The Zones of Regulation 

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behaviors in accordance with the demands of each situation. We are all continually working on self-regulating, as we all experience emotions. When we recognize that we are becoming less regulated (e.g., stress, frustration, excitement), many of us know how to manage our feelings and have our own strategies to get back to a healthy place. Self-regulation is a tough lesson for all kids, but for those with developmental challenges it can be especially hard. That is where the Zones of Regulation can come in handy.

What are the Zones of Regulation? 

The Zones of Regulation is a framework for thinking, created by occupational therapist Leah Kuypers. It is a “systematic, cognitive behavioral approach used to teach self-regulation by categorizing all the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete colored zones”.

Why is Self-Regulation important? 

Learning how to manage emotions is an important task of childhood. It enables:

  • Learning
  • Focusing
  • Listening
  • Communicating
  • Engaging with peers

Typical Early Phases of Self-Regulation Development

To determine which children are having difficulties with self-regulation, one must first understand the typical development of self-regulation from infancy. According to Claire Kopp’s journal article, Antecedents of Self-regulation: A Developmental Perspective (1982), she depicts a developmental progression, based on theory and research, that she terms “phases of control”. It explains the gradual transitions that build upon each other in order to achieve self-regulation.

  • Phase 1: Neurophysiological modulation: (Birth – 3 months). Infants have to modulate arousal states as a way to protect themselves from stimulation. Example: Learning to sleep when there is a loud sports game going on.
  • Phase 2: Sensorimotor modulation: (3 months – 12 months). Infants develop the ability to change their behavior in response to an event and stimuli. Example: When a baby is drawn to his mother’s activity and will reach for what his mother has just set down. This is also when cognitive requisites of emerging language, representational thinking, symbolic thinking and memory recall begin.
  • Phase 3: Control: (12 mos – 2 years). Children demonstrate an emerging awareness of social and task demands that are set by the caregivers. Children attempt to initiate, maintain, modulate or cease their behavior according to social or task demands, as well as begin to notice the effects of his/her actions.
  • Phase 4: Self-control: (~2-years of age). Children develop the ability to delay action when requested and behave according to caregivers’ or social expectations.
  • Phase 5 – Self-Regulation: (3-4 years). Children gain greater flexibility and adaptability of control processes so that they are able to change in order to meet the situational demands. Children begin to use rules to guide behavior.

Atypical Phases of Development

When a child’s ability to self-regulate does not develop in a typical fashion, he or she will be at risk for an array of difficulties.

  • How to spot it?
    • Stanley Greenspan termed the infants experiencing problems with sleep, feeding, state control, self-calming, sensory reactivity, mood regulation and emotional and behavioral control as having regulatory disorder (Zero to Three, 1994).

Three Steps of Zone Regulation

  • Step 1: Recognizing and Labeling Feelings
    • A large part of this is learning vocabulary to describe feelings:
        • Happy
        • Excited
        • Silly
        • Nervous
        • Tired
        • Bored
        • Sad
        • Relaxed
        • Mad
        • Frustrated
        • Sick
        • Scared
  • Step 2: Identifying how you feel using the 4 Zones:
    1. Blue Zone — State of low alertness and down feelings. Examples: tired, sad, sick, or bored.
    2. Green Zone — State of calm alertness. Examples: relaxed, happy, focused, or content. This is the zone where optimal learning occurs.*
    3. Yellow Zone — State of heightened alertness and elevated emotions, but you still have some control. Examples: stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, or nervousness.
    4. Red Zone — State of extremely heightened alertness and intense emotions. Very little control. Examples: elation, anger, rage, explosive behavior, devastation or terror.
  • Step 3: Getting to “Green” 
    • Teaching adaptive strategies (TOOLS) to move through the zones and get to green.
      • Example: If you’re tired (in Blue Zone), you can stretch, drink water, do jumping jacks.
      • Example: If you’re in a rage (in Red Zone), you can take a break, take a few deep breaths.
      • Example: If you’re nervous (in Yellow Zone), you can use positive self-talk, squeeze hands together, “Lazy 8” breathing strategy

Getting to the “Green Zone” is not only important to be in a calm state for optimal learning, but also important to understand how being in different zones affects others. It teaches how to pay attention to non-verbal cues and how to adjust behavior in response. For example, if you’re happy (in Green Zone), BUT a peer nearby is sad (In Blue Zone), you use self-talk. “They don’t look like they’re doing well, so maybe instead of being cheerful, I can be there for them.”

All Zones are Okay

At the end of the day, it is important to emphasize to children that it is not about preventing feelings, but about learning how to manage them. All of the zones are okay! There are no good or bad zones. The Zone we are in is determined by how we feel on the inside, not the behavior on the outside.

How to utilize in therapeutic settings/home settings

  • Create own visual supports for all age groups
    • Tie into language goals:
      •  Ex – “I feel ___”, “He feels ___”, “She feels ___”. Also teaches pronouns/verbs/adjectives!
  • Create mini versions of visual supports to use at home
  • Emphasis of emotional regulation in social communication. Teach children empathy — to observe peers and how they feel and what “zone” they are in
  • Can use short-film/silent videos to have children identify feelings/emotions of others

Is it evidence-based practice?

The Zones of Regulation is a framework based on immense evidence in the fields of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention deficit disorders (ADD/HD) and social-emotional theories.  Currently, The Zones is a Practice Based on Evidence versus an Evidence Based Practice; however, it is cited as a promising practice (Attention Magazine, 2012) and there are studies in the process gathering quantitative data.

We wish you the best luck in having your child feel his/her best self, no matter the zone he/she is in!

Andrea Scola, M.S., CF-SLP
Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer

Resources: 

Kuypers, L. (2011). The Zones of Regulation: A Curriculum Designed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Kopp, C. B. (1982). Antecedents of self-regulation: A developmental perspective. Developmental Psychology, 18(2), 199-214.

Zero to Three. (1994). Diagnostic classification of mental health and developmental disorders of infancy and early childhood. Arlington, VA: National Center for Clinical Infant Programs.

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