Focus Area 6: Behavioral Intervention
3. Stategies for Preventing Dysregulation
One of the best ways to prevent dysregulation in youth is to intervene early when they are in the BLUE, YELLOW or ORANGE zones. This is more difficult than it may seem and needs to be put into context. It is important to remember that when youth “blow,” it does not mean this is necessarily your fault or responsibility. But it is incumbent on you to understand why it happened.
Here are some strategies you can use to build your effectiveness and skill at early detection and intervention.
DETECTING DYSREGULATION SUSCEPTIBILITY FACTORS
In the previous section, you learned about factors that can make a young person susceptible to dysregulation. Being aware of contributing factors gives you a better chance of intervening early to prevent or reduce dysregulation in youth.
How can you increase the likelihood of detecting these factors? The best way is to establish a meaningful and trusting relationship with the youth you serve. The more you understand about them, the better you will be at recognizing when they are vulnerable to dysregulation. Make time to talk with them in informal settings as well as in more formal check-ins to gauge their overall well-being.
Youth workers tend to be naturally interested in the youth they work with. You can use that natural curiosity to detect susceptibility to dysregulation factors. You likely are working with youth because you have an innate ability to connect with others. Take advantage of your skill to build trusting relationships with youth.
You already know that youth work takes a lot more intention and attention than just having casual conversations with youth. You have to be good at using your conversation skills to engage youth fully in meaningful conversations for the purpose of helping them positively develop their own unique skills and talents.
If you work in a team, it can be very helpful to share relevant factors about each youth as you become aware of them with co-workers. Some teams do this formally at the beginning or end of the day, and others make a commitment to share as things arise.
It can be very helpful to be aware of each young person’s baseline, typical means of functioning. If a young person begins to behave differently than the baseline behavior you typically see, take note, and begin early interventions. Whenever possible, work together with the youth to explore the possible causes and help them find better options for responding to the cause.
Consultation with a co-worker is one of the best things you can do and a hallmark of a highly skilled youth worker. There are countless times when this approach has led teams to figure out that a young person did not take their medicine, missed lunch, didn’t get enough sleep, or some other factor that could have been easily overlooked if a particular youth worker was not aware.
Once you identify such a factor, you are in a position to develop a plan to address the problem and hopefully prevent unnecessary dysregulation. For example, the plan might involve calling parents to bring medicine, adding extra breaks for that youth, or talking privately with them to offer feedback or advice.
Establishing formal and informal practices for routine “check-ins” with youth is invaluable for increasing the early detection of susceptibility factors.
Informal interactions with youth are more than just talking or fulfilling mundane tasks. Use these interactions to ask about or notice changes in baseline behaviors.
Formal daily check-ins can be done on an individual basis or in a group setting. Take steps immediately if you notice anything other than a GREEN Zone.
Youth are not always skilled at knowing and sharing their personal feelings or identifying factors that may lead to dysregulation. Check-ins give them practice with identification and they send the message that you care about them. If you utilize group check-ins, be sure youth know they only need to share what’s comfortable for them.
The color-coded zones of regulation can be a quick and easy way to check-in with youth. You and your team can likely develop many creative ways to incorporate the Zones of Regulation.
Self-care is also a good way to prevent dysregulation of your own emotional state. Remember that stress can easily contribute to emotional overload, making you more prone to unhealthy or negative behaviors.
This would be a good time to take a break and give some thought to a quick plan you could implement in the moment. Think about something small that you could keep handy in your wallet, your mobile device, your pocket, your backpack, your cubicle, or your car. The idea would be to have something you could easily get to in those moments when you feel yourself shifting out of the GREEN Zone.
- Maybe you have a calming quote or poem that you really like
- Maybe there’s a small, smooth stone that you enjoy holding
- Maybe it’s a picture of someone you can always turn to for help
The point is to find something that works as a positive trigger, to remind you to shift, to help you release the stress and tension of the day. And the key is to plan ahead – like, now. Self-care is such a critical component of being a great youth worker. Make it a part of your daily routine.
HELPING YOUTH IDENTIFY REGULATION AND DYSREGULATION
With your help, youth can learn to identify which Zone of Regulation they are in and learn coping strategies for each zone. Using this simple zone framework, you can create a good atmosphere for youth to learn about themselves, their emotional states, and how to solve emotion-laden challenges they encounter.
When you introduce the Zones of Regulation to youth it should be done at a time when they are in the GREEN Zone. This will increase attention and learning. Visual aids are a good way to provide basic education. Kuypers’ book has some useful posters that can be hung on walls to reinforce the zones.
Once the zones are learned, it’s important to give youth opportunities to practice identifying their zone. Let the youth know that you will occasionally check-in and give them an opportunity to practice.
An easy way to start is to ask, “Juanita, what zone are you feeling in now?” Or, “What’s the color of the zone you’re in right now?”
If they do not or cannot answer, you might say, “If you were to guess about your zone right now, what would your guess be?”
Sometimes the young person’s self-identified zone is very different than your perception. A simple way to handle this is to acknowledge their view and gently offer your own. For example:
“Thank you for sharing that. From the outside, it looks to me like you’re in the ____ zone.” Describe to them whatever leads you to this perception. Then you might say, “What do you think about that?”
The important part is keeping the lines of communication open.
In the end, if a youth doesn’t want to engage, you might need to just honor that by saying something like, “Seems like you don’t want to talk about this right now and that’s OK. Let me know if you change your mind.”
INTERRUPTING THE DYSREGULATION PROCESS
Being an effective youth worker will require you to become skilled at interrupting the dysregulation process. Youth can get into a loop where it is difficult for them to break the cycle by themselves.
With your help, youth who are in a dysregulated state can start to shift into a more regulated, positive cycle. Understanding this is just a part of your role frees you to generate creative ideas regarding how to help in the moment.
Here’s an example of a creative intervention. Have a look and see if there is an idea here you might try for yourself:
A 13-year-old boy was feeling left out, angry, and sad when his peers did not allow him to be part of their group. The boy reacted by punching the wall. The youth worker knew the boy fairly well and realized there was not an imminent threat to others and the boy was not injured.
It was clear he was dysregulated and needed time. The youth worker tried to talk with him, but this only escalated his anger. Something else needed to be done. The youth worker eventually noticed a deck of playing cards nearby and sat down near the youth and began playing Solitaire. Eventually, the young person became curious about the unusual reaction to his outburst and started to ask questions about the game. Gradually, the anger subsided and the youth worker taught the boy how to play Solitaire.
In this situation, the youth worker interrupted the cycle of anger and avoided escalating the situation into a dangerous one and took steps that further cemented a trusting relationship.
Later that day, the youth and the youth worker discussed the situation in great detail, void of anger or resistance. The boy recognized what triggered his anger, took responsibility for his behavior, and acknowledged there were better ways he could react than getting angry and hitting things. He also agreed to allow the youth worker to help him identify when his zone was changing to prevent this from happening again.
When young people move into the YELLOW or ORANGE Zones, limit setting can help teach and reinforce appropriate behavior. Limits offer young people choices with consequences. For example, consider the difference between these two statements you could make:
“You can’t go on the outing unless you put your boots on.”
“If you put on your boots, then you can go on the outing. If you don’t, then you’ll have to stay behind. It’s your choice. I hope you come with!”
As you can see, limits are different than threats because they provide choices. Effective limits send the message that you cannot force a young person to behave in a certain way. It empowers youth to make choices that help them versus create problems for themselves.
The purpose behind limit setting is to teach rather than to punish. With clear and consistent limit setting youth can begin to understand that their choices lead to predictable consequences. As they practice making choices in the face of realistic limit setting, they are given opportunities to develop better decision making.
When setting limits, be certain to do it without showing anger. Of course, youth can and will push your buttons in these situations and you certainly will feel anger or frustration at times. The biggest drawback of setting limits with anger is that it makes things more about you and less about the young person (and the choices they have).
Here are some basic steps for setting limits:
- Describe the behavior that is inappropriate. “You are interrupting others when it’s their turn to talk.”
- Describe why the behavior is inappropriate. “We can’t hear what others have to say during their turns.”
- Give realistic and reasonable choices paired with consequences of those choices. “If you can be quiet while others speak, then others are more likely to listen to you, and you can stay in group. If you interrupt, others won’t want to listen during your turn, and you will need to take a five-minute break from group.”
- Give them time to process their choices and consequences, and to make their decision. “Do you need a minute to think about it or have you decided what to do?”
- Enforce whatever consequences you communicated. Unenforced consequences weaken the power of future limit setting. To be sure, it is much easier to enforce consequences if they are reasonable and realistic, enforceable, within your authority, and they fit your organization’s policies.
When setting limits, there are two general kinds of consequences you can utilize, natural and logical. Natural consequences happen without you needing to make them happen. (Fay & Fay, 2012)1 For example, “If you don’t wear your boots you’ll have cold wet feet for most of our two-hour hike.” Whenever possible, try to find a natural consequence because this sets up a situation where it is not you, the youth worker, causing them stress.
Some situations however don’t have a reasonable natural consequence available. That’s where logical consequences need to be created. For example, “When you put the game away where it belongs, you can play the game anytime you want. If you don’t put it away, you won’t be able play it tomorrow. It’s your choice.”
Sometimes you can offer two positive choices to the young person. For example, “Which do you want to do first, clean up the room or finish your homework?” Or, “Do you want to take a five-minute break or go to the group meeting right away?” If you offer two choices like this, make sure both of them are acceptable options.
Another subtle but useful way of communicating limits is to restate expectations or norms. For example, “We get our work done and then we get free time,” rather than, “You need to get your work done.” Another variation on this is “first, then” statements. “First finish the work, then you can have free time.”
Some youth will argue with even the best-crafted limits. A useful approach in these situations is the “broken record” technique. In the old days, a scratch in a vinyl record would cause a skip and repeat part of the song endlessly and that’s how the phrase “broken record” was coined. The “broken record” technique entails repeating the same limit three times. The key is to say it three times with the same tone of voice, the same body language, etc.
It can feel awkward so give yourself a chance to practice the broken record technique before you actually need to use it in a challenging situation. That will help you avoid letting anger or frustration come through in your voice or body language:
Say it – PAUSE - no response from the youth?
– PAUSE – Say it again, in the same way – PAUSE – no response from the youth?
– PAUSE – Say it again, in the same way – PAUSE
There is something about saying it the same way three times that conveys to the youth that you are serious and you mean business, and you are not going to be deterred. But be careful, if you change your tone of voice each time, the youth may perceive this as, “Oh, I’m getting them to change. I need to just keep trying harder to resist.”
A related technique is something called the “extinction burst.” Just before a youth is about to make a behavior shift (e.g., stop screaming and start quieting down) the youth increases their negative behavior (in this example, actually screams more). An “extinction burst” is the storm before the calm.
This is very important in the context of setting limits. When you see this burst of negative behavior, instead of panicking you might give it a bit more time. This is the time to stay firm with the consequences rather than abandon them.
If you abandon the consequences during an extinction burst the young person has just learned that next time an extinction burst will make you drop the original consequences. Of course, this is not the kind of behavior modification you want to have happen.
Here's one final technique for situations where a young person has been dysregulated and highly emotional for a significant length of time and they are really pushing the limits.
You can set the following limit, “No matter what you do it’s going to end the same way. In the end _______ is what’s going to happen.” For example, “No matter what you do, in the end we are not leaving for the outing until 11 o’clock.”
This is especially useful for those situations where it seems like the young person keeps upping the ante in hopes that it will change the limit or the reality of the situation. You zoom ahead to the end of the story and firmly tell them how it will end. When given a little time to process the limit, they may just stop their fight and begin to regulate.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have actual phrases you can use until you develop your own style. Here are a few limit-setting phrases to help you think about specific language that can be used:
- When you (requested behavior/action) then (positive consequence).
Note: saying “When” rather than “If” sends the message that you presume the youth will choose to do the expected behavior.
- You may either ________ or ________.
- Do you want to ________ now or in three minutes?
- I’ll be able to listen as soon as your voice is as calm as mine. Or I’ll be able to listen when you’re in the YELLOW or BLUE Zone.
- You are welcome to rejoin the group when you ________.
- You can ________ when you ________.
- Would you like to ________ or ________?
Limit-setting Practice Opportunities
This is a good point in your learning to take a moment and consider things you may say when setting limits. The situations are common so practicing your own effective limit-setting phrases will ensure you’re prepared. You may want to write them down or say them aloud to reinforce your skill and confidence.
- A youth refuses to put away their technology.
You say __________________________________________________
- During a group activity, a youth keeps interrupting you.
You say __________________________________________________
- A young person is shouting angrily at a peer.
You say __________________________________________________
- Youth refuse to walk with the group to an activity.
You say __________________________________________________
HANDLING RED ZONE SITUATIONS
Sometimes you have done your best to have check-ins with youth and look for changes in baseline behaviors. You worked to provide consequences and set limits by offering youth choices, but they still become dysregulated. It happens to the most skilled and seasoned youth workers and it will happen to you.
Even adults don’t always have control of their emotions and resulting behaviors so it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect young people to have it all figured out either.
Despite your best efforts, a youth may still become dysregulated. That’s not a failure on your part. That’s simply another opportunity for you continue to work with them on improving their ability. What you’re doing today will have a long-lasting impact by helping youth develop new skills to cope in the future. Don’t give up when the going gets rough!
RED Zone behavior is a big deal.
Use time to help youth re-regulate
You could think of a youth’s emotional dysregulation as a fire. Fire needs oxygen to keep burning. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to reduce the oxygen supply. You can do this by not fanning the flames with lots of your own emotion, interaction, or stimulation. The example earlier about the youth worker who sat down and began playing Solitaire is one way to suck the oxygen right out of the room (in a good way!).
With less stimulation from you and the environment, youth can often gradually re-regulate on their own. This can take time, and of course that will take patience on your part. It can be difficult to trust that the youth will eventually recover. With practice, and the experience of seeing young people re-regulate when you reduce the stimulation, you can learn to trust this process.
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