A Simple and Effective Parenting Tool for Sensory Kids

We parents, myself included, have so many judgments about our kids' behavior.

He's doing this on purpose. He's being manipulative. She's just trying to get attention. He just wants his way. And, of course this oldie but goodie: Ugh! What a brat!

Immediately following these judgments comes the universal go-to parenting solution that we've all heard and told ourselves a million times: Well, obviously he needs more "discipline."

This judgmental view of behavior is akin to a western medicine approach to most health issues: it solely focuses on the symptoms without addressing or even considering the root cause. The idea of "more discipline" as the solution to all behavioral issues is the same as thinking an antibiotic can solve all health issues. It's misguided at best and downright harmful at worst.

The truth is that All Behavior is Communication.

Kids, just like adults, are constantly trying to get their needs met. Think about it this way- when you give your partner the cold shoulder, snap and say something hurtful or do something insensitive, are you purposely tring to be manipulative, just trying to get your way or being a jerk just for the heck of it? No!

You're most likely "acting out" because you're hurt or upset about something, you need more connection or you're feeling anxious.

Even we adults don't always have the tools to regulate our emotions so we can effectively communicate our needs, yet we're so quick to judge our kids' behavior (and other people's kids for that matter!)!

The bottom line is that all of us- adults, kids and especially sensory kids- could use a little more compassion around challenging behaviors and a little more help in the emotional regulation department.

One of the best parenting tools I've found for modeling and teaching emotional regulation skills is called The Zones of Regulation. It was developed by occupational therapist, Leah Kuypers, to teach students "to identify their feelings/level of alertness, understand how their behavior impacts those around them, and learn what tools they can use to manage their feelings and states."

Here's how it works (this is the way I've modified it to use with my boys, not the "official" curriculum):

There are four zones: red, yellow, green and blue.

The red zone is when a child is in a heightened state of arousal. Behaviors are aggressive and out of control. The child may be experiencing anger, rage, fear or even elation. The red zone is associated with a fight, flight or freeze response. When a child reaches this zone, he is no longer in control of his behavior. His prefrontal cortex has been hijacked by his limbic system and he will be unresponsive to any kind of verbal reprimand or warning.

The yellow zone is the precursor to the red zone. It's a heightened state of arousal, but not quite to the point of no return. The child may be feeling agitated, annoyed, frustrated, anxious, silly, hyper or nervous. Behaviors range from whining, complaining and clinging to bouncing off the walls, grabbing toys, and taunting and teasing.

The green zone is when the child is calm, regulated, alert and responsive. He feels happy, focused, helpful, cooperative and ready to learn. Behaviors include sharing, listening, following directions, being curious and asking questions, being responsive, and being kind and respectful. This is the optimal zone.

The blue zone is when the child has lower energy and is in a state of lowered arousal. He may feel tired, bored, sad, or sick. Behaviors include lethargy, disinterest in activities, sluggishness, unusually quiet and withdrawn.

Step 1: Teach your child about the zones. Tell your child that you're going to do a project together to learn about how their feelings are connected to their bodies. You'll need:

  • Poster board
  • Markers
  • Scissors
  • Glue or tape
  • Construction paper

Divide the poster board into 4 sections. Draw a red stop sign, a yellow square, a green circle and a blue triangle at the top of each section. Explain that our feelings can be categorized into four different "zones," then go through each zone, describing the feelings associated with them. Use yourself as an example- "The red zone is when you're feeling REALLY upset and angry, and you're out of control. Like when mommy yells, that means I'm in the red zone."

Ask your child, when you're in the "red zone" and you're feeling angry or anxious, what does that look like? Let him brainstorm some behaviors with you. For older kids, they can write the behaviors they come up with on red construction paper. With younger kids, you can draw and label the behaviors they come up with. Then cut them out and tape/ glue them under the red stop sign.

Do the same for the rest of the zones until each section is filled up.

Here is an example a client made. They didn't do the blue zone, but it's a great visual:


Step 2: Brainstorm strategies to get into the green. Explain to your child that when they feel like they're in the blue, yellow or red zones, there are many things they can do help their bodies get back into the green:

Blue strategies: take a nap, go to bed earlier, snuggle up and read a book, ask mommy for a hug or a snuggle, go out for a bike ride or scooter ride around the neighborhood to "wake up" their body, take a break or get a drink and a snack.

Yellow strategies: do belly breathing, go for a walk, take a break, do jumping jacks, use a fidget, get your wiggles out, swing, climb, run, ask for a bear hug, go to your sensory space, do tactile play, draw out your feelings, get a snack.

Red strategies: use deep pressure, rhythmic swinging, have a pillow fight, tighten and relax your body, belly breathing, jump on the trampoline, go for a run, throw ice against a wall, get a bear hug from mom, go outside for a change of scenery and do "heavy work."

Draw or write out the strategy on construction paper and make another visual titled, "Tools to Get Back into the Green Zone."

If you don't want to make you're own, here's a great chart you can purchase (I'm not affiliated in any way).

Step 3: Adopt the lingo. Once you've explained the zones, made your visuals and hung them up somewhere in plain view, it's time to start using the zones lingo.

When your child is being cooperative, is listening and following directions, being helpful etc., you'll say, "Look at how well you're listening. You're in the green zone!" or "Thank you for being so cooperative, I can tell you're in the green zone."

When you or are in the green, call that out too- "I'm having so much fun playing Legos with you. I'm definitely in the green zone!"

When your child starts to get dysregulated, and you notice he's in the yellow, call it out: "It looks like you're in the yellow zone, do you need a bear hug?" "I hear a yellow (child just yelled), let's take a jumping jack break!" "It looks like your body is heading towards the red zone, what can we do to get you back into the green?"

Invite your kids to call you out when you're in the yellow. Trust me, they'll love it! My boys love nothing more than to say, "Mooommm, YOU'RE in the yellow!" Ha!

Then be sure to model a strategy to get yourself back into the green zone. Click here for some ideas.

Using the zones is a tangible and effective way to start modeling and teaching your kids the skill of emotional regulation which is the key to having a happy, healthy and fulfilling life! So, you know, just minorly important!

For more information on the Zones of Regulation, click here.

Now, more than ever, we Sensory Moms are faced with the enormous challenge of viewing our kids' behaviors through a zoomed out lens, suspending our judgments and taking steps to model emotional regulation so they can feel safe and secure. It's no easy task, but it gets easier with practice.

As always, please leave your questions and comments below.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.