Zones of Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s behaviour, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals. More specifically, emotional self-regulation refers to the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses—in other words, to think before acting.

Self-regulation also involves the ability to rebound from disappointment and to act in a way consistent with your values. It is one of the five key components of emotional intelligence.

Arguably the most important of all classroom skills influenced by the executive functions is the ability to survey a problem situation and determine the strategies needed to address it.
Kaufman, 2010

Self-regulation can play an important role in relationships, well-being, and overall success in life. People who can manage their emotions and control their behaviour are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and achieve their goals.

What is Self-Regulation Theory?

Self-regulation theory (SRT) simply outlines the process and components involved when we decide what to think, feel, say, and do. It is particularly salient in the context of making a healthy choice when we have a strong desire to do the opposite (e.g., refraining from eating an entire pizza just because it tastes good).

According to modern SRT expert Roy Baumeister, there are four components involved (2007):

  1. Standards of desirable behaviour;
  2. Motivation to meet standards;
  3. Monitoring of situations and thoughts that precede breaking standards;
  4. Willpower allows one’s internal strength to control urges.

These four components interact to determine our self-regulatory activity at any given moment. According to SRT, our behaviour is determined by our personal standards of good behaviour, our motivation to meet those standards, the degree to which we are consciously aware of our circumstances and our actions, and the extent of our willpower to resist temptations and choose the best path.

What is Self-Regulated Learning?

Self-regulated learning (SRL) refers to the process a student engages in when she takes responsibility for her own learning and applies herself to academic success (Zimmerman, 2002).

This process happens in three steps:

  1. Planning: The student plans her task, sets goals, outlines strategies to tackle the task, and/or creates a schedule for the task;
  2. Monitoring: In this stage, the student puts her plans into action and closely monitors her performance and her experience with the methods she chose;
  3. Reflection: Finally, after the task is complete and the results are in, the student reflects on how well she did and why she performed the way she did.

When students take initiative and regulate their own learning, they gain deeper insights into how they learn, what works best for them, and, ultimately, they perform at a higher level. This improvement springs from the many opportunities to learn during each phase:

  1. In the planning phase, students have an opportunity to work on their self-assessment and learn how to pick the best strategies for success;
  2. In the monitoring phase, students get experience implementing the strategies they chose and making real-time adjustments to their plans as needed;
  3. In the reflection phase, students synthesize everything they learned and reflect on their experience, learning what works for them and what should be altered or replaced with a new strategy.

Zones of Regulation

Zones of Regulation is a framework used to help students learn how to self-regulate. The Zones of Regulation creates a system to categorise how the body feels and emotions into four coloured Zones with which the students can easily identify.

Blue Zone: Used to describe a low state of alertness. The Blue Zone is used to describe when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.

Green Zone: Used to describe the ideal state of alertness. A person may be described as calm, happy, focused, or content when he or she is in the Green Zone. The student feels a strong sense of internal control when in the Green Zone.

Yellow Zone: Used to describe a heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, or fear when in the Yellow Zone. The student’s energy is elevated yet he or she feels some sense of internal control in the Yellow Zone.

Red Zone: Used to describe an extremely heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, extreme grief, terror, or elation when in the Red Zone and feels a loss of control.

Toolbox: A collection of calming and alerting strategies a student can pull from depending on the present need.
Tools or strategies: Used interchangeably to refer to a calming or alerting technique that aids the student in self-regulation.

Self-regulation and Neurodiversity

One of the hallmarks of ADHD is a limited ability to focus and regulate one’s attention. For example, ADDitude’s Penny Williams describes her 11-year-old son Ricochet’s struggles with ADHD in terms of the struggle to self-regulate:

“At times, he has struggled with identifying his feelings. He is overwhelmed with emotion sometimes, and he has trouble labeling his feelings. You can’t deal with what you can’t define, so this often creates a troublesome situation for him and me. Now that Ricochet is old enough to start regulating his reactions, one of our current behavior goals is identifying, communicating, and regulating feelings and actions.”

Similarly, difficulty with emotional self-regulation is often a part of Autism. Those on the autism spectrum often have trouble identifying their emotions. Even if they are able to identify their emotions, they generally have difficulties with modulating or regulating their emotions.

Difficulty with self-regulation is well-understood as a common part of Autism, but effective methods for teaching skills of self-regulation are unfortunately not as well-known or regularly implemented as one might wish.

You can support the student during this process by doing the following:

  • Use the language and talk about the concepts of The Zones as they apply to you in a variety of environments.
  • Make comments aloud so the student understands it is natural that we all experience the different
    Zones and use strategies to control (or regulate) ourselves. For example, “This is really frustrating me and making me go into the Yellow Zone. I need to use a tool to calm down. I will take some deep breaths.”
  • Help the student gain awareness of his or her Zones and feelings by pointing out your observations.
  • Validate what Zone your students are in and help them brainstorm expected ways to self-regulate so their behaviour is expected for the context.
  • Share with the student how his or her behaviour is affecting the Zone you are in and how you feel.
  • Help the student become comfortable using the language to communicate his or her feelings and needs by encouraging the student to share his or her Zone with you.
  • Show interest in learning about the student’s triggers and Zones tools. Ask the student if he or she wants reminders to use these tools and how you should present these reminders.
  • Ask the student to frequently share his or her Zones Folder with you and talk about what he or she has
  • Make sure to positively reinforce students for recognizing their Zone and managing their behaviours while in it, rather than only pointing out when students are demonstrating unexpected behaviours while in a Zone.

It is important to note that everyone experiences all of the Zones—the Red and Yellow Zones are not the “bad” or “naughty” Zones. All of the Zones are expected at one time or another. The Zones of Regulation is intended to be neutral and not communicate judgment.

Self-Regulation in Early Years+

Here’s a good list of suggestions from Day2Day Parenting for supporting the self-regulation of very young children (e.g., toddlers and preschoolers):

  • Provide a structured and predictable daily routine and schedule;
  • Change the environment by eliminating distractions: turn off the tv, dim lights, or provide a soothing object (like a teddy bear or a photo of the child’s parent[s]) when you sense a child is becoming upset;
  • Roleplay with the child to practice how to act or what to say in certain situations;
  • Teach and talk about feelings and review home/classroom rules regularly;
  • Allow children to let off steam by creating a quiet corner with a small tent or pile of pillows;
  • Encourage pretend play scenarios among preschoolers;
  • Stay calm and firm in your voice and actions even when a child is “out of control”;
  • Anticipate transitions and provide ample warning to the child or use picture schedules or a timer to warn of transitions;
  • Redirect inappropriate words or actions when needed;
  • In the classroom or at playgroups, pair children with limited self-regulatory skills with those who have good self-regulatory skills as a peer model;
  • Take a break yourself when needed, as children with limited self-regulatory skills can test an adult’s patience (Thrive Place, 2013).
Activities and Games for Children+

You can also use games and activities to help young children build their self-regulation skills.

Check out the resources listed below for some fun and creative ideas for kindergarten and preschool children.

Classic Games

We titled these the “classic games” because they are popular, well-known games that you are probably already familiar with. Luckily, they can also be used to help your child develop self-regulation.

If you haven’t already, give these a try:

  1. Duck, Duck, Goose
  2. Hide and Seek
  3. Freeze Tag
  4. Musical Chairs
  5. Mirror, Mirror

Some further suggestions come from the Your Therapy Source website (2017):

  • Red Light, Green Light: Kids move after “green light” is called and freeze when “red light” is called. If a kid is caught moving during a red light, they’re out;
  • Mother May I: One child is the leader. The rest of the children ask: “Mother may I take [a certain number of steps, hops, jumps, or leaps to get to the leader]? The leader approves or disapproves of the action. The first child to touch the leader wins;
  • Freeze Dance: Turn on music. When the music stops, the children have to freeze;
  • Follow My Clap: The leader creates a clapping pattern. Children have to listen and repeat the pattern;
  • Loud or Quiet: Children have to perform an action that is either loud or quiet. First, pick an action, i.e., stomping feet. The leader says “loud,” and the children stomp their feet loudly.
  • Simon Says: Children perform an action as instructed by the leader, but only if the leader starts with, “Simon says . . .” For example, if the leader says, “Simon says touch your toes,” then all the children should touch their toes. If the leader only says, “Touch your toes,” no one should touch their toes because Simon didn’t say so;
  • Body Part Mix-Up: The leader will call out body parts for the children to touch. For example, the leader might call out “knees,” and the children touch their knees. Create one rule to start; for example, each time the leader says “head” the kids will touch their toes instead of their heads. This requires the children to stop and think about their actions and not just to react. The leader calls out “knees, head, elbow.” The children should touch their knees, toes, and elbow. Continue practicing and adding other rules that change body parts;
  • Follow the Leader: The leader performs different actions and the children have to follow those actions exactly;
  • Ready, Set, Wiggle: If the leader calls out, “Ready . . . Set . . . Wiggle,” everyone should wiggle their bodies. If the leader calls out, “Ready . . . Set . . . Watermelon,” no one should move. If the leader calls out, “Ready . . . Set . . . Wigs,” no one should move. The game continues like this. You can change the commands to whatever wording you want. The purpose is to have the children waiting to move until a certain word is said out loud;
  • Color Moves: Explain to the children that they will walk around the room. They’ll move based on the color of the paper you are holding up. Green paper means walk fast, yellow paper means regular pace, and blue paper means slow-motion walking. Whenever you hold up a red paper, they stop. Try different locomotor skills like running in place, marching, or jumping.
Self-Regulation in Adolescence +

As your child grows, you will probably find it harder to encourage continuing self-regulation skills. However, adolescence is a vital time for further development of these skills, particularly for:

  • Persisting on complex, long-term projects (e.g., applying to college);
  • Problem-solving to achieve goals (e.g., managing work and staying in school);
  • Delaying gratification to achieve goals (e.g., saving money to buy a car);
  • Self-monitoring and self- rewarding progress on goals;
  • Guiding behavior based on future goals and concern for others;
  • Making decisions with a broad perspective and compassion for oneself and others;
  • Managing frustration and distress effectively;
  • Seeking help when stress is unmanageable or the situation is dangerous (Murray & Rosenbalm, 2017).

To ensure that you are supporting adolescents in developing these vital skills, there are three important steps you can take:

  1. Teaching self-regulation skills through modeling them yourself, providing opportunities to practice these skills, monitoring and reinforcing their progress, and coaching them on how, why, and when to use their skills;
  2. Providing a warm, safe, and responsive relationship in which adolescents are comfortable with making mistakes;
  3. Structuring the environment to make adolescents’ self-regulation easier and more manageable. Limit opportunities for risk-taking behavior, provide positive discipline, highlight natural consequences of poor decision-making, and reduce the emotional intensity of conflict situations (Murray & Rosenbalm, 2017).
Additional reading and references+
  • Gillebaart M. The ‘operational’ definition of self-control. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1231. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01231
  • Tao T, Wang L, Fan C, Gao W. Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: Perspective from a dual-systems model. Sci Rep. 2015;4(1):7272. doi:10.1038/srep07272
  • Hampson SE, Edmonds GW, Barckley M, Goldberg LR, Dubanoski JP, Hillier TA. A Big Five approach to self-regulation: personality traits and health trajectories in the Hawaii longitudinal study of personality and health. Psychol Health Med. 2016;21(2):152-162. doi:10.1080/13548506.2015.106167
  • Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 248-287.
  • Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and inhibition. Neuropsychologia, 65, 313-319. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.08.012
  • Bell, A. L. (2016). What is self-regulation and why is it so important? Good Therapy Blog. Retrieved from
  • Carchedi, S. (2013). Curriculum for teaching emotional self-regulation. School Social Work Net. Retrieved from
  • Center on the Developing Child. (n.d.). Executive function & self-regulation. Harvard University. Retrieved from
  • Murray, D. W., & Rosenbalm, K. (2017). Promoting self-regulation in adolescents and young adults: A practice brief. OPRE Report #2015-82. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.
  • Razza, R. A., Bergen-Cico, D., & Raymond, K. (2013). Enhancing preschoolers’ self-regulation via mindful yoga. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 372-385.
  • Shanker, S. (2016). Self-reg: Self-regulation vs. self-control. Psychology Today. Retrieved from
  • Thrive Place. (2013). What is self regulation and how to help a child to learn self regulation. Day2Day Parenting. Retrieved from
  • Verzeletti, C., Zammuner, V. L., Galli, C., Agnoli, S., & Duregger, C. (2016). Emotion regulation strategies and psychosocial well-being in adolescence. Cogent Psychology, 3.
  • Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41, 64-70.
Recommended books+

Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications

For a more academic look at self-regulation, you might want to give this handbook a try.

This volume from researchers Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister offers a comprehensive look at the theory of self-regulation, the research behind it, and the ways it can be applied to improve quality of life. It also explains how self-regulation is developed and shaped by experiences, and how it both influences and is influenced by social relationships.

Chapters on self-dysregulation (e.g., addiction, overeating, compulsive spending, ADHD) explore what happens when self-regulation skills are not developed to an adequate level.

If you’re a student, researcher, academic, helping professional, or aspiring helping professional, you won’t regret investing your time and energy into reading this book and familiarizing yourself with this important topic.

Click here to see the book on Amazon.

The Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers

This book describes the Zones of Regulation curriculum, including lessons and activities you can use in the classroom, in your therapy office, or at home.

In this book, you will learn about the four zones:

  • Red Zone: extremely heightened states of alertness and intense emotions (e.g., rage, anger, devastation, terror);
  • Yellow Zone: heightened states of alertness and elevated emotions (e.g., silliness, stress, frustration, “the wiggles”), but with more control than the Red Zone;
  • Green Zone: calm states of alertness and regulated emotions (e.g., happy, focused, content, ready to learn);
  • Blue Zone: states of low alertness and down feelings (e.g., sad, sick, tired, bored).

In addition, reading the book will teach you how to apply the Zones model to help your children, students, or clients build their emotional regulation skills.

You can learn more about this book here.

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