“Are you feeling yellow zone, buddy?” I hear from across the playground. My son and his friend are hot and sweaty from playing hard for more than an hour. As they get hotter and stickier, the vibe has gone from light and playful to right on the edge of ending in tears. I recognize my friend’s question because I’ve heard my son’s preschool teacher talk with him about what to do when he’s in the Red Zone, one of the four Zones of Regulation. I have a rough sense of what the Zones of Regulation are, but I don’t really know the full spectrum of how to use the system with my kid. So, I reached out to Leah Kuypers, the occupational therapist who created the Zones of Regulation as a roadmap for helping kids “organize their feelings, states of alertness, and energy into four colored zones: blue, green, yellow, and red.”
What are the 4 Zones of Regulation?
With a background in occupational therapy, Kuypers directed the focus of her graduate studies towards finding a better way for teachers and caregivers to support kids that struggled with regulation. “I had so many kids with high needs in my caseload, and the needs were all around regulation. It was keeping them from being able to be in a classroom with peers, from maintaining and making friends, and leading to a lot of disciplinary actions. It didn’t sit well with me.”
After much trial and error, she developed the idea of four color zones, which she calls the “Zones of Regulation.” One of the key elements of the four zones is that they are simply a way of naming feelings, and no color or Zone is inherently better or worse than another. Each Zone also might be thought of as needing different tools for regulation, support or feelings management. The four Zones of Regulation are:
- Blue Zone. Blue Zone is the lowest-energy Zone. It may be when you’re sleepy and ready for bed, or maybe lonely, sad or even bored. A ‘tool’ of support in the Blue Zone might be a snuggle or hug from a loved one if you’re feeling sad, or standing up and stretching as a way to get a little more energy pumping, if that’s what the moment requires.
- Green Zone. Green Zone consists of neutral feelings, and it’s a great one to be in when your goal is to learn, listen or process information. Green zone is calm, content, happy, or focused.
- Yellow Zone. Yellow Zone comes with higher levels energy — play dates are often in the Yellow Zone — and a person in the Yellow Zone might feel excited, fidgety, anxious, or frustrated. If the Zone becomes overwhelming, someone in the Yellow Zone might choose to a tool to help them regulate. “Some Yellow Zone tools include taking deep breaths, using a fidget, positive self-talk, and connecting with someone for support,” Kuypers suggests.
- Red Zone. Red Zone is the most intense and heightened zone. It may be that a person in the Red Zone is elated, or terrified, or panicked. “Tools for the Red Zone help us gain a sense of control or stay safe and are calming. Deep breathing or physical activity like running or yoga can help,” she suggests.
“We are trying to take the good and bad out of this and to help teach them: do you need to regulate that to be successful right now? If I’m angry in the red zone, and I might need a tool. Or maybe not. Maybe I can be safe and manage my angry red zone.”
What does it mean to be regulated?
Though her framing is unique, Kuypers’ Zones of Regulation method pulls theoretical and practical techniques from mindfulness practices and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). To regulate oneself means having the ability to step back from whatever emotion you’re experiencing, identify it, and manage it as needed. Any caregiver knows that expecting a very young child to regulate themselves, though, is an exercise in total futility. That’s where co-regulation — i.e. the caregiver’s role — comes into play. The Zones of Regulation can be thought of as a “language bridge” between a child and a caregiver, particularly when the child is too young to name their feelings.
“Co-regulation is the foundation for self-regulation. Our kids don’t have all the tools yet, they don’t have what we call metacognition — the higher-level thinking — to be able to problem-solve and talk themselves through situations,” Kuypers says. “A caregiver noticing how they are feeling, and then socially supporting them through that, is co-regulating.”
Co-regulation may sound like a tall order, and in a sense it is. But you do not have to always be calm in order to co-regulate, Kuyper stresses. Modeling healthy self-regulation may be as simple as naming your feelings aloud and showing or narrating how you manage them.
How do you explain Zones of Regulation to kids?
Introducing the idea of these four colorful zones of regulation to kids will depend a lot on their ages. Some kids — like my preschooler — are encountering them at school, and your role as the caregiver will simply be to know what they mean when they say “I’m in the red zone, can you help me?” Or if your child is very little, and you’re interested in using the Zones of Regulation to help them begin the process of learning self-regulation, introducing the zones may be as basic as using them yourself and modeling healthy emotional management techniques. For example, Kuypers shares that “sometimes I have to say to my kids, ‘mommy is so close to the red zone right now. I need to take a break to take care of myself.’”
For children under the age of 4, though, it’s important to have realistic expectations about what their ability to name and manage emotions really is. “Their frontal lobe has not developed like a 7-year-old,” Kuypers reminds. However, it’s never too early to begin to talk about feelings, to name them, and to use the four Zones as a way of talking about feelings without judgement.
“An easy way to do it is to have simple visuals in your house of common feelings — like three feelings per zone in simple, kid-friendly language for younger learners,” Kuyper suggests. “And then you can self-model. ‘Mommy’s feeling tired in the blue. Or, ‘Daddy’s so silly in the yellow zone.’” As you model and name these feelings, you can always reference the visuals, which can be as simple as a colorful piece of paper on the wall with a few feelings words on it.
If you do take this approach, Kuypers reminds that it’s important to really model all feelings, and all Zones, in ways don’t attach any shame or judgment to any particular Zone. Rather, her hope is that the Zones help children learn that it is healthy to have a lot of feelings. “You might say, for example, ‘Mommy’s feeling so stressed because there’s a lot of traffic and we’re going to be late. So, I’m going take some deep breaths to help me take care of my yellow zone.’” When adults self-regulate, it’s often subconscious, she says. If parents want to use the Zones with their children and model behaviors around them, we need to make an effort to narrate what we’re doing. “What the Zones does is give us a language and a system to help make that self-regulation more conscious or apparent.”
Do the Zones of Regulation work?
Since her book was published in 2011, Kuypers says that the Zones have been the focus of quite a lot of study. They are also based on evidence-based practices, like CBT. Currently, she and her team are working with the University of Minnesota, Emerson and the University of Colorado on various studies looking at the Zones and their efficacy, and they track active and published studies on their website.
The bottom line for families and caregivers is that the Zones of Regulation are a way — not necessarily the only way — to help children (and the adults that care for them) name and manage feelings big and small. Self-regulation is a goal and a skill that is surely never fully mastered but is, instead, a lifelong practice. And it’s never too early to begin.
Hofmann, S., Asmundson, G., (2013) The Science of Cognitive Therapy. Behavior Therapy, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/
Leah Kuypers, O.T., Creator and Founder & CEO, The Zones of Regulation, Inc.