The Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation were created by Leah Kuypers; it’s another great tool to help kids learn self-regulation skills. This framework is designed to help kids notice what they are thinking and feeling, how their thoughts and feelings affect their behavior and learn to self-regulate. I absolutely love teaching the Zones of Regulation to kids. It’s such a great visual for them to see what zone their feelings are in and learn ways to get back to the green zone.

The zones are designed to look like traffic signs/signals you see on the road. Blue is a rest area sign, green is like a green light, yellow is like a yield sign, and red is like a stop sign. When I teach zones, I usually start by making huge zones out of construction paper. I go over the basics of what each zone means. Then I cut out several feelings faces (the older the group, the more feelings faces I use), and have the kids work together as a group to figure out which feeling goes where. It can lead to some interesting discussions.

The zones of regulation - Encourage Play

BLUE = sad, tired, sick, bored

GREEN = ready to go, happy, calm, focused, content

YELLOW = silly, embarrassed, anxious, excited, fear

RED = angry, extreme grief, terror

The goal is to be in the green zone. Throughout your day, you move zones. You may move them frequently. You may get annoyed because your brother takes something you were playing with - you move to the yellow zone. You get into a fight at recess - you move to the red zone. You didn’t get enough sleep last night, and now you’re tired - you’re in the blue zone. You can work on coping strategies and figure out how to move from blue, yellow or red back to green.

The great thing about working in a group is that there will be times where kids or adults move zones while you are working together. It’s the ideal teachable moment. Here’s a real example that happened to me a couple of years ago.

I was working with a group of kids in an office building that wasn’t my own and was typically closed when I ran group. I unlocked the main office door before group and I usually kept the door unlocked until group ended. Well, I got distracted as I was coming in the main door that night and I forgot to unlock it.

Typically, I ran group in a couple of rooms way in the back. That day, the kids and I decided to try to find a bigger space to play in. The lobby is huge so we went there. We walked out the main door of the office, and as soon as the door closed, I realized we were locked out. My keys and my wallet were locked inside. I was in the YELLOW zone. As the adult in charge of the group, I had to model staying calm and trying to relax. Luckily I had my phone so I was able to call a few people to try and help me. I also thought that this was a good time to model what to do in this kind of situation. I talked about my thoughts and feelings with the group, and spoke with them about their thoughts and feelings too. I said “I’m nervous and embarrassed, I’m in the yellow zone. What zone are you in? Let’s do an activity to help us take our mind off things while we wait.” We played museum and did some deep breathing while we waited for rescue. The kids were in good space, and we had a good time playing. I calmed down a bit and was pretty much in the GREEN zone.

What I didn’t realize is that they had to call the head of the business to come let me in. When he walked in the building, I was mortified. He let us in and was quite gracious about the whole situation. Once we were back in our room, I again said that to the group. “I had calmed down a bit and was more in GREEN while we were playing. But when the owner walked in, immediately I went back to the YELLOW zone. What happened for you? What zones were you in? Let’s keep doing some fun things to help us all relax from that experience”.

It was the perfect time to model shifting zones and using coping strategies to move back to the green zone. That real life lesson will stay with me, and I hope that it had a positive effect on my students. I hope they saw that even when faced with a stressful situation, you can do things to help you calm down and get yourself back to the green zone.