The Zones Of Regulation: How To Help Kids Manage Strong Emotions With Leah Kuypers

The Zones Of Regulation: How To Help Kids Manage Strong Emotions With Leah Kuypers

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Many kids experience difficulties managing strong emotions, whether those emotions are related to anger, anxiety or something else. And often, that lack of regulation spills over into challenging behaviour, or gets in the way of their learning.

In this week's interview, we speak to Leah Kuypers, author and creator of the Zones Of Regulation. She shares practical and effective ways of helping pupils become more aware of their emotional state - and then engage with positive regulation strategies in the classroom.

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Show notes / transcription

Leah Kuypers  0:00  

We're building a climate where it feels safe to talk about how we're feeling and you know, take away that judgement from the equation and really embrace those feelings that we have without having students feel like they have to conform to you know, I always need to be happy and feeling focus because that isn't reality.

Simon Currigan  0:20  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. We're recording exclusively from behaviour towers. And please be careful on the way through to the lounge Aunt Mabel  got at the Sherry earlier and she's deliberately set fire to the hallway carpet creating a river of fire to hold back the Viking Raiders she believes are attacking from the direction of the Bumblebee nursery. I'm joined here today by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:27  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:28  

Emma, I've got a quick question for you. There was a survey some years back about office rage. And what do you think was the top cause of people getting angry in the office?

Emma Shackleton  1:39  

I'd say top three people stealing other people's stuff, jamming the photocopier and leaving it and using the last of the milk selfish behaviours. Here's what I'm going for. Go on then reveal the answers.

Simon Currigan  1:53  

Okay, not bad. At number three people were irritated by others who spread gossip or rumours at number two were people who didn't reload the photocopier or just left it jammed and walked away. So someone else would have to fix it. I mean, those people are animals. And at number one, people who didn't turn their mobile phone off during meetings.

Emma Shackleton  2:15  

Interesting. I can relate to some of those. But what's the link with today's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:20  

Today we're going to share our interview with Leah Kuypers, Leah developed a programme to help kids manage big feelings, things like anger and anxiety called the zones of regulation. It's incredibly popular. It's sold over 100,000 copies, and it's used in schools around the world. And she's going to give us some insight today about how we can help kids understand their emotions, and cope with strong feelings.

Emma Shackleton  2:48  

But before we get onto that, I've got a quick request to make. If you're listening to this right now, please could you open your podcast app and use the share button to share this episode with three friends or colleagues who you think will find this information useful. That means that they and the children in their care can get the help and support they need to make progress in their classrooms. And now here's Simon's interview with Leah Kuypers.

Simon Currigan  3:15  

Today, we are proud to welcome Leah Kuypers to the show. Leah is the creator and author of the zones of regulation, which is aimed at helping young people understand their emotions and improve their ability to regulate. The book alone has sold over 100,000 copies around the world. And it's used in countless schools to support students. Her approach teaches students to build awareness of their feelings, and use a variety of tools and strategies to support with their regulation and overall wellness. I know the subject of students self regulation is one that affects many of our listeners. And today's interview is going to be gold if you're struggling to support a student with their emotions in class right now. Leah, welcome to the show. 

Leah Kuypers  3:59  

Thank you, Simon. It's an honour to be here with you. 

Simon Currigan  4:02  

Before we get on to what the zones of regulation are and how to use them. What prompted you to develop them?

Leah Kuypers  4:08  

Well I trained as an occupational therapist and was working in the schools seeing so many of my students have difficulties engaging in the academics engaging in the social aspects of school and all too often punitive measures were used to try to get them to comply. And those were I found a detriment to the student their mental health, their confidence, esteem, as well as just really clouded feel or climate in the classrooms and the school and so I really wanted to truly teach them a lesson and support them and building these skills rather than continue to watch them be penalised for their lack of abilities in this area.

Simon Currigan  4:56  

So when we use them, what do they help our students do that they couldn't do before?

Leah Kuypers  5:00  

One of the things I think zones does is puts language to something that's fairly abstract, it gives us a way to think and talk about how we're feeling in a simple way, making it more conscious giving caregivers teachers support personnel system to co regulate with individuals who might be having those feelings that they're having a harder time manage. And within the system than that we're creating now they can identify more easily how they're feeling, as well as find the tools and support to help them regulate those feelings for you.

Simon Currigan  5:38  

What does it mean to be regulated or dysregulated?

Leah Kuypers  5:41  

For me, regulation means being able to be in the optimal state of alertness and manage that energy in those feelings to be able to function and have that adaptive behaviour. Actions to meet the needs of the environment around us. So sometimes regulated means being in a more heightened state, sometimes regulated, you know, before bed is winding down and moving to a lower state of alertness. It's not just being calm, by any means it's able to manage those different states energy levels and feelings to meet the needs.

Simon Currigan  6:17  

When teachers use their zones of regulation with their kids. What do those students learn or gain that they didn't have before?

Leah Kuypers  6:25  

What I think zones does well is gives them this visual way to think about and talk about how they're feeling. So feelings are really abstract, we have all these different emotions and energy levels we experience and it can be quite hard to capture and pinpoint where we're at. So by having a visual structure, we can take the verbal out of it, and we can show how we're feeling we can also get in that general vicinity without always needing to, you know, be right on an exact emotion. But hey, I know I'm in this really heightened state. And that then funnels to these tools and strategies that they've been practising to help support when they're and say that colour zone. And with the visual supports too it's easier for the caregivers, the teachers to help co regulate with them to and engage them in some of these power regulatory supports to manage where they're at

Simon Currigan  7:27  

Each of the zones of regulations is given a colour and three of those zones follow the colour of traffic lights, so we've got red, yellow, or amber, as we say in the UK, and green. Can you talk us through what each of those zones means and how they help students understand their emotions?

Leah Kuypers  7:43  

So we define four colours zones, and we have the red zone, which is when we have really heightened emotions, our feelings are overwhelming us, it can be positive feelings like elated, ecstatic, overjoyed, where you think about you know, you just got this fantastic news in your bodies in this euphoric state to feeling panic, terrified, we can be angry, furious in that red zone. So we pair that with the stop light or stop sign, we typically have to stop and think about how we can manage this really heightened state that we're in. And these emotions are exhausting. So it takes a lot out of us. So that stop offers us that pause to think about. Okay, how do I manage this or gain a sense of control back? When we're talking about the zone, this is defined by those feelings we have inside of us, it's the state of alertness or kind of that physiological condition of the body where we can be in this more heightened state or a lower state. Those zones are defined by our feelings our energy level, which is important because there can be this misapplication of zones where people define it by our behaviour on the outside, and that may or may not necessarily match what our feelings are on the inside. For example, often as adults, we look like we're in this calm demeanour. And you know, you go inside of my head and I have this to do list that's so long and my thoughts are swimming all around me and I'm a little anxious and a little overwhelmed. So that's where we define our zone by what's going on inside of us. So that red zone certainly is expected. We anticipate that we're going to have these big feelings. There's nothing wrong with having big feelings. And so the zones is not about making sure someone avoids one zone and stays in a different zone rather the zone it's about being comfortable identifying where we're at, and then giving us strategies to help us manage it and cope in a healthy way to support our well being accomplish our goals or tasks, little sidetrack deviation, but on to the yellow zone. The yellow zone is when our state of alertness is a little heightened, but we still have some of this cognitive control. So we think about being maybe anxious or worried, frustrated, but not over the top angry, we can be excited and silly. Some kids with sensory needs might identify in that more agitated yellow zone or overwhelmed and the yellow zone are kind of feeling wiggly. So you know, this is a super common zone for kids to be in when they're playing out on the playground or when they're competing in these competitive activities. So the yellow zone with here with the caution signs slow down, take notice, be aware that we're in a more heightened state and be thinking about them, what are regulations, tools that can help support us and gaining that control back. So the green zone then is the zone where we feel this more calm, organised state of alertness, our emotions are more level. And we think about being happy, content focused, feeling peaceful, proud, and the green zone and that green zone, we pair with the go light, often we're good to go thinking about our tools that support us in the green zone are those things that keep us feeling good and support our well being like maybe incorporating exercise into your routine or drinking your water throughout the day getting enough sleep. And for some kids that can be those proactive support that keeps them feeling good, like maybe taking five minutes of downtime in the middle of their day or some of their sensory tools that keep their body feeling regulated. And then lastly, there's the Blue Zone. And the Blue Zone is we have a lower state of alertness, physiologically, our heart rate slower, our muscles may be more relaxed, and we think about those emotions being down in nature. So we might feel tired, sick, bored, exhausted in the Blue Zone. And we think about pairing the Blue Zone with the rest area. That's where we go to re energise, rest up, get our needs met, and find that comfort that is going to help us feel better.

Simon Currigan  12:14  

You touched on something earlier that I think is really interesting, and you were talking about with the red zone. But this would apply to all other zones, that the emotions that we have are not really good or bad, but they just exist, and they are what they are. And we as humans can put judgments about, I'm having an emotion, that's bad. And that's not really true. There's nothing wrong with feeling angry, the anger is what it is, you know, you're not at fault for feeling angry or frustrated or tired from the Blue Zone. But what have you found works to help kids accept this? How do you help them kind of reframe what they might think about their feelings in terms of the judgments about whether it's good or bad?

Leah Kuypers  12:49  

I really preach all the zones are okay. And the best way to communicate that to our youth is to model it ourselves so that they can see I'm feeling frustrated in the yellow or last night, I was really angry in the red zone, I'm tired in the blue today. That way, not only are we setting the tone, all the zones are okay, it's natural to move through that for colour zones. But we're also helping them construct a better understanding of these different feelings, pairing it with the zones framework to provide that common language. And through that, then we're building a climate where it feels safe to talk about how we're feeling and, you know, take away that judgement from the equation and really embrace those feelings that we have without having students feel like they have to conform to you know, I always need to be happy and feeling focused, because that isn't reality. But rather, I am feeling really wiggly kind of silly right now in the yellow. And that's okay. And I can think about how I might need to regulate that yellow zone. So I can still complete my work and get through my schedule for the day. There's no contingency on you having to regulate, we think about we use our tools to regulate our zone so that we can promote our well being and get through the activities of our day and work towards achieving our goals, whether they might be academic or social in nature.

Simon Currigan  14:26  

A lot of the kids that we're working with right now are having problems managing those big red zone emotions, particularly around anger and anxiety at the moment. What strategies have you found are successful for helping kids they recognise they're in the yellow zone, they're moving towards the red zone. What have you found works for kids to help them manage those feelings at that point and regulate those emotions?

Leah Kuypers  14:51  

I think keep it simple. They might have a bigger toolbox for the blue, green and yellow zone but that red zone, you might really want to hone in on just wanted to go to a tool that they are finding have an really calming benefit to them. And then we can't be just talking about the red zone when they're in the red zone, we really need to help them explore, you know, what are those feelings? What are those signals that I'm getting, saying the yellow zone, kind of give them a heads up from my body. And then you know, what does the red zone signals feel like from my body so that interoceptive awareness is really important to be building and then those tools that they have to support that red zone are over learned. So we roleplay pretending to be in the red zone. And using that tool that kind of that go to tool for the red zone, we might set up video modelling or create a social story integrating and Carol Gray's work, for example, to help really over learn that so that when they do find themselves in that really heightened Red Zone state, again, we've taken away that need to think about it because they've practised it, it's more accessible and they know how to do it, they feel competent. I think, though, that another support is helping them find success in regulating the blue, the yellow and the green zone before trying to put that into the red zone, helping them see the positive results of you know, a walk when you're in the yellow zone, you know, I noticed your body just really seemed a lot more relaxed afterwards. You connected with your friends when you got back so that we can be building into this intrinsic motivation of how regulations or its us and help them again, just feel more capable of being able to do this building up that confidence for them.

Simon Currigan  16:56  

I'd just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos resources from behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support, strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. Practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success. Resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions, step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers in you've been looking forward today with inner circle, visit  And click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information. 

Is it possible to be in more than one zone at the same time?

Leah Kuypers  18:18  

Absolutely. And we try to make this simple framework to recognise where we're at. But there's really nothing simple about regulation. And I think it's insightful when individuals are able to recognise you know, I might be tired in the Blue Zone. And I'm also feeling a little stressed in the yellow. And then we can think about you know, do I need to regulate either my zones differently to help me go forward. And maybe we use a yellow zone tool, but I'm managing my tired Blue Zone and don't need to regulate that. So that's an important point, too, is that we don't always need tools to regulate our zones. Most of the time we're functioning in our zone without using necessarily a tool that we're tapping into to help us regulate.

Simon Currigan  19:03  

If you're a teacher or a school leader listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take to learn more about using the zones of regulation to support people's in their school?

Leah Kuypers  19:12  

Well, a couple things. First, I would say they need access to the curriculum, if they're thinking about using this. So the book entails 18 lessons that really walk them through how to implement the zones of regulation. And the other piece would be the training that we offer. We have a website And you know, since the pandemic, we've had all our trainings virtually now and we offer several a month so you can check out what might be the best fit for you. We offer half day full day trainings as well as school wide zones of regulation training for those of you looking for the next step to put this in place in a school setting with as a universal tier one support

Simon Currigan  20:04  

And for the listeners we'll drop a direct link to your website in the episode description. So it's easy to click through and find. For the people that are listening to this and coming across it for the first time. What age ranges? Is this suitable for? 

Leah Kuypers  20:18  

Yeah that's a great question. So given that there is this metacognitive piece of the zones of regulation, I say around four is a general age now, not every four year old is going to be ready for this and some kids younger are going to start picking up on it. So I think about having the children be able to identify colours as a precursor, because now we're going to have colours to sort emotions, which is making this much more abstract for them. Another consideration is some kids who are in the midst of a mental health crises, they might not be a good candidate to be starting this with, rather getting them that support and stabilisation and then laptop interventions down the road. I've used this with kids with intellectual disabilities, individuals who do not have language, the visuals work really well for them to support communication. And there is adults who use it on the other side of age range. And I find a lot of adults who teach the zones of regulation end up adopting the zones of regulation in their own mindset, they start speaking the language with their colleagues, you know, like I'm in the yellow right now. And it's like, Okay, I got it, I know how you're feeling. And maybe this isn't a good time to process with you about x, y, and z. So there's a lot of variability, I guess,

Simon Currigan  21:42  

I think there's an important point there as well, actually around. Sometimes teachers are trying to teach to children when they're not in a physical or emotional state where they're ready to accept the learning. And then it's almost like you're trying to force the learning into the child. And then you end up with all sorts of issues in class, when you would have been better off doing some regulation and getting calm, and then approaching the teaching.

Leah Kuypers  22:04  

Yeah, and I think that's a really important point, because I have seen situations where you know, a classroom might have the four colour zones on the wall. And they say, yeah, we're doing the zones. But they're not spending the time because they're in the more regulated state to go through the lessons and give them opportunities to learn and practice and really work with the information. And then there's this pressure for them to apply it, which is disasterous. Rather, this is a curriculum throughout those lessons, we're building this framework to approach regulation, essentially laying out this pathway for individual to build recognition of how they're feeling related to the zone, think about, do I need to regulate it, and then find those access the tools that are going to support them. If so, and that just takes time and practice. And so there is a lot of depth to this. And I really encourage people to explore those lessons with their individuals that they're serving, and give them those opportunities to learn this information when they're in that more calm, regulated state before they ever expect them to apply it real time to regulate. It's a developmental skill. And so that takes time. And it's more than just putting visuals on the wall and talking about these four colours.

Simon Currigan  23:30  

It sounds like the schools that do this the best are the ones that embed it as part of the curriculum, proactively teaching kids the skills before they need them. Rather than trying to reactively teach someone a tool of regulation when they're in the red zone when they're not able to take on what the adult saying or act on that information.

Leah Kuypers  23:49  

Yeah. And Simon that when used in the way you just described, you know, then it can almost morph into a behavioural programme, which it isn't. It's not the intention of how I created this or why I created this rather, no, we're really working to foster these skills of regulation and help those individuals build success and confidence and being able to take this on in different settings through different trials and tribulations that come in life. So that does take time and practice. It takes exposure. And it takes creating a safe climate for them to feel comfortable in doing this. And so when we kind of strip away the safety by putting this contingency on you need to regulate you need to use a tool then I find kids aren't set up for success. Now it feels more like a behaviour programme. There's a threat to this, also, I really caution people from using the zones in that way.

Simon Currigan  24:50  

Let me ask this of all of our guests who is the key figure that's influenced you or what's the key book that you've read that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with kids?

Leah Kuypers  25:01  

I have had a few people that have really been impactful. Carrie Dunn Baron was a mentor to me, she is one of the CO creators of the incredible five point scale. And she sat on my capstone committee and gave me guidance in creating this curriculum. When I first wrote it for my graduate degree in education. I would say, if I took one defining moment, though, it was when I first heard Dr. Ross Greene speak. And he said, kids do well if they can, not if they want to. And that just so resonated with me, it was something that I believed in my heart, and I really then felt propelled to take action in figuring out okay, how can I get these kids to be able to do well and give them the skills to, you know, take on life and thrive in this world, rather than, again, I saw so much punitive measures being taken with these individuals that was at the detriment to their well being. And so that really gave me kind of this empowerment to say, Yeah, I can do this, we are going to teach them the skills and help set them up for success. Give them this foundational life skill that I felt as working in the education system. As an OT and autism specialist. It felt like we were failing these kids when we were launching them into the world. And they had enough reading abilities, math abilities to hold the job, they didn't have the regulation abilities to stay as functioning members of our communities. And it scared me to see that so many students were bouncing in between the juvenile system and school and you know, they get out of school, and that's going to be the correction system next for them. So I really wanted to give them the skill set to be able to have their best foot forward as started the real world

Simon Currigan  27:02  

It is such an important skill to have for life. Leah, I think that's a really positive note to end the interview on. Thank you for joining us today and sharing all of this practical and actionable information about helping our kids regulate. It's so important right now, especially with the end of Coronavirus. It's very timely. And thank you for being on the show.

Leah Kuypers  27:20  

Yeah, well, thank you, Simon for the invitation to be here. And I appreciate talking with you and all the audience listening right now. Thankyou for the interest in the work you're doing to support our youth and their well being.

Leah is so insightful, especially what she said about using the curriculum proactively. So we're teaching the kids the skills of regulation before they need them. Because I know from personal experience, trying to teach your child regulation skills when they're already angry, or really anxious just never works.

Simon Currigan  27:55  

 I know I learned from painful experience too.

Emma Shackleton  27:57  

Of course, there are a variety of reasons why a child might experience strong emotions at school. And if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEN Handbook, and it will help you link behaviours that you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism and ADHD.

Simon Currigan  28:21  

The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis, we're not qualified. But, If we link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. It's a free download, go to our website Click on the free resources tab near the top and you will see an option to download it. I'll also put a link to that in the episode description as well.

Emma Shackleton  28:47  

Next week, we'll be looking at empathy. We'll be asking what empathy is, and strategies for teaching empathy to pupils in school, whatever their age,

Simon Currigan  28:57  

that episode is going to be full of ideas and strategies because empathy is a key skill people's need to develop to do well in a social environment like school. If you want to make sure you catch that interview, open your podcast app now, click the subscribe button or the Follow button as it's called in Apple podcasts. And your podcast app will automatically download every single episode for you. So you never miss a thing. And then maybe walk confidently away polling with pride like a highly educated techno cat. And if you're listening to this podcast on the computer, honestly, what are you doing listening to this while updating your MySpace profile, move with the times daddio and get yourself onto a podcast app now. It makes listening so much easier. They're free to download and it means you can listen in the car or when you're out for a walk or whenever it suits you. And if you've got an iphone, apple podcasts even comes pre installed on your phone, so you don't even have to find it on the App Store. But you can also listen on Spotify, amazon music And Google podcasts, just download an app that works for you and search for school behaviour secrets.

Emma Shackleton  30:05  

That's all we've got time for today. Thank you for listening to this episode of School behaviour secrets. Have a great week and we'll see you next week. Bye

Simon Currigan  30:14  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)