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CYC People

Larry K Brendtro


Black Hills of South Dakota


I am a native of South Dakota and started in CYC during my college years at a residential school for children with disabilities in Sioux Falls. After finishing an undergraduate degree in sociology and social work with teacher certification, I received a master’s degree in educational leadership and briefly served as principal in the same school. I was intrigued by children with emotional and behavioral problems, so enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Michigan where I was part of the Fresh Air Camp tradition of Fritz Redl and David Wineman. During my studies, I continued as a Child and Youth Care worker at an adolescent treatment center near Detroit. After receiving my PhD in the combined program in Education and Psychology, I joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign teaching in the area of children’s behavioral disorders.

For the next fourteen years, I was president of Starr Commonwealth serving troubled youth in Michigan and Ohio. Starr became a laboratory for developing the Positive Peer Culture model with Harry Vorrath. In the 1980s, my wife Janna and I returned with our three Michigan-born children to our home state of South Dakota where I served on the faculty of my alma mater, Augustana University. There with professors Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Bockern, we developed the Circle of Courage model and the Reclaiming Youth Network. Nicholas Long and I established the journal Reclaiming Children and Youth which was published for more than two decades.  

The annual Black Hills Seminars have continued to draw together a network of youth professionals committed to reclaiming children and families. These seminars are now sponsored by CF Learning, a program of Cal Farley’s of Amarillo, Texas. Building upon Circle of Courage values and emerging research on trauma and resilience, CF Learning developed the Model of Leadership and Service. This model, pictured as a resilience compass, focuses on six brain-based needs and drives that are essential to healthy development of children and adults alike: safety, belonging, achievement, power, purpose, and adventure. Research, writing, and speaking activities continue through our organization Resilience Resources in collaboration with CF Learning. More detailed information is available at the websites and

How I came to be in this field

Early in my career, I met very troubled kids who initiated me into this field. In particular, I spent two summers working with inner city youth in a church program in Newark, New Jersey, and they gave me a life-long interest in cultural diversity. As I worked with extremely oppositional youth, it soon became apparent that many were able to overcome adversity and transform their turbulent younger lives – some are now professional colleagues. I had the opportunity to work with many Native American youth and came to appreciate the power of culture to shape or distort youth development. At a personal level, my father was orphaned as a small boy and then experienced severe trauma in foster care; this has given me and my siblings the motivation to serve others, as we all have done.  

A favorite saying

My doctoral advisor, Bill Morse, headed the University of Michigan Fresh Air Camp for many years and is a pioneer in work with troubled children. He would tell us as his students, “The day that you think you could not have ended up just like the worst of the troubled youths you serve, you should leave this work because you have lost your ability for empathy."

A few thoughts about child and youth care

In 1969, I collaborated with Al Trieschman and Jim Whittaker on my first book, The Other 23 Hours. That title was inspired by Robert Lindner’s book on therapy, The 50-Minute Hour. Our theme was that powerful treatment occurred in the ecology and not just the counseling office. The most recent brain science and trauma research validates that position. There is no more significan helping role than direct child and youth care work. As we learn more of indigenous science and wisdom, it becomes apparent that traditional cultures over many centuries developed highly sophisticated, need-based models of child development. One can conclude that child and youth care is the primary profession undergirding all other human service fields.

Last thing I read, watched, heard, which I would recommend to others

I am addicted to both new and historic books that inform child and youth care. Tapping emerging research, I joined over 30 colleagues in the international reclaiming youth network to publish the book, Deep Brain Learning: Evidence Based Essentials in Education, Treatment, and Youth Development (Brendtro & Ness, 2015). I am also committed to reclaiming historic wisdom. As the German poet Goethe once said, everything important has been thought of before – the difficulty is to think of it again. In that spirit, James Anglin of the University of Victoria and I are engaged in research for a book with a working title: Enduring Wisdom, which aspires to tap the timeless contributions of dozens of pioneers in youth work such as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who worked with Swiss children after the Napoleonic wars, the “Polish Pestalozzi” Janusz Korczak who gave his life in service to Jewish street children, Jane Addams who founded the modern juvenile court, and Gisela Konopka who escaped the Holocaust to spark youth development research.

A favorite CYC experience

The most emotionally challenging youngster in my first CYC position with handicapped children grew up to be Dr. Ronald Anderson, professor of special education and president of the International Council for Exceptional Children. One of our most challenging youths at Starr Commonwealth was John Seita who was kicked out of 15 court placements by age 12. He is now Dr. John Seita, professor of social work and youth development at Michigan State University. Be very respectful to your most difficult kids, they might end up as professional colleagues.

A recommended child and youth care reading link 

I enjoy browsing the table of contents of journals in the field.


Last updated October 2016

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