In the early 1990s, internationally renowned educator and indigenous leader Dr. Martin Brokenleg created a model for healthy development in youth. The Circle of Courage, as it is called, highlighted four fundamental areas that he believes children need in order to grow in a healthy and holistic way. They are: generosity, mastery, independence, and belonging.
As we navigate these incredibly difficult and challenging times, it is important for us to rally around families and children. Schools are facing unprecedented disruptions. With indefinite school closures in B.C. and Alberta, and likely more to come across the country in the near future, educators, parents, and students, are all trying to find their way in this new reality, which could very well extend over a long period of time.
How can we support each other and rethink learning? I suggest that we take Dr. Brokenleg’s lead, and abide by the principles presented to us in the Circle of Courage.
Belonging is absolutely critical for all humans, not just young people. What people don’t always fully appreciate, is that for many students across Canada, and the world, school is the safest and most structured place they have to go. They are welcomed by loving adults, often provided with a meal where needed, and included in a broad social network that helps to anchor them with a feeling of comfort and sense of self. As schools close and students are forced into more reclusive situations, the work we do educationally is important. Video conferencing is one good way to keep students grounded. According to the National Association for School Psychologists, routine and familiarity are critical components of student well being. A video conference call with a class or student daily helps keep that feeling of belonging alive and well. Students will be able to hold onto the positive feelings that come from hearing the voices and seeing the faces of those they consider among their biggest role models.
Mastery is the idea that a child should and needs to be able to say “I can succeed”. Celebrating small victories and providing strong and consistent encouragement during the time away from school is helpful. The more students feel they are doing well, the greater their sense of belonging and independence.
Dr. Brokenleg talks about independence as the ability for a child to say, “I have the power to make decisions”. School psychologists and other medical professionals are reiterating the importance of talking openly and honestly to our kids, with age appropriate filters applied, in order to help give them a sense of control and ownership over what is happening. Asking kids how they want to approach learning of a particular subject is not only good pedagogy in the best of times, but it helps fill a void that, if not filled during these scary times, could leave them feeling helpless and lost.
Lastly, the Circle of Courage calls for a spirit of generosity. As Dr. Brokenleg says, this means a child can say “I have a purpose in my life”. We know from countless studies, as well as the advice of public health officials, global leaders, and medical professionals, that helping somebody other than yourself in a time of need can have a significantly positive health benefit. Have your kids write a letter to a senior. Maybe talk about performing a song, dedicating it to a doctor, and then sending it over to the hospital for them to watch. All of these acts of kindness will multiply, and the beneficiaries won’t simply be those on the other end, but us as well.
Beyond the circle of courage, the usual anti-anxiety measures we talk to our kids about everyday apply. Go for walks when it is safe to do so. Drink lots of water. Be aware of social media usage and limit your time online. Give yourself a break from the news. Practice mindfulness and take deep breaths. Reach out to someone in need and offer to help where you can. All of this will go a long way in helping keep anxiety at lower levels.
It is vital that parents are talking to their kids about where they are getting their information about COVID-19, and how they are circulating it. The sharing of factual and timely information is key to helping stop the spread of this virus. Here in Manitoba, we have told both parents and students to visit the Manitoba Health website several times a day. It is equally important for schools to stay in touch with parents and students regularly. Many parents, for a variety of reasons, don’t always have access to the most recent news, and might not know on their own how to make sense of it.
I believe that this urgent situation is exposing just how critical schools are to our community and our entire social fabric. I know educators are doing everything they can right now to look after our students, at the same time as they try to balance their own fears and personal challenges on the home front. From one educator to another out there, stay safe, and thanks for all that you do, it has not gone unnoticed.
Ben Carr is Principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg