If you’ve been around CI for any length of time, you’ve probably heard phrases like “Looks like your body is in the yellow zone!”

Or, “You are feeling sad, you’re in the blue zone!” Or “What tool could you use to help your body get back into the green zone?”

If you’re confused by these color-coded conversations, then this blog post is for you.

All of these refer to The Zones of Regulation, a curriculum designed by occupational therapist Leah M. Kuypers, MA Ed. OTR/L to help kids (and grown-ups too) with – you guessed it – self-regulation.

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation might be better understood by listing some of the other names for it: self-control, impulse control, or anger management, to name a few.

It is essentially the ability to modulate one’s emotions, reactions, or impulses in a way that best fits a specific situation.

For example, the person who is able to regulate their emotions is much more likely to persevere through a frustrating or challenging situation than the person whose emotional reactions get in the way of accomplishing the goal.

Self-regulation isn’t about sheer willpower or desire; if that were the case, most of us would be able to self-regulate most of the time. The Zones program is designed to help those who struggle with self-regulation due to executive functioning, sensory processing, or emotional regulation challenges, or perhaps some combination of all three. It’s also a good way for just about anyone to understand their state of emotional arousal and its appropriateness for a given situation.

Now that we know what the Zones curriculum is designed to do, let’s take a look at how it puts the abstract concept of self-regulation into a concrete framework. The Zones of Regulation puts states of alertness and emotions into four different colored zones:

The Four Zones

The Blue Zone describes low states of arousal. For example, a person is considered to be in the Blue Zone when they’re bored, sad, or sick, to name a few. One’s body and/or brain is feeling sluggish in this Zone.

The Green Zone is used to describe when one is well-regulated, alert, and ready to participate. Calm, focused, happy, and content are some of the associated Green Zone emotions. This Zone is appropropriate for most school, work, and social situations. This is also the Zone that can be the most difficult for those with self-regulation challenges to attain.

The Yellow Zone describes a heightened state of arousal. One’s brain and/or body are on “high alert.” Some Yellow Zone emotions might be anxious, excited, stressed, silly, or frustrated. The Yellow Zone signals the beginnings of a loss of control over one’s body or emotions.

The Red Zone is a state of extreme dysregulation. This is where a person actually loses control of their brain and body; nuclear meltdowns, tantrums, and panic are some behaviors that describe this Zone. Associated emotions include terror, rage, anger, or elation.

The Zones in Action

Besides helping kids identify and describe their state of alertness, the Zones curriculum also provides tools and strategies to help kids get from a mismatched Zone to one that more closely fits the situation. Sensory regulation tools, calming techniques, and cognitive strategies are combined to help kids achieve the appropriate level of regulation for the context.

Finally, it should be emphasized that ALL the Zones are expected sometimes. There are no “good” or “bad” Zones, only expected or unexpected depending on the situation. This is important, as sometimes well-meaning teachers, parents, or other adults describe the Green Zone as the only “good” Zone. Every Zone has its time and place. The Zones curriculum isn’t about stifling emotions. Rather, it’s about learning to acknowledge those emotions, deciding if they’re an impediment to success in a given situation, then using tools to achieve a state of regulation most appropriate to that situation.

For more information about The Zones of Regulation, visit the curriculum website or ask your child’s therapist.

Written By:
Bill Guetschow, COTA/L
Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant