Helping Children Understand and Process Emotions

By: Laura Van Zandt, OTR/L

One of my favorite resources as a pediatric occupational therapist to help kids begin to understand and process emotions as well as come up with strategies for self-regulation is the Zones of Regulation curriculum developed by Leah Kuypers. The Zones of Regulation helps teach kids how to self-regulate and deal with everyday strong emotions or unexpected emotions for different social environments.

zones-of-regulation

The zones can be compared to traffic signs. When we see a green light, one is ‘good to go’ and can keep proceeding forward without making any changes. A yellow light, on the other hand, means to be aware or take caution. Sometimes we can keep going and other times we need to make a change. A red light (or stop sign) means stop. Often the behavior we are demonstrating is unexpected. The blue zone is most often compared to the rest area sign where you go to rest or re-energize.

 

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Photo by Christine Carroll

When teaching children to begin using the Zones of Regulation, I tend to follow three stages of learning.

  • In stage one, the child learns how to identify the terminology and sort emotions according to the physiological features of each specific zones
    • Examples:
    • Frowning, yawning, crying = blue;
    • Happy, calm, focused= green
    • Upset, butterflies in stomach, Heart beating fast = yellow;
    • Yelling, body feels tenses = red).
    • In this stage, there is a lot of detective work and identifying features of body language. I like to use a variety of pictures, books, and movie clips when possible to help during stage one.
  • In stage two, children start to learn strategies to adjust their zone and help them manage their internal emotional feelings. Children learn a variety of sensory motor strategies (e.g. swinging, taking deep breaths, walking, squeezing something) as well as cognitive behavioral strategies (e.g. expected versus unexpected, size of the problem, inner critic versus inner coach, stop/opt/go).
  • In stage three, children are more independent and are beginning to select appropriate tools to help with self-regulation. Depending on the child’s age, supports might still be in place such as visuals for choosing appropriate tools.

It is important to remember that ALL of the zones are expected to occur at one time or another. At some point we may feel tired in the Blue Zone, calm in the Green Zone, worried in the Yellow Zone, and possibly furious or elated in the Red Zone.

The Zones of Regulation focuses on teaching children how to manage their zone based on the environment and the people around them. The Zones of Regulation was designed to support people in managing all the feelings they experience, without passing judgment on what people are feeling or how they are behaving.

Leah suggests four main points to keep in mind with beginning to use the Zones of Regulation with any child:

  1. It is natural to experience all of the Zones; there is no bad zone.
  2. Our Zone is defined by the feelings and internal states we experience on the inside.
  3. Our behavior is a byproduct of how we manage our Zone; therefore, consequences should not be tied to a Zone.
  4. The context we are in helps us figure out how to manage our Zone so our behavior meets the demands of the social environment, and in doing so we are able to achieve the tasks we are trying to accomplish and/or the social goals we’ve set for ourselves in that situation.

Here are some additional tips to help kids develop their emotional intelligence and emotional self-regulation:

  1. Provide as much stability and consistency as possible. Consistent limit-setting, clear household rules, and predictable routines help children know what to expect. This is turns help them feel calmer and more secure.
  2. Model, model, model. We cannot do this enough. How we react and deal with emotions will establish the foundation for how those around us will also respond. We usually don’t have a choice in what we feel, but we always have a choice about how we choose to act regarding our feelings. Children learn from us. When we yell, they learn to yell. If we remain calm and speak respectfully, they learn to do the same. Every time you model in front of your child how to respond to an emotion, your child is learning.
  3. Connect. Spend time everyday unplugging and connecting with your child. Young children first learn how to regulate by being soothed by their parents. When you notice your child getting dysregulated, the most important thing you can do is try to reconnect.
  4. Name it and Accept It. Calling attention to your child’s feelings helps them understand what is going on inside them and learn that it isn’t okay to feel different emotions. Your child will know that someone understands, which might make him or her feel a little better.

The Zones of Regulation was designed to be used with students in early elementary through adulthood. Where relevant, the curriculum offers activities within the lesson plans for younger students. The Zones of Regulation was turned into a curriculum and published by Social Thinking in 2011, titled The Zones of Regulation: A Curriculum Designed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control. Since that time Leah Kuypers has expanded it into two apps, The Zones of Regulation and The Zones of Regulation: Exploring Emotions.

To learn more about Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley’s occupational therapy services visit: http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html. 

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