Zones of Regulation and Learning


Kathryn Biel

I sat in a meeting recently with the entire team and a concerned parent. The student, a very young kindergartener, is struggling. And I mean struggling. He’s a hot mess. No matter what angle you look at, this child is not doing well. And his parents are concerned. Retention is an agreed-upon consensus, except for the team members who think he should be moved directly to a self-contained classroom. These are never the meetings you want to have.

I watched this parent on the verge of tears with frustration about his son’s difficulties. His explosive temper, his behavioral outbursts, his attention difficulties. They’re exploring some pretty serious things, including some pretty serious pharmacologics for a little guy.The parents just want to know, “What’s wrong with him?”

The truth is, none of us knows.

But here’s what I do know, and what I shared with the parent. The student can’t learn right now. His benchmarks indicate that, but there’s a reason for it. This student is so poorly regulated. He’s got all the classic signs—emotional outbursts, anxiety, shutting down, aggressive behavior, refusals, toe walking, inattention. This student, for whatever reason, is in a constant hightened state of arousal. He’s always in that fight or flight state. His body is ever on the lookout for that primitive threat—that saber-tooth tiger—to attack. Learning letters and decoding isn’t going to help him survive. Add to this sensory regulation difficulties and very poor motor planning, and this kid is at serious risk for being eaten by a dinosaur. Not really, but that’s probably how he feels. He’s a complex kiddo for sure.

The parent looked at me and said, “Of everything we’ve heard about our son, that makes the most sense.”

Kids today are presenting with an ever-challenging host of not only sensory but emotional regulatory needs. Many simply cannot regulate, because they don’t know how. They’re not being disruptive for the sake of being disruptive. They do not know how to modulate, how to regulate.

You can think about regulation in terms of a stop light. Red, yellow, green. We all know the red kids. Emotionally and physically volatile, that heightened state of alertness and arousal. Intense. No control over one’s self.

Yellow is working it’s way up to being worked up. When in the yellow state, emotions and arousal are heightened, but some self-control is still present.

Green is the state in which learning can occur. It’s the ready state, with optimal levels of arousal, attention, and regulation. This state is calm and focused.

There is also what can be called a blue level, which is understimulated. Again, this is a difficult state for learning to occur, as the appropriate level of attention and emotional connection is not present.

The next time you are struggling with a child, try to assess what color he or she may be functioning at.

If you’re interested in learning more about these Zones of Regulation and cognitive behavioral strategies to help children learn and regulate their own zones, check out the 17th Annual Therapies in the School PRE-CONFERENCE: The Zones of Regulation: A Framework to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control.

Please Click Here for Course Information, To Download a Brochure, or to Register

~Kathryn Biel, PT, DPT