circle of Courage, please visit these websites:

Starr Commonwealth

Reclaiming Youth at Risk

julia.roberts's picture

Julia Roberts has been teaching and mentoring at-risk youth for more than 20 years. She leads the credit recovery program at Waukesha South High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Julia's credit recovery program uses Edmentum Courseware in a 1:1 classroom learning lab. 

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