Well-intended advice, like “calm down,“ “take a breath,” or “pay attention,” is often not enough. Many children and adults need support and specific tools for regulating their emotions, impulses, and sensory needs. Those who are unable to control their internal state and/or behaviors often experience negative reactions in social situations and may be labeled non-compliant, disruptive, hyper, anxious, inflexible, or lazy.
Being able to manage emotions in social situations (i.e., social regulation) may seem simple, but it is vast and complex. Often, challenging behaviors stem from an inability to navigate the social situation and cope in adaptive ways when faced with a stressor that outstrips one’s capacity. The ability to adapt and self-regulate requires a host of neurologically rooted skills including the following:
- Sensory processing/integration
- Awareness of one’s own emotions
- Executive functioning
- Language processing
- Pragmatic language
- Joint Attention
- Perspective taking
When a person is struggling with social regulation, it is essential to understand the underlying causes in order to best support that person. If a child is wiggly and leaning on her peers during reading time, the underlying reason might be that she is having trouble with language processing and not understanding what is being said, which causes her to find other things to occupy her mind. Or, it could be that she is struggling with sensory processing and needs physical/proprioceptive input to regulate herself. It’s important for parents and/or professionals to look carefully at what might be causing the challenges.
After determining the root of the challenges and building awareness and needed accommodations in various environments, it may also be helpful to provide direct support. One of the curricula that we regard highly when working on social regulation is The Zones of Regulation® (Zones), which was created by Leah Kuypers, a former therapist at Communication Works (CW). The Zones is a curriculum/framework that addresses underlying deficits in the skill areas listed above. Lessons increase awareness of emotions in oneself and others and teach clients to recognize when they are moving towards a less-regulated state or emotion. Zones’ lessons help bring awareness of physiological states within our body and mind and an understanding of what triggers those feelings in day-to-day life. Additionally, the Zones integrates Social Thinking ® lessons to help clients understand how our behavior affects others and how actions impact outcomes. Tools and strategies are developed to modify one’s zone and regulate to meet the demands of various social situations.
The Zones uses a systematic, cognitive-behavior approach to teaching self-regulation by categorizing the different ways we feel and our states of alertness into four well-defined zones.
The Blue Zone describes low levels of alertness or states/emotions, such as when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.
The Green Zone describes a neutral or calm state of alertness. A person may be happy, focused, content, and/or ready to learn when in the Green Zone. This is the most desirable zone for classroom success and learning.
The Yellow Zone describes slightly heightened states of alertness and elevated emotions; however, one has some control while in the Yellow Zone. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, or silliness when in the Yellow Zone.
The Red Zone describes extremely heightened states of alertness and intense emotion. A person may be extremely happy/elated or experiencing anger, rage, devastation, or terror when in the Red Zone.
Along with explaining the four zones, the curriculum includes activities such as playing charades, watching video clips, making magazine collages, exploring characters’ social cues in children’s literature, and participating in Zones Bingo. Strategies for learning include role-playing, video modeling, self-monitoring, and the use of visual supports to increase awareness of emotions in self and others. Other lessons help graph a client’s zones (his or her feelings and states) over the course of a day. Using this graph, the client can reflect on how being in different zones may have influenced the way others think or feel about him/her. This activity also examines how a person’s ability to regulate affects their day and when/where a tool could have helped with regulation. Reviewing these graphs and brainstorming with the client and team can help them learn to identify the triggers that lead to unexpected zones and to use caution and turn to a tool for help when these triggers occur.
Various tools make up an important part of the curriculum. Students explore different strategies and techniques to help themselves calm down, perk up, or change their emotion/feeling/state to match the demands of the situation in an expected way. Specific tools include breathing strategies such as Lazy 8 Breaths, the 6 Sides of Breathing, Inner Critic vs. Inner Coach (understanding and modifying self-talk), and Stop, Opt & GO (a thinking and visual support that helps student stop and think before they act). These approaches not only increase awareness of emotional and physical states, but also teach problem solving, impulse control, and thinking/planning ahead to predict and support positive outcomes.
Also interwoven in the curriculum are lessons from Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking ®. This part of the program provides a deeper understanding of hidden social rules, what is (and isn’t) expected behavior in various situations, and how one’s own behavior impacts the thoughts of others and the situation at hand. Understanding how to manage one’s zone/emotion/state when sharing space with others and caring about their comfort level (i.e., perspective taking) is what we refer to as social regulation and is a foundational step for meeting social demands and becoming more socially successful.
Kuypers explains in her teachings about The Zones that we all experience all of the zones at various times in our lives, and sometimes in the course of a single day. That is natural! Also, there is not a “bad zone” or “good zone.” It is unexpected for someone to always be in the Green Zone, and this is not the goal of the curriculum. The Red Zone is not the “bad” zone; for example, if someone won the lottery, they would most likely be in the Red Zone feeling elated or ecstatic and this behavior may be described as out of control, as would be expected. Rewards and punishments for being in a particular zone is not the intent of this framework. The Zones curriculum is meant to provide a simple way to define emotional states, develop skills for self-control, and foster self-regulation in a supportive and nurturing manner. It is not meant to be a discipline model or used to punish or shame people for unexpected behavior.
The Zones has specific, unique lessons, but it can also be used as a framework in conjunction with other curricula, strategies, and resources to improve social regulation. For example, I have found it extremely helpful to implement mindfulness when using The Zones. When thinking about mindfulness as being able to pay attention on purpose with curiosity and without judgment, this practice is critical when using The Zones. If clients struggle to understand what is going on in the present moment (within their own mind and body or in the social situation at hand), they will likewise struggle with managing their emotions and knowing what is expected of them and which tools might help. Important goals include learning to identify thoughts and feelings in the mind and body, knowing what zone you are in, and understanding how to manage your zone given the social context.
The Zones is not meant to be a self-contained curriculum. Some examples of other curricula that we use in conjunction with The Zones to increase emotional awareness are Kimochis; The Incredible 5 Point Scale, Buron and Curtis, 2004; Emotional ABCs by emotionalabc.com; and Hunter and His Amazing Remote Control, Copeland, 1998. Think Social Publishing provides many other wonderful concepts, frameworks, and curricula that can also be used (e.g., You Are a Social Detective, Winners and Crooke, 2010; What is a Thought, Kahofer and Pransky, 2011; and Whole Body Listening Larry at School/Home, Sautter and Wilson, 2011). My most recent book, Make Social Learning Stick (Sautter, 2014) is specifically for parents (who can’t be overlooked) with the goal of supporting a child’s social regulation in everyday situations. It consists of simple, practical suggestions for infusing social/emotional learning strategies into daily routines such as getting ready for school, preparing dinner, celebrating holidays, etc. I think of it as a “social learning diet” for everyday life to show parents that we can take any situation and make it teachable. Leah Kuypers and other leading experts such as Michelle Garcia Winner, Sarah Ward and Kari Dunn Buron contributed suggestions.
All people are different and need to be seen and treated as unique individuals. Once a deeper look is taken and the root of the social regulation challenge and presenting needs are identified, intervention and training can help in important ways. Supporting our clients to become effective social regulators creates significant positive change, allowing children to enjoy playing with friends, adolescents to successfully navigate peer and academic stressors, and adults to maintain jobs and lasting relationships.
Learn more about The Zones in our upcoming workshop, Zones of Regulation: Strategies to Foster Self-Regulation on Dec. 5th, presented by the creator, Leah Kuypers. It’s a chance to get first-hand insights into implementing the curriculum, the teachings she’s developed for a supporting app, The Zones of Regulation App (Kuypers, 2013), as well as other exciting games and tools in the works that address the development of social regulation. Register for the workshop on our website: www.cwtherapy.com
Buron, K.D. & Curtis, M. (2004). The Incredible 5 Point Scale. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Greene, R. (2010). The Explosive Child. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Kuypers, L. (2011). The Zones of Regulation®: A Curriculum Designed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing.
Sautter, E. (2014). Make Social Learning Stick. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Sautter, E. & Wilson, K. (2011). Whole Body Listening Larry at School. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing.
Winner, M.G. & Crooke, P. (2008). You are a Social