Emotional Self Regulation: Techniques for Teaching

October 26, 2023
Text books and pencils in a pencil holder on a desk

What is emotional self regulation?

Emotional self regulation is the ability to monitor and manage our own behavior. With self regulation, we can calm ourselves down when we’re distressed, and pick ourselves up when we’re low. Self-regulation is developmental in nature, just like learning to walk, talk, and read.

How do you teach a student who hasn’t learned emotional self regulation?

Teaching academics is far from easy when a student hasn’t learned how to manage stressors or emotions.

In this interview, I talk with occupational therapist Leah Kuypers about the program she created to teach kids self-regulation skills.

Why Leah teaches self regulation strategies

When Leah started working with students in public schools, she felt driven to provide kids with more support. A trained occupational therapist, she had no shortage of skills to address students’ sensory regulation challenges, but she felt something was missing when it came to addressing students’ behavioral challenges.

Whether students were struggling with anxiety, ADHD, ASD, or another condition, they often couldn’t focus on learning because they had little ability to manage their emotions.

“I was watching a student explode because they missed the first five minutes of math,” Leah says, “and the teacher’s looking at me like, ‘Well now what do we do?’ and I’m looking at the teacher thinking the same thing, and I realized that there were a lot of us looking at each other really unsure how to support these kids when they had these big emotional experiences that often manifested themselves with disruptive behavior.”

What often resulted from these outbursts was not uncommon, but ultimately unproductive. Students were given negative consequences such as no recess or being removed from the classroom.

The expectation was that the students would learn a lesson.

But as many educators do, Leah saw time and time again that punishment does not often teach.

It usually just hurts.

It perpetuates.

And then crises repeat.

So Leah felt impassioned to help students develop more adaptive, prosocial behavior. Ideas started flowing as she began graduate classes and explored social learning, executive functioning, and emotional regulation in children.

As she began putting practices into place with students, her colleagues started getting excited by what they were seeing. Students were engaged in learning. Leah kept pursuing as much continuing ed as she could and applied what she learned to her caseload.

When she got her master’s in education, her culminating capstone became The Zones of Regulation curriculum.

What many people don’t know about self-regulation and emotional control

Just like learning to walk and learning to read, self-regulation is developmental in nature, Leah says.

“All too often, our approach for a child with lagging skills in self-regulation is a more disciplinary model—where we would never take that approach with a kid who has a motor impairment or a reading delay.”

So to support a child who has self-regulation delays, we need to meet them with an empathetic mindset and skill-building so they can be more adaptive and functional.

zones of regulation poster

The Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation is a systematic framework that gives kids ways to categorize how they’re feeling. The colors blue, green, yellow, and red represent four zones that students can identify with.

Rest, go, slow, stop zones of regulation

  • Blue zone
    Sad, sick, tired, bored. “Down” emotions.
  • Green zone
    Neutral emotions, organized states. Calm, focused, happy, OK.
  • Yellow zone
    Intensified emotions with cognitive control. Frustrated, silly, excited, wiggly, agitated, sensory overwhelmed, nervous, embarrassed.
  • Red zone
    Intense emotions that overwhelm. Panicked, enraged, elated, crying, screaming.

“We’re taking a rather abstract—this emotional world we live in—[concept] and putting it into four categories or zones that allow students to cognitively be able to conceptualize easier, ‘How am I feeling?’” Leah says.

“And once they get that general zone, they have a bank of emotions that fall into each of the four zones, so they’re building that awareness of where they’re at, we’re giving them a very visual structure to use to support that, as well as a very easy way to communicate it—with the caregiver, with the teacher, which will assist in that co-regulation between student and caregiver.”

And as students build awareness of their emotions, Leah’s system gives them matching tools for each of the four-colored zones. Similar to CPI’s Crisis Development ModelSM, which helps staff identify four behavior levels and corresponding responses, the Zones system helps students identify how they feel and what to do.

Teaching self-regulation in the classroom and beyond

The first step is teaching students that it’s OK to feel the way they feel.

“It’s natural to experience emotions,” Leah says. “But we don’t have to be at their mercy.”

Leah advocates teaching students to read their bodies’ signals, asking themselves:

  • What are the cues my body gives me?
  • Are my muscles tighter?
  • What’s going through my mind?
  • Has my voice volume or rate of speech changed?

Once a student can identify physiological cues, they can start to identify their triggers, and apply tools for managing each zone.

Sunny classroom with teacher standing in front of seated students

Photo: BraunS / iStock

Collaborating across disciplines

It’s important for everyone to work together to teach self-regulation, Leah emphasizes. This includes all the key players in a student’s life, including:

  • Teachers
  • Caregivers
  • Administrators
  • OTs
  • SLPs
  • Social workers
  • Guidance counselors
  • Aides and paraprofessionals
  • Mental health professionals

And others.

“Working in collaboration,” Leah explains, “It’s profound for the student to be able to move between contexts and environments and amongst different people supporting them, and hear the same language, that the visuals are there, that the environment is embracing them and setting them up for success as they travel between the cafeteria and the classroom and their specialist and their resource rooms.”

Blending the Zones with core curriculum

If you’re a classroom teacher, you might wonder how to teach the Zones when you have so much else to focus on.

Formal instruction in the Zones can be pretty light, Leah indicates—and most importantly, it can be wrapped together with other academic lessons and other teaching tools.

Try formally teaching the Zones in a morning meeting or for 20 minutes every couple weeks. And build the framework into your daily classroom by:

  • Using visual supports
  • Weaving the terms into everyday conversation (“I’m feeling in the yellow zone.”)
  • Modeling the language as the adult to set the tone (“Sometimes my teacher is tired in the blue zone or stressed in the yellow zone.”)
  • Infusing the Zones into core curriculum classroom work. For instance, during read-aloud time, have kids identify what zone a character is in. What tools could help the character manage their zones?

Leah also has strategies for incorporating the Zones into science, math, writing, and other lessons for different age groups, in both regular and special ed.

Learn more

About the author

Leah Kuypers earned a bachelor of science in occupational therapy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a graduate certificate in autism, and a master of arts in education from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She has practiced as an OT/autism specialist in school and clinical settings, specializing in self-regulation and social learning, and has worked with students of all ages and challenges, including anxiety, ADHD, and ASD.

Leah created The Zones of Regulation®, a framework designed to teach self-regulation, and is author of the book and two apps by same name (2011, Social Thinking Publishing; 2013, 2016 Selosoft, Inc). In addition to working with students, she provides trainings and consultation to parents and professionals on self-regulation and challenging behavior, as well as conducts workshops on the Zones to groups across North America. Leah lives in Minneapolis with her husband, son, daughter, and dog. She enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and most anything outdoors.

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