Picture this — Johnny is a second-grade student whose pencil just broke during math class. Some kids would react to this situation with little to no distress, getting up to sharpen their pencil before resuming their classwork. After hearing the snap of his pencil breaking, Johnny immediately begins crying hysterically and throws himself on the classroom floor. For a child who struggles with self-regulation, a broken pencil can trigger a huge meltdown as this seemingly insignificant event overwhelms him. An emotionally regulated child can adjust to the demands of an environment, a change in routine, and the roller coaster of emotions they may experience throughout the day. A child who struggles with emotional regulation cannot do these things. In fact, daily life tasks feel enormous.
Does this sound familiar? Do you have a child who is easily triggered and ends up in tears or even worse, screams, because their banana broke? Their cereal spilled? Or their backpack just isn’t zippering today?
Many parents come to us with the complaint that “my child has behavioral challenges” when this is a myriad of executive functioning skills that we need to identify and develop. We share with our parents, “No child wakes up each morning thinking, Today, I’m gonna be behavioral!” There is a deficit of skill(s) that we build to help our children to be able to handle life’s daily routine changes and mishaps.
What Is Self-Regulation?
In a recent article published by the Child Mind Institute, self-regulation is defined as “the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation.” The article continues to share that self-regulation “is a set of skills that enables children, as they mature, to direct their own behavior towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings.” Instead of requiring an outside source of regulation, such as the prompting of a teacher or parent, a child who can self-regulate has enough self-awareness to utilize coping skills and appropriate problem solving techniques when they need them.
Who Needs Help with Self-Regulation?
Children with ADD/ADHD, anxiety, Autism spectrum disorders, Sensory processing disorders, trauma and more are more likely to struggle with self-regulation. There are also many children who may not face any of these challenges and still have a difficult time gaining control over their emotions. Learning and practicing different coping skills, as well as the importance of appropriately expressing emotions, helps these children with their self-regulation skills.
The “Zones of Regulation”
Occupational Therapist, Leah Kuyper, developed a wonderful framework that assists many children and teens with their self-regulation. The Zones of Regulation is a visually-interesting way to break down emotions by organizing them into four different zones, Blue, Green, Yellow and Red.
By discussing with children what the different zones mean, and what they specifically look like and feel like while in each different zone, you are assisting them in being able to identify and process their emotions. The Zones of Regulation can then be utilized to help children identify coping skills that can help them go from one zone to the next. For example, I like to ask children how they can get from the red zone to the yellow zone, or from the blue zone to the green zone.
Let me explain this a little bit – blue is the zone when a child is under-stimulated, lethargic, and just not feeling up to doing anything; green is the zone where you are self-regulated and feeling fine! Yellow where the child is beginning to feel out of control. Red is when you see, well, red! Red is the zone when we see our children screaming, crying, speaking negatively about a situation or themselves, or hitting.
We work with our kids to help them understand how their body feels when they are in each zone. Most importantly, we focus on how our children feel when they are in the yellow zone so that they can bring themselves back down to the green in an effort to avoid the red zone. Physical sensations often include becoming hot, clenching teeth, wanting to cry, stomach pains, feeling lightheaded, etc. These are the signs that the system is going to blow if we don’t back it up. Then, we focus on the things they can do to bring themselves back down to green.
In working with our kids, we realize that they don’t like to be in the red zone. They feel out of control. The goal is to help them realize that they can meet their needs by engaging an adult (parent, teacher, grandparent, etc) and asking/gesturing for what they need instead of yelling, deep breathing, walking away, etc.
Although it’s a fancy term, self-regulation is a complex skill that we can break down using the Zones of Regulation system to help our children to gain awareness of their bodily cues and learn skills to help them feel in control and in the green!