Each day, we all are presented with experiences that test our self-regulation, or our ability to cope with frustration, challenge or disappointment while maintaining or efficiently returning to a neutral mood. These daily challenges may include the irritation of road construction, a frustrating or aggressive coworker, a day that never seems to end, a fussy toddler or a cold that you just can’t seem to get over. Regardless of the situation, most people are effective at finding something they can do to help their state of mind.
Children, however, are still in the process of learning how to self-regulate and for many, self-regulation doesn’t come naturally. This is especially true for children with sensory processing challenges who seem to experience or sense the world more intensely than others. Each loud noise in the kindergarten classroom is irritating or frightening, each smell in the lunchroom nauseating, each outfit they wear irritating. For these kids, self-regulation is a significant challenge, with meltdowns, anxiety, frustration or avoidance of typical childhood activities frequent. At Sierra Therapy Group, this is where using the “Zones of Regulation” curriculum by Leah Kuypers, MA.Ed. OTR/L, can be immensely helpful.
The “Zones of Regulation” is a systematic self-regulation curriculum aimed at categorizing our daily emotions under four zones.
- Blue zone includes feelings of sadness, boredom, tiredness or illness.
- Green zone is our ideal state of alertness in which we feel happy, focused and ready to complete a task.
- In the yellow zone, children identify feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, silly or nervous. It’s hard to focus in the yellow zone.
- Finally, in the red zone, children experience feelings such as intense anger and fear and actions such as yelling or hitting.
Through the categorization of feelings and states of alertness into these different zones, exploring when each zone is expected (e.g. it’s expected to play actively and be silly on the playground, but it’s unexpected to run around at a quiet restaurant), then learning how to choose sensory strategies to these feelings and alertness levels, children become more adept at identifying and managing their feelings, understanding the feelings of others, and adjusting their alertness level or mood to match the situations they experience.
Let’s look at an example:
- Andrea is a kindergartner who is very sensitive to light, sound and kids getting into her personal “bubble.” She loves her teacher, who speaks softly and is very patient. She wants to play with her peers at school and at the park, but is often overwhelmed by how quickly they move and how much noise they make. Andrea is often found playing by herself on the playground or at birthday parties. She appears to be a calm, friendly child when she interacts with patient adults or a single calm peer, but Andrea has gotten a reputation for being pushy or aggressive with the peers who bump into her, take her toy or make a loud noise. She’s struggling to pay attention in the classroom, becomes very upset at birthday parties and other family events, has very few friends at school and has gotten in trouble four times in the last week for biting or hitting. In the mornings, it’s often difficult for Andrea’s mom to get her ready for school because Andrea says that the other kids don’t like her, she gets bored at recess and Thomas keeps bugging her over and over again.
- Andrea’s mom is feeling stressed because she wants Andrea to enjoy school and have friends and doesn’t understand why her sweet daughter struggles so much in environments that most children love.
- During individual occupational therapy sessions, the occupational therapist may start by listening to mom describe her observations and concerns and to Andrea tell about her day at school or the most recent birthday party or group play date she attended. Through a game of feelings BINGO, zones charades, animal walks in the gym or a quick worksheet, Andrea begins to learn about all the feelings she experiences and the zone they match with. She learns that all children and adults experience every zone, but is also learning that the green zone feels the best to her brain and her body. Through the careful selection of sensory strategies to try at home, school and in the community, Andrea and her mom discover ways to cope with many of the daily sensory experiences Andrea encounters and notice that Andrea appears happier and calmer and has only gotten in trouble for hitting one time this week. She’s even found another child at school to play with at recess sometimes.
- As new challenges arise, such as the introduction of a dance class or an unfamiliar errand with mom, Andrea and her OT talk about what zone(s) she experiences during these situations, ways to figure out what zone is expected, then problem-solve ways she can cope with the situation and stay in (or return to) the green zone. Through games, role-playing, interactive review of concepts and trying out sensory strategies in a variety of situations, Andrea learns many activities or strategies she can try the next time she’s feeling stressed, overwhelmed, nervous or irritated!
For more information about the Zones of Regulation, check out http://www.zonesofreg