What to Know Before We Teach Children Self-Regulation Skills

*Updated 5/2023

What’s the best way to teach children how to regulate their own emotions and behavior? Occupational therapist and educator Leah Kuypers devised one approach, The Zones of Regulation, which has gained international popularity. “The Zones” is a groundbreaking cognitive-behavioral approach that helps adults teach children about self-regulation, which includes self-discipline, emotional control, anger management, and the ability to control one’s behaviors.  Kuypers’s program suggests colors to help children identify their different levels of arousal: green for calm, yellow for stress or frustration, red for high alertness or moving too fast, and blue to indicate low arousal levels.

Kuypers developed her program while working at schools and witnessing the limitations of simple behavior management techniques for special needs students.

I believe The Zones are most effective when we have an understanding of the pre-requisite for a child’s ability to self-regulate. Before they can build the capacity for self-regulation, children need to have sustained experiences of emotional co-regulation with a caring adult or adults.

Programs that simply teach children about regulation often assume that a child already possesses this foundation of social and emotional development. But social-emotional development can’t be taught. Children must first experience it through caring, attuned relationships with adults.

This is especially true for children with a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACES), foster children, and neurodivergent children—including those on the autism spectrum, and children who experience high levels of anxiety.  These children have more vulnerable nervous systems for a variety of reasons.

When we attempt to teach self-regulation skills without evaluating a child’s co-regulation history, we risk asking too much of them too soon. Many children simply lack the neurodevelopmental foundation upon which successful self-regulation is built.  Asking them to self-regulate is like expecting a teenager drive a car without any driver-training classes.

Programs aiming to teach self-regulation should emphasize that emotional co-regulation is a pre-requisite to successful self-regulation. Doing so helps teachers and providers to understand that what prepares children to self-regulate isn’t just the skills we teach but how we are with children.  These programs should teach adults about the “therapeutic use of self, ” which leads to emotional co-regulation, setting a firm and lasting foundation for a child’s self-regulation.  In short, human beings need to feel socially engaged and safe in order to learn.

If vulnerable children haven’t experienced the warmth of co-regulation, our efforts to teach them self-regulation will inevitably fall short. These children simply don’t have the neural architecture in place; they need safe, emotionally attuned relationships to build it. When adults don’t appreciate their role as emotional co-regulators, we are missing the bigger developmental picture.

On a related note, The Zones was not designed as a tool for behavior management, yet many teachers mistakenly use it this way. While Kuypers does not recommend associating penalties with the zones, teachers often ask students who misbehave to “change their color” on a classroom chart. This approach may provoke certain vulnerable children to associate the colors with misbehavior instead of merely using the colors to neutrally identify their own internal states.

A child’s brain and body best learn to regulate emotions through loving interactions with adults who notice the child’s emotional state and provide individually attuned interactions to help a child feel better.

The bottom line: before we teach children about self-regulation, they need to experience co-regulation with us. All of us—parents, educators, and providers should build emotional co-regulation into children’s lives with compassion and understanding. It is the foundation that underlies a child’s ability to self-regulate, and provides lifelong benefits for their mental and physical health.

I share more about the new lens for understanding emotional and behavioral challenges in my books Brain-Body Parenting and Beyond Behaviors.

We also have a supportive online community, the Brain-Body Parenting Collective where we support each other and learn together.

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