Using the Circle of Courage to Understand and Address Behaviors

Beyond physical survival, all of us have basic social and emotional needs.  The Circle of Courage, developed by Drs. Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern, is one of many models used to describe positive youth development. 

The Circle of Courage draws on modern research, the heritage of early youth pioneers, and traditional Native American philosophies of child care.  The four directions of the Circle identify four universal needs of all children:  belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.  Crisis, trauma and loss in the life of a child may disrupt development in any of these areas and may result in emotional and behavioral challenges for your family.

We must look at children in need, not as a problem but as individuals with potential to share if they are given the opportunity.”

          ~Desmond Tutu writing in the forward to Reclaiming Youth at Risk

Mastery (Competence)—The opportunity to solve problems and meet goals

Willing to fail when trying new thingsWorkaholicFeels Inadequate
Problem SolverOver competitiveAvoids risks
CreativePerseverativeGives up easily
MotivatedDependent on othersFailure oriented

Independence (Power)The opportunity to build self control and responsibility

AssertiveManipulativeLacks Confidence
LeadershipBullyFeels powerless
AutonomyRebelliousLacks confidence
Self controlOverly controlledLacks control

Generosity (Virtue)—The opportunity to show respect and concern

AltruismSelfish helpingNarcissistic
CaringOver indulgedHedonistic
EmpatheticDiminishing of SelfPsychopathic
UnselfishServitudeAnti social

Belonging (Significance)—The opportunity to establish trusting relationships

AttachmentAttention seekingAlienated
FriendshipClingingWithdrawn/Social isolation
CooperationCraves approvalAffectionless
TrustGang involvementSuspicious

Adapted from Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future, written by Larry Brendtro,Martin Brokenleg & Steve Van Bockern (2002) and publications of Solution Tree.

To Discipline Really Means to Teach

Using the Circle of Courage gives you a reference point for where to begin teaching the child more successful ways of behaving and living.  Discipline is an opportunity to foster a trusting relationship with the child in your care and an opportunity to encourage independence.  Before we get into details and tips related to discipline, here are some examples to get you thinking about how to incorporate the Circle of Courage model.

Mastery (competence)

Does a child’s refusal to do homework reflect an impaired sense of mastery?


  • Intact sense of mastery: feel competent, willing to fail or look unskilled when trying new things. 
  • Impaired sense of mastery: low self concept, fear of failure, reluctance to try tasks for fear of failure, giving up easily, dependent on others.

Your work with this child could include helping to break homework into small, doable steps so he or she can succeed and receive praise for completing segments, thus building a sense of mastery.   You might need to provide encouragement often to try new tasks and to persist to completion.  You might need to work alongside the child to support him or her in completing (mastering) a task.  The child may need numerous opportunities to repeat this pattern with significant praise before he or she can begin to internalize the sense of mastery.  Lessons and learning become more meaningful through repetition.

Independence (power)
If your 11 year old nephew is hanging out with 13 year olds at school, smoking, possibly trying drugs, and denying he is doing anything wrong, does he have a weakened sense of independence? 


  • Strong sense of independence: Feel in control of self, own behavior, own life.  Well developed sense of autonomy. Accept responsibility for self and own actions. 
  • Weakened sense of independence: Easily swayed by others, have difficulty accepting responsibility, and blame others for their actions.

Your work could involve helping this boy get involved in activities where he can form more positive relationships.  You could also develop a plan to give him small but responsible tasks, encourage him in quiet discussions, and praise and reward him for fulfilling his responsibilities, gradually increasing trust and responsibility as he proves himself capable to behave independently.  If children aren’t given something to control, they will seek options that they are able to control, often negative ones.

Generosity (virtue)

Does your teenage granddaughter’s insistence on “borrowing” her cousin’s clothes and bringing them back ripped or stained, with an “I don’t care” attitude indicate a distorted sense of generosity? 


  • Strong sense of generosity: empathy, desire to help others.  Willing to give of self or possessions, but not to compromise own well-being in the process.
  • Distorted sense of generosity: lack concern for welfare of others, take rather than give, may appear callous in interactions with others.

Besides setting some limits on borrowing clothing, your work with this girl might include careful observation and discussion to find out what is really important to her.  What would help her to feel fulfilled enough, satisfied enough, to be able to empathize with others?  Meanwhile, you might watch carefully and praise and quietly thank her for any small but thoughtful gestures she performs.  You might find or create opportunities for her to be of service in the household and in the community and quietly talk about how good it feels to help someone else. 

Belonging (significance)

If a nine year old is having problems at school, arguing with others, not fitting in and making friends, could it indicate a weak sense of belonging?


  • Strong sense of belonging: Loving, friendly, cooperative, trusting, and attached to others.  Feel welcome, connected, valued and protected.
  • Weak sense of belonging: many problems in relating with others.

You might work to help this child feel valued in your home, such as having an important task to help you with.  You could work with the child’s team to help guide the child into one or two appropriate friendships, and to have gradually increasing significant tasks which can be recognized positively at school and at home.  You might have the child join a small activity group (scouting, sports), where he or she can form positive identifications and contribute to the group.  A sense of belonging helps children to draw strength from a group as well as from themselves. 

You could also have frequent small casual discussions with the youngster about various problems with the kids at school and ask questions like, “What could you do differently next time?”  Or,  “What kind of friend would you like to have?”  Spending thoughtful time talking or in an activity with this child can help him or her to feel significant and have a sense of belonging.

Unmet Needs

When children have experienced trauma their sense of mastery, independence, generosity and belonging may well be compromised.  When you see a child in your care “acting out,” or not cooperating the way you would expect for a youngster that age, keep in mind the Circle of Courage. 

Looking at the Circle of Courage can help you identify the child’s unmet need that is being demonstrated when he misbehaves.  Simply ask yourself, “What would make this child behave in this (negative) way?”  “What does he get out of the behavior?”  “What basic human need such as Mastery, Independence, Generosity and Belonging is he trying (not very effectively) to meet?” 

Once you identify what is driving the behavior you can help the child find workable solutions.  Ask yourself, and ask the child, “What would help you to feel more independent next time?”  “What do you need in order to complete this page of math questions?”  The child cannot always tell you what he needs, but through careful observation and some experimentation, you can figure it out.  Talking with others can also help you to focus on solutions at this stage.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve found the Circle of Courage helpful.

How has it supported your family?

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