Zones of Regulation

What is the Zones of Regulation?
Zones of regulations is a social thinking and social skills curriculum that helps children to achieve an optimal state of alertness for the activity that they are partaking in. The Zones concept helps children to categorise their emotions into four coloured categories (blue, green, yellow and red), this helps to open a channel of communication and self-reflection that children often find difficult.

How will the program help my family?

With the Zones of regulation, families and their children are encouraged to learn how to:

  • Self-regulate their body through identifying and understanding their feelings
  • Identify their physical characteristics associated with their feelings and when to implement calming or alerting strategies/tools
  • Identify triggers that cause children to feel unregulated
  • Manage their sensory needs
  • Utilise social thinking strategies within the moment that will assist with problem solving conflicts

What are the 4 main coloured Zones?
Blue Zone
Described as a low state of alertness.
Children in this Zone may be described as tired, sick, bored or sad.

Green Zones
Described as the ideal state of alertness which assists with learning, communication and appropriate interactions with family and friends.
Children in this Zone may be described as calm, happy, focused, feeling okay, ready to learn and content.

Yellow Zone
Described as a heightened state of alertness.
This Zones is known as the precursor to the Red Zone, however fleeting, every child enters the yellow zone before progressing to the red zone.
Children in this Zone may experience stress, frustration, anxiety, silliness, nervousness, inattention and worry. Children in this Zone have lost some of their self-control.

Red Zone
Described as an extremely high state of alertness.
Children in this Zone may feel anger, rage, explosive behaviour, grief, terror and panic.
Children will often make red choices (i.e. bad decisions) and choose to hit, push, kick, use mean words, be unable to rationalise and course disruption.
Children in this Zone are known to have lost their self-control entirely.

Why do children loose control of their emotions quickly and why don’t calming down tools work in the Red Zone?

Dr Dan Siegel created a fantastic metaphor for what is going on inside of our brains when we are overwhelmed, in the Red Zone and we ‘flip our lid’ and why it is difficult to use calming down tools at this time. In it’s simplest form, when we are in the Red Zone our emotions override the part in our brain that provides thinking and reasoning.

When holding your hand up as the image shows, your wrist represents the brain stem and spinal cord which transmits signals to the brain, the thumb represents the part of your brain responsible for your memory and spatial navigation (hippocampus), integrating emotions and behaviours (amygdala) regulating your flight, fight or freeze response (limbic system) and your fingers represent the cerebral cortex and 2 middle fingers represent the prefrontal cortex or frontal lobe that integrate thinking and reasoning skills.

When the prefrontal cortex is closely hugging the limbic system (close fingers around thumb) we are regulated and have ability to engage our flexible thinking skills and social thinking skills. However, when our Limbic system that controls our emotions feels threatened or challenged the prefrontal cortex can no longer respond and we ‘flip our lid’ (fingers expose the hippocampus and amygdala) causing our reasoning and thinking skills to no longer be in tune with our emotions and behaviour and our brain being unable to properly integrate and transmit messages causing us to revert back to our primal response of flight, fight or freeze. This is when we see reactions such as hitting, pushing, throwing and becoming recluse that can often feel alarming to onlookers.

When our body is in its flight, fright or freeze mode there is no reasoning and logic, we first need to give our body time to calm down and reduce to the yellow and then the green zone for effective learning about our self-regulation to take place.

Important facts to remember about the Zones

  • There are no bad emotions, it is okay to experience all emotions but we can make red choices (or bad decisions) out of those emotion that can hurt other people and that is not okay. 
  • People do not make us do red actions (or bad things), it is a choice we make
  • For children with fleeting Yellow Zones, we want to try and extend the amount of time the child is in the zone in order to start implementing calming down strategies/tools
  • The Red Zone is not a time for learning. Ideally, children and parents/teachers need to calm back down to the Green Zone before creating a teaching moment
  • Debriefing a situation is imperative, if children cannot identify their feelings, body hints, strategies/tool and what to try the next time, there will be no lesson learnt and no change in behaviour
      • Simple debriefing structure
          • Identify the feeling/zone/body hints
          • Identify why the feeling came about
          • Identify the reaction
          • Identify the strategy/tool that was used and/or what could have been used instead

How can the Zones be implemented in the classroom and at home?

  • Be sure to use a whole class approach or whole family approach when integrating Zones language, this will help to reduce feelings of segregation between students and siblings as well as encouraging helpful skills for all children
  • Use visuals and engaging games to learn and discuss the Zones!
  • Have a tool box of strategies/tools that children can use if they need to self regulate
  • Have tool/strategy practice times throughout the week where the child can practice using calming down tools when calm
  • Keep in mind that you may need to introduce additional movement or heavy work activities to a child’s daily routine or other sensory interventions in order to help your students/child self regulate themselves
  • Use the Zones language whenever you can! It is invaluable when parents and teachers model the use of the Zones and calming tools, i.e. I am feeling like I am in the red Zone and your body is telling me you are in the Red Zone too, we need some timeout before we continue this conversation. When we are back in the Green Zone we can try chatting again. 

Activities and resources that can be utilised be parents and teachers to implement the Zones of Regulation

  • These emotion balls are great for engaging kids that don’t ordinarily like talking about their feelings as it gives them an activity to focus on whilst talking as well as helping to keep their body regulated through big movements. You can use the balls to play games such as:
        • Every time the ball touches the ground or you hit a target or you catch it or you shoot a goal you have to talk about a zone associated with the feeling, a time you have had that feeling and a strategy to keep you in the green zone.
        • You can purchase this resource from the Building Blocks Therapy Shop to start using at home or at school
  • Use different zone coloured buckets and get the kids to throw a bean bag into the bucket that they identify with at that moment and then take a card out of that bucket which has a calming down too or alerting tool that they have to complete before moving back into the green zone.
  • Use Zone coloured frog hoppers where the kids jump the frogs onto the zone they are feeling and then take a calming down/alerting activity card
  • Glitter jars of the different zones that kids go and shake if they are in that particular zone and watch the glitter settle until they are focused, calm and ready to return to the group
  • Play a game of twister and each time you put a hand or a foot on a colour talk about a feeling that is in that zone or a story of when you were in that zone and what calming down activity you used or could use
  • Have 4 plates in the zones colours and have a peg with each child’s name on it and get them to move their peg onto the plate that correlates with their feelings and then get them to look at a poster with calming down activities on it that they can use
  • Discuss scenarios or incidences of common conflicts and talk about the zones people might feel in that situation and what they could do to keep regulated
  • There are a number of great books which also help children to understand emotions, normalise children’s feelings and provide some non threatening tips or strategies for self-regulation.

You can discover all the books Building Blocks Therapy has to offer by following the link

If you have any questions regarding the implementation of the Zones of Regulation within a home or school environment please contact your Occupational Therapist through Building Blocks Therapy or alternatively follow the links for additional information and resources.

Michelle Blake

Occupational Therapist


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