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July 13, 2022

How Do the Zones of Emotional Regulation Help Children Control Their Emotions?

The Zones of Regulation is a concept used to teach children strategies for emotional and sensory regulation. Here’s what you should know. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Emotional regulation is a skill.
  • Teaching emotional regulation in childhood can help your child learn to manage their emotions and resulting behaviors.
  • Children will try to self-soothe on their own, but it can result in “problem behaviors” such as tantrums or headbanging if they don’t have the appropriate coping skills.
  • It’s natural for children to move through different emotional zones; we all do this.
  • While the Zones of Regulation emphasize viewing zones with neutrality, meaning there are no good or bad zones, the idea is to stay in the Green Zone as much as possible.
  • Occupational therapy can help your child develop emotional and sensory regulation skills and teach you strategies to use with them to further their skills at home.

Learning how to manage emotions, also known as emotional regulation, is a skill. It’s often taught in childhood. You may notice your child engaging in rocking, thumb sucking, or “stimming” behaviors such as arm flapping or twirling when they’re very emotional. These behaviors are done in an attempt to self-soothe and regulate their emotions.

Sometimes, the behaviors children use to self-soothe, such as headbanging, can be harmful. Teaching children emotional and sensory regulation at a young age can help them learn to manage their emotions in a healthier way, and teach them frustration management.

The Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation is a framework and curriculum that helps teach children emotional and sensory regulation strategies. It often uses play and games. Children have a natural inclination toward play, so play is one of the best ways to foster teachable moments with them.

The Zones of Regulation was created by occupational therapist Leah Kuypers. The Zones of Regulation can help children:

  • Regulate their bodies and emotions
  • Improve impulse control
  • Increase body awareness
  • Help them learn to focus their attention

It does this by incorporating Social Thinking® concepts and visuals. These concepts and visuals help children learn to identify their feelings, and how their emotions can affect their behavior or the ways they react in different situations.

Understanding the 4 main zones 

There are four main zones identified by color. The idea is that the zones are neutral, meaning there are no good or bad zones. Each zone is associated with a set of feelings and behaviors. The four main zones are:

  • Blue: The blue zone is associated with “feeling blue,” literally. Children in this zone may be feeling sick, tired, sad, or bored, and experience a depressed mood and low levels of alertness or awareness.
  • Green: The Green Zone is associated with feeling calm, happy, focused, positive, proud, and/or content. A child reflects these feelings by being able to focus and display good decision-making skills. This is the ideal zone for healthy emotional and sensory regulation.
  • Yellow: The Yellow Zone is a warning zone. This is when you can watch for signs and symptoms of a child being triggered such as breathing faster, pacing, or balling up their fists. Associated feelings include excitement, frustration, anger, or being silly – essentially any really strong emotion that may dysregulate them.
  • Red: If your child is in the Red Zone, they’ll likely have difficulty making healthy decisions because they may feel overwhelmed, out of control, or angry. The Red Zone is the “emergency zone.”

Note that it’s not what triggers the emotions that cause the child to enter one zone or another; it’s how they experience the event and the emotions resulting from it. It’s normal for a child to move through zones in congruence with their moods. It’s unrealistic to expect them to stay in a state of constant regulation; most adults aren’t even capable of that. However, the goal is to help them stay in the Green Zone as much as possible.

Why are emotional and sensory regulation important? 

Children without emotional and sensory regulation skills typically do worse than their peers in academic and community settings. Learning emotional and sensory regulation can help improve the intensity and frequency of problem behaviors. This can help children improve their functioning at both home and school, and even help them develop social skills so they can make and keep friends.

Coping strategies

Emotional and sensory regulation rely heavily on learning appropriate coping strategies. Some of the coping skills that can be taught are:

  • Visualization
  • Deep breathing
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Sensory strategies
  • Physical activity

You can certainly practice teaching your child these skills on your own, but occupational therapy may be helpful. In addition to Occupational Therapy, Social Work services can work on emotional regulation skills, nervous system regulation, and further exploring underlying stressors.

How can occupational therapy help?

Occupational therapy can help teach your child to self-regulate, as well as teach you strategies to use at home. Many times, difficulty with emotional regulation is seen as problem behavior. Occupational therapists and social workers help your child learn the skills they need to improve their functionality – this includes managing emotions and their resulting behaviors, and sensory regulation. Kids can benefit from having professional help in teaching them how to navigate their Zones of Regulation.

Get support from a qualified occupational therapist in the Chicago, IL area

Realizing your child is struggling with emotional regulation can be challenging – for both you as a parent and your child. However, rest assured that this is a skill, and with practice, your child can improve.

If your child is struggling with delays, you can help him or her improve at Lumiere Children’s Therapy. We offer full-service pediatric occupational therapy, among other pediatric therapy and supportive services, so your child can be as independent as possible.

We help kids develop form and functionality so they can complete tasks on their own. We help with:

  • Motor planning
  • Gross motor and fine motor delays
  • Body awareness
  • Coordination skills
  • Functional skills, such as stairs
  • Daily self-care skills
  • Handwriting
  • Visual motor integration
  • Visual perceptual skills
  • Feeding
  • Social and peer interaction skills
  • Sensory processing
  • Strength and coordination
  • Early development with infants
  • Sensory processing

We can help children with specialized diagnoses, such as:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Developmental delays
  • Prematurity
  • Fine motor delays
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Down syndrome
  • Learning delays
  • Visual processing disorders
  • Motor incoordination
  • Chromosomal abnormalities

Lumiere Children’s Therapy also provides a host of other pediatric therapies to help children with a wide range of physical, emotional, and developmental conditions achieve traditional childhood milestones.

Our services include:

  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Developmental therapy
  • Social work
  • Early intervention
  • Augmentative alternative communication
  • Teletherapy
  • ABA therapy

Lumiere Children’s Therapy is a full-service pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago. We focus on providing services catered to the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Be sure to learn more about how our clinicians work diligently to improve the lives of the children and families they serve.

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