A paper on the Circle of Courage as a new behavior management tool in the classroom

David A. Bryant
for Dr. Noella Piquette-Tomei
Education 4709
May 25, 2009
Bringing The Circle of Courage and Reclaiming Strategies to the Regular Classroom
The Circle of Courage, while it is commonly described as a philosophy in support of “reclaiming environments” for youth at risk (Supporting… 132), can be a much more versatile tool than that. This tool and its features: belonging (a need to feel valued and important), mastery (developing competence), independence (responsibility for oneself) and generosity (genuine desire to help others); can be employed in any classroom, for the benefit of all students, rather than only those who are having difficulty controlling behavior and making positive choices. I will first define the Circle of Courage and its implementation in relation to Reclaiming theory in the classroom. Then I will show how it is connected to and different from traditional behavior practices in Education. The Circle of Courage and Reclaiming strategies can be integrated successfully with PBS because they share fundamental principles. Finally, I will show examples of critiques of the Circle of Courage in interdisciplinary practices and show support for the system.
The Circle of Courage redefines students who are having these difficulties as members of the class first, and puts behavior on a level that is not equated with Western morality, rather it is seen in terms of its impact on the social circle. This strategy (or perhaps a better word is paradigm,) combines the best practices of traditional education grounded in research in educational psychology, with philosophy and practices common to North American Native methods of teaching. While the Circle of Courage is an overarching philosophy, Reclaiming is the method for reaching out to disempowered youth and finding ways of bringing power and value back to them in their own cultural context, be it school, the street, in Native communities, in Western communities.
Many have noted that the power of the Circle of Courage is that it is simple without being simplistic. The human brain prefers ideas that can be understood and shared. These principles transcend professional disciplines and treatment models. Perhaps most uniquely, these beliefs are also embraced by young persons.
(Brendtro, Brokenleg, Van Bockern The Circle…131)

Resilience Research
Attachment-Motivation to affiliate
and form social bonds
Achievement-Motivation to work
hard and attain excellence
Autonomy-Motivation to manage
self and exert influence
Altruism-Motivation to help and be
of service to others

The Circle of Courage
Belonging-Opportunity to establish
trusting connections
Mastery-Opportunity to solve
problems and meet goals
Independence-Opportunity to build
self control and responsibility
Generosity-Opportunity to show
respect and concern

Self-Worth Research
Significance-The individual believes
“I am appreciated.”
Competence-The individual believes
“I can solve problems.”
Power-The individual believes
“I set my life pathway.”
Virtue-The individual believes
“My life has purpose.”

There is a distinct connection between the Circle of Courage and Western psychology, in that its four basic tenets- Belonging, Independence, Mastery and Generosity align neatly with resilience research and the “four profiles in development. These are attachment, achievement, autonomy and altruism, the psychological foundations of courage” ((Brendtro et al. Reclaiming…131)). The circle, being a sacred space grounded in the land we live in; is divided into the four directions which represent different potentials that create a unity; and contains the essence of all beings, which makes all of us kin with the other, and obligated as such. This obligation is the foundation for a healthy classroom community and it is balanced with the reciprocation of respect for one’s autonomy, and acting to help to develop confidence and competence over ones life. While traditional systems of classroom management often focus on personal accountability as a goal; in focusing on individual behavioural outcomes they fail to deal with the underlying issue of social isolation and the foundation for accountability, which is a sense of obligation to the community. While behaviouralism is linked to extrinsic motivation, the Circle of Courage reaches much deeper, encouraging students to commit to one another’s well being as a kinship tie. Much like Global Citizenship, this system demands personal accountability as a vehicle to promote the well being of all.
Behaviouralism is still predominant in schools as a classroom management strategy because it produces empirically measurable results. Much like standardized testing only scratches the surface of learning, reaching comprehension levels at best, behavioralist approach only provides us with students who stop behaving badly in the classroom, not ones who empathize, feel a sense of community, or who are intrinsically motivated in the least.

All of this is too complicated for bureaucratic bean counters who seek standardized ways to stamp their approval or disapproval on programs. It has become trendy to declare the “gold-standard” of effective research to be randomized clinical trials like those used by the drug industry. In one fell swoop, all other ways of knowing are dismissed.
(Brendtro et al. The Circle…133)
The Humanistic approach to education bridges many of these failings, but often couples with Behavioralism very poorly, and fails to account for social goals as well; however, it does not conflict with the Circle of courage model, and benefits can be seen by adhering to both models in practice. Unfortunately, school board policies are often written to ensure that empirical Behavioralist results become the status quo, and to ensure that those who fail to meet them are brushed aside as quickly and as legitimately as possible. This beaurocratic thinking serves everybody except the children, and while I want to advocate doing away with it immediately, the truth is that the process must occur carefully and consistently, so as not to do more damage than good, and undermine the legitimacy of the Circle as a philosophy.
One criticism of the Circle of Courage that seems obvious is Are we simply replacing overtly coercive behavior modification with covertly coercive behavior modification? All too often with respect to new strategies in education this is the case, and the PBS model of learning is unequivocal in its statement that we as teachers must “commit to moving away from coercive methods” (Piquette-Tomei 1). The key to the success of the Circle of Courage model is that it moves away from addressing deficits, and moves to the foundation of healthy social habits and relationship building. Individuals are rooted in the community and seen as having a right to belong; they are responsible to one another, and the goal is mastery of oneself and generosity to ones peers; independence and the right to be respected as unique, rather than addressing differences as deficits in character or personality. The Circle encourages behavior that benefits ones community and does not judge or discriminate. “Traditional definitions of the problems of troubled children operated from a deficit perspective. There is evidence that all of the major theories of problem behavior are being reshaped by principles of positive psychology” (Brendtro et al. The Circle…134).
Implementing the Circle of Courage in a Classroom
The Circle is not a set of rules or a strategy; like PBS it is a paradigm shift in teaching social obligation and self-awareness. Implementation then, has more to do with shifting perceptions and expectations than it does with creating rules and strategies, which are a product of perceptions and expectations. The perceptions and expectations revolve around the circle’s four principles. Belonging, the first principle is described uncompromisingly by Brokenleg. “The ultimate test of Kinship was behavior, not blood: You belonged if you acted like you belonged” (Brendtro et al. Reclaiming…46). This means that policies like suspension and expulsion are not on the table. Combine this with the principle of mastery, which obligates the community to help all students reach their full potential, and we are held to a very high standard of accountability as a result. New ways of teaching become necessary in this case. Peer teaching has great potential to allow students to take on the role of teaching tasks they have mastered to those who have not; this is reciprocated when students, rather than competing, pass these new skills on to younger classes coming up. While this strategy is not new, it has not been privileged up till now, because traditional forms of teaching based on hierarchy do no allow space for it. By accepting the principles of equal power and obligation to the community, negative traditional practices must be left behind.
As far as ground level strategies for change in the classroom, the Circle of Courage aligns neatly with the tenets of Reclaiming strategies, originally designed for at-risk youth and pioneered by Dr. Janusz Korczak. Reclaiming is composed of four essential elements:
1 Relating to the reluctant- examines strategies for establishing positive relationships with youth whose lives have been marked by alienation.
2 Brain friendly learning- presents alternative methods for organizing learning experiences to reverse patterns of failure and futility.
3 Discipline for responsibility- discusses management approaches that counter irresponsibility and rebellion by mobilizing positive youth involvement.
4 The courage to care- presents programs for fostering prosocial values and behavior in youth whose lives are self-centered and lacking purpose.
Relating to the reluctant is put into practice by moving away from stimulus-response scientific approaches to students as “black boxes” which rely heavily on reward and punishment to attain behavioural outcomes, toward relationship building, influence, obligation, and viewing behavior positively rather than negatively. “Teachers with widely divergent instructional styles can be successful if they develop a positive classroom climate. Counsellors trained in different methodologies succeed or fail to a large extent based on the quality of rapport they build with clients” (Brendtro et al. Reclaiming…71). This rapport allows teacher/mentors two tools to influence the behavior of their students. “Social reinforcement” (72) is the legitimacy to give advice, encouragement, or correction directly. Students will not act on these admonitions unless a relationship has been established. “Modelling” (72) desired behavior, like social reinforcement, only has an impact if a relationship based on trust and respect precedes it.
Brain friendly learning assumes a natural drive for students to learn. That drive is undermined when “what passes for education is noise that interrupts the natural flow of learning” (91), and by fragmentation of knowledge into subject area and assembly line process that serves adults before it does children. One aspect of the solution to this problem is teaching to mastery rather than moving forward prematurely, by making meaningful patterns and contextual connections across the curriculum. Another is to allow students the opportunity to teach one another as equals rather than teaching down to them as an authority. This social approach to teaching allows students to ask, to share and to explore together, in a safe environment.
When the brain perceives a threat, whether covert or overt, the brain downshifts. At such times, the older, more primitive parts of the brain that deal with emotions and reflexive ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ behaviors, are in control. When this happens the opportunity for pattern making in the higher thinking brain and cerebrum – is severely limited. The fact that the brain downshifts under threat has tremendous implications for those teaching or communicating with youth.” (96).
What is crucial about the Reclaiming definition of ‘threat’ is that while it can include fear of punishment or failure it can also be contained in test anxiety, irrelevant curriculum, unnecessary memorization, and “the structure of school itself” (96). Experiential learning, coupling real world skills and activities to theoretical knowledge not only reaches higher cognitive levels, it allows students to understand the relevance of, and contextualize knowledge as an alternative to traditionally threatening methods.
Discipline for responsibility might be a deceiving term, but by this point in the analysis, it should be clear that discipline cannot mean punishment. Self discipline for responsibility might be a more apt description. The term is rooted in the word disciple, which has many connotations as well; but it is based on legitimate authority from experience, and in guidance and modelling leading to culturally appropriate expression of behaviors. Self discipline must be encouraged and modelled, based on established relationships, and within rapidly expanding boundaries. If children are allowed complete freedom of choice, they will be lost and without direction, but treating them as equals, and as deserving of autonomy while providing a model and guidance without coercion will help them develop their own sense of discipline. A good strategy to implement discipline for responsibility is “Demanding Greatness instead of Obedience” (112).
Finally, the courage to care is precisely what it says. Presenting students with the opportunity to pay forward what is being done on their behalf in the Circle of Courage requires that they have first experienced the benefits of all other elements. If this is the case, obligation will become enthusiasm to take on challenges within their circle of influence. “Empathy is the linchpin in this concept of altruism.” “At the highest levels of moral development, one gains a sense of being related to all humanity.” (122). The manifestation discussed in the Reclaiming model is volunteerism. Based on an established need and a call for assistance as opposed to being ordered or preached at, students choose in what way they can best serve their community. This outcome could also be achieved through the organization of a service club that democratically decides what needs they will fulfill. Another expression of courage to care is peer teaching, which I addressed earlier. In any event, obligation and action are the core of generosity and the courage to care.
PBS in relation to Circle of Courage and Reclaiming
While the Circle of Courage addresses the root of behavior problems rather than the symptoms of them (behaviours), one aspect that must be addressed is its relation to PBS, which is quickly becoming the bar for behavior management in schools. In theory, in a school or classroom committed to PBS (including a commitment to a lack of coercion, and to staying the course) the strategy can succeed because punishment has been eliminated from the options for dealing with behaviors. However, in the real world there is a serious conflict in that school boards have discipline policies that look roughly like this:
The principal shall:
8.1 inform the student of the formal disciplinary nature of the suspension and its consequences and the reasons for which the suspension is being considered;
8.2 provide the student with an opportunity to offer an explanation;
8.3 immediately inform the parent of the student by telephone, if possible. This should be done before the student is sent out of the school;
8.4 as soon as possible, report in writing to the parents or mature student, the circumstances of the suspension, and retain a copy of the suspension letter;
8.5 ensure that all of the student’s teachers are informed of the suspension, and ensure that work is provided to the student from the classes that will be missed;
8.6 attempt to involve the student in supportive services designed to resolve the problem which led to the suspension;
8.7 provide an opportunity to meet with the student’s parent, or the student if the student is 16 years of age or older, to discuss the circumstances of the suspension;
8.8 within five days of the suspension, reinstate the student.

Note that there is no guidance to ensure that administrators follow PBS practices, or the Circle of Courage. These are local level initiatives, designed by classroom teachers or principals on the authority of the Province, but there is a serious disconnect because they are not included in policy guidelines sent down by school boards, which are the legal frameworks that principals are obligated to act upon. What is occurring then is a beaurocratic conflict that leaves teachers saying one thing, believing one thing, knowing one thing, and obligated to do another. There are exceptions to this rule. In the City of Calgary, a group of parents, dissatisfied with the status quo set up their own school in 1974. (Alternative…1) This project only survived a year, (given the province’s natural abhorrence of anybody working outside the system, and the financial burdens of funding a separate school) before the school came under the power of the public school board in 1975; however, the school still exists, and its philosophy has been cemented into its governing policies and its name. Alternative High School now operates under the authority of the Calgary Board of Education, but under its own set of expectations and procedures. The Circle of Courage is central to this school’s philosophy, and their vision statement:
“Alternative High School has adopted the “Circle of Courage” philosophy which unites the four corners – Belonging, Mastery, Generosity, and Independence – into a cohesive theme that provides guidance for the ideals, values, customs, and traditions of Alternative High School.”
(Alternative… 1)
Because the Circle of Courage has been found to be a valid approach to dealing with behaviors, and because its values are seemingly in direct conflict with traditional school board policies, I suggest that we need to re-think the need for a blanket set of regulations to govern schools that serve vastly different populations with vastly different goals. We must allow for the possibility that those realities exist (are in fact the rule) and must be allowed for.
Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) is a modern educational (interdisciplinary) framework for addressing many of these same issues in institutional settings. PBS is committed to addressing deeper issues than behavior as an alternative to traditional approaches, in order to bring about sustained positive change in students based on research, as well as meet beaurocratic needs (which we cannot escape from in any event). The Circle of Courage and Reclaiming approaches mesh with PBS in many aspects because they share many founding principles. In his article Positive Behavior Supports, Robert Horner writes of “Leslie, a 10-yearold with moderate intellectual disabilities, limited verbal communication, and a history of intense self biting” (97,98). After discussing how frustrating, disruptive and potentially harmful this behavior can be, Horner describes how PBS begins with “a social commitment to the importance of Leslie’s inclusion with her peers; that is, a recognition of the contributions she brings to her class.” This commitment is precisely parallel to the right to belonging and obligation as kin that the Circle of Courage advocates. It is a building block for a new approach to guiding and serving our children.
Horner goes on to say “comprehensive positive behavior support often includes the simultaneous application of many different intervention strategies. A classroom might be changed in terms of the physical layout, daily schedule, curriculum focus, curriculum materials, and so forth to prevent problem behaviors.” (101). These adaptations line up neatly with the Reclaiming strategy Brain Friendly Learning, which insists upon tailoring classrooms to student needs, rather than those of adults, and reducing threats to eliminate fear responses to in the learning environment.
To illustrate how deep a commitment this is in North American Native tradition, I will share a story of justice in Sioux culture, retold by Ella Deloria. While being tried for murder in his victim’s community a young man is brought before his victim’s family. The elder presiding over the hearing says:
Each of you bring to me the thing that you prize the most. These things shall be a token of our intention. We shall give them to the murderer who has hurt us, and he shall thereby become a relative in place of him who is gone… And from now on he shall be one of us, and our endless concern shall be to regard him as though he were truly our loved one come back to us… Smoke now with these your new relatives, for they have chosen to take you to themselves in place of one who is not here…and you can be sure that he made an even better relative than many who are related by blood, because he had been bought at such a price.
(Brendtro et al. Reclaiming…67,68)
This theme of reclaiming a person’s soul by repaying violence with kindness belongs to many cultural traditions. Another salient example in Western, Christian tradition is the story of the Apostle Paul, on the Road to Damascus, when he is struck blind to his past, and forgiven by God, who offers him a chance for a new life. A contemporary example that is being used as a tool in classrooms is the story of Cole Matthews in Ben Mikaelsen’s novel Touching Spirit Bear. Commitment to changing our programmed response insists upon a reclaiming environment. According to Brokenleg, “To reclaim is to recover and redeem, to restore value to something that has been devalued” (3).
Horner’s article illustrated a microcosmic application of these values through his student “Leslie”; Cathann Kress’ article The Circle of Courage in Practice: The 4-H Club Study addresses them as applied to a youth organization. This perspective more closely resembles a classroom, however, it must be taken into account that members are not in regular daily contact, as they would be in a classroom, and members come and go at different intervals, whereas classrooms are relatively stable environments year to year. The findings however, are very positive, and show success in the intended outcomes.
Again and again. Electronic Survey respondents related stories about how the underachievers and less popular youth joined 4-H and found acceptance and self-esteem. Respondents related stories about youth who learned the value of helping others, investing time in their communities, changing negative attitudes into positive action, and transferring leadership skills learned in 4-H to other community and school organizations. They told stories about how career exploration in 4-H helped guide future career decisions; how youth became committed to going to college; how they learned the meaning of service, persistence, and goal setting; how public presentation gave students a leg-up academically; and how life skills learned in 4-H helped youth start their own businesses and be successful as they gained independence.
(Kress 27)
This report is decidedly positive as well. Our final article, a more sceptical approach to the philosophy can be found in Controlling Behavior or Reclaiming Youth? Creating a Behavior Management System based on the Circle of Courage. The article does not support the status quo, nor claim what are considered by some to be valid practices, to be acceptable. Rather, it questions the validity of these, and puts the Circle of Courage under scrutiny from the title forward.
Can complacency really be better than being proactive and implementing changes in order to make things better, not just because something no longer works? … change is a good and sometimes very necessary thing. That need, to seek out and make changes for our own betterment, is a part of our humanness.
(Pike, Millspaugh, DeSalvatore 213)
The authors do not shy away from the re-tooling of the treatment system because of the difficulty of that process, nor because of the debate over a correct change of course. Rather, they recognize that we are obligated to act to improve the system regardless of these challenges. This willingness to face difficulty reinforces their support for the Circle of Courage later, when they report:
The most important thing that we learned from the staff was that the new program made them feel like a valued part of the “treatment team” instead of just being a front-line staff member. Although they realized that this was no longer a “no-brainer” system, they enjoyed having to know more about each resident’s treatment issues and making decisions based on the ITP.
As for the challenge that the Circle of Courage does not provide empirical data to prove its efficacy, this treatment program has come up with a system of reporting and graduating clients through it. While these assessment procedures do not involve marks or numbers, they do represent progress, which can be generalized to the education system, and is already recognized as a valid approach.
Since we were using the Circle of Courage as a structure, we decided that all residents in the program would fall into one of the four dimensions. They would move from one phase to the next by completing specific goals and activities for each, and thus work their way through the system. All new residents started with Belonging, based on the idea that in order to be successful, either in treatment or in life, you have to feel like you belong.
There is no better support than that of someone who is critical of the system they work within, and competent in their field. The general consensus I perceive in these articles is that the Circle of Courage is a valid tool for change in the school system, and more so because it can be generalized to all fields of care. This means that interdisciplinary approaches to care can be more easily coordinated, as stakeholders from different fields understand the foundational tenets from which they are all working.


“Alternative High School (at Clinton Ford Center).” Calgary Board of Education. 2009. 24 May 2009 .
Apter, Steven J., and Jane Close Conoley. Childhood Behavior Disorders and Emotional Disturbance. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Inc, 1984. 62
Brendtro, Larry K., Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern. “The Circle of Courage and Postitive Psychology.” Reclaiming Children and Youth 14.3 (2005). 24 May 2009 .
Brendtro, Larry K., Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern. Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future. Bloomington: Solution Tree, 2000.
Kress, Cathann. “The Circle of Courage in Practice: The 4-H Club Study.” Reclaiming Children and Youth 12.1 (2003): 27.
Piquette-Tomei, Noella. “OVERVIEW OF POSITIVE BEHAVIOR SUPPORT.” Blackboard Web Tools. 2009. 24 May 2009 .
Pike, Daryl R., Caria M. Millspaugh, and Gino DeSalvatore. “Controlling Behavior or Reclaiming Youth?” Reclaiming Children and Youth 13.4 (2005). 23 May 2009 .
“Supporting Positive Behaviour in Alberta Schools A school-wide approach.” Government of Alberta:Education. 2008. Alberta Education. 24 May 2009 .
“Suspensions and Expulsions.” Lethbridge School District No. 51. 2009. 24 May 2009 .


~ by Dave on May 28, 2009.

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