Zones of Regulation

Many parents have asked for more information about the Zones of Regulation, a framework that we use at Mitchell School to foster self-regulation and emotional control.  

 Zones of Regulation website

Other resources:
Zones of Regulation - slideshow presentation
Zones of Regulation - YouTube

From the Zones of Regulation website:


Self-regulation is something everyone continually works on whether or not we are cognizant of it.  We all encounter trying circumstances that test our limits from time to time.  If we are able to recognize when we are becoming less regulated, we are able to do something about it to manage our feelings and get ourselves to a healthy place.  This comes naturally for some, but for others it is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. This is the goal of The Zones of Regulation (or Zones for short). 


The Zones is a systematic, cognitive behavioral approach used to teach self-regulation by categorizing all the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete colored zones.  The Zones framework provides strategies to teach students to become more aware of and independent in controlling their emotions and impulses, manage their sensory needs, and improve their ability to problem solve conflicts.  

By addressing underlying deficits in emotional and sensory regulation, executive functioning, and social cognition, the framework is designed to help move students toward independent regulation.  The Zones of Regulation incorporates Social Thinking® ( concepts and numerous visuals 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.  


The Red Zone is used to describe extremely heightened states of alertness and intense emotions.  A person may be elated or experiencing anger, rage, explosive behavior, devastation, or terror when in the Red Zone. 

The Yellow Zone is also used to describe a heightened state of alertness and elevated emotions, however one has more control when they are in the Yellow Zone.  A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, the wiggles, or nervousness when in the Yellow Zone.

 Green Zone is used to describe a calm state of alertness. A person may be described as happy, focused, content, or ready to learn when in the Green Zone.  This is the zone where optimal learning occurs.

 Blue Zone is used to describe low states of alertness and down feelings such as when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.

The Zones can be compared to traffic signs.  When given a green light or in the Green Zone, one is “good to go”.  A yellow sign means be aware or take caution, which applies to the Yellow Zone.  A red light or stop sign means stop, and when one is the Red Zone this often is the case.  The Blue Zone can be compared to the rest area signs where one goes to rest or re-energize.  All of the zones are natural to experience, but the framework focuses on teaching students how to recognize and manage their Zone based on the environment and its demands and the people around them.  For example, when playing on the playground or in an active/competitive game, students are often experiencing a heightened internal state such as silliness or excitement and are in the Yellow Zone, but it may not need to be managed.  However, if the environment is changed to the library where there are different expectations  than the playground, students may still be in the Yellow Zone but have to manage it differently so their behavior meets the expectations of the library setting.


As an occupational therapist and autism resource specialist working in public schools for six years, I frequently had students on my caseload who were struggling not just with sensory-regulation but also emotional regulation.  Too often the time spent with their non-disabled peers was being limited due to my students' frequent outbursts and inability to cope effectively.  Adopting Ross Greene’s mantra, “Kids do well if they can” (The Explosive Child, 2006), students were frequently being punished for disruptive behaviors rather than being taught skills to control their behavior.  While taking graduate coursework on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder, I had the idea to create the concept of The Zones of Regulation to teach students to self-regulate their sensory needs as well as their emotions and impulses in order to meet the demands of the environment and be successful academically and socially.  

After successfully piloting and expanding on my concept with the students I worked with over a few years, I was encouraged by my colleagues to create a curriculum to support my concept.  The Zones of Regulation concept was influenced by the work of Williams and Shellenberger’s The Alert Program® (1994) and Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis’ The Incredible 5 Point Scale (2003).   As I was designing the curriculum, I integrated best practices in the field of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) into the curriculum and conducted extensive background research in the area of self-regulation, including sensory regulation, emotional regulation, and executive functioning.  I also researched how these processes relate to children with ASD and ADHDs’ learning styles.  By integrating principles of Simon Baron Cohen’s Systemizing Theory, The Zones provides a system to classify states of arousal, feelings, and emotions into four easily identifiable distinct color-coded Zones.  Creating a system such as The Zones to categorize all the complex feelings students experience eases their ability to recognize and communicate how they are feeling, as well as tap into strategies to aid them in self-regulation.  While designing the curriculum, I incorporated Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking® concepts to help students become more aware of how others are perceiving them when they are regulated versus in less regulated states.  By tying in Social Thinking concepts, the lessons on self-regulation become more meaningful to the students’ lives as they gain a deeper understanding of the impact their behavior has on their relationships.  Learning activities entail the use of cognitive behavior management strategies to reinforce the use of The Zones of Regulation throughout the student’s day.  By using cognitive behavior management, the students learn how to self-monitor and reflect on the effectiveness of their regulation strategies.  This method allows students to move away from staff prompts to regulate and to assume personal responsibility in self-regulation.