Strategies for Self-Regulation during the Holiday Season

Many children struggle to understand the hidden rules and expectations when participating in holiday functions with their friends and families. Their routine has been disrupted (school is out). Often times they must travel away from home. Plus, they must interact with family members or friends that they do not see very often. On top of all that, we are asking them to use their “social thinking” and think about how others are feeling or what they might be thinking. Social Thinking® is a term coined by Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLP and represents a coordinated teaching framework of curricula, vocabulary, teaching tools and strategies for individuals aged preschool through adults.

I find that The Zones of Regulation program developed by Leah M. Kuypers is a wonderful resource for helping children learn strategies for self-regulation during the busy holiday season.

The Zones of Regulation®, by Leah Kuypers, MA. The Zones of Regulation is a curriculum geared toward helping students gain skills in consciously regulating their actions, which in turn leads to increased control and problem-solving abilities. Learn more at

The concept of the Zones of Regulation is used to help children categorize emotions or states of alertness into four colored zones: Blue Zone, Green Zone, Yellow Zone, and Red Zone. The Blue Zone is used to describe someone that feels sad, tired, or bored. The Green Zone is when a person is feeling in control, happy, calm, and focused. A person in the Yellow Zone is feeling stressed, excited, fearful, or silly. When someone is out of control and feeling anger or extreme grief, they are in the Red Zone. While it is ideal for you to be in the Green Zone so you can “go with the flow”, everyone experiences all of the zones. It is OK if you are in the Red or Yellow Zone, but it may not be what is expected for the situation. In my groups, we talk about strategies for getting in the Green Zone to enjoy the holidays, while we are working on social expectations.

20 Hints for Helping Your Child have a Fun, Flexible Holiday:

1. Post a visual schedule at home and make a mini-schedule for traveling in the car. If there are any changes in the schedule, try to alert your child ahead of time.

2. Try to keep at least one part of their day consistent such as a regular bedtime or a regular meal time.

3. Use a timer so your child knows how long you are staying at the function.

4. Let your child use a “I need a break” card when they feel like they are overwhelmed and need a quick escape. Your child could keep a small green pom-pom or a tiny green fidget ball (look in the party favor section at Target) in their pocket that they could hand you when they need help getting back in the “Green Zone.” Or you could have a secret code that they can use, such as “Buddy the Elf”, when they need to take a break from the event. Sometimes they just need a few moments in a quiet space to regroup and then they may be able to rejoin the group.

5. Be proactive and keep a “Breathe Box” with you. See my previous blog post for more Breathe Box ideas.

  • Sunglasses for bright holiday lights.
  • Earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, or iPod with soothing music to escape from the holiday noise.
  • A favorite toy or familiar object.
  • Gum, peppermints, and other edible “mouth tools.”

6. Build in choices whenever possible to help your child feel more in control. This can be as simple as saying “pick which cup you want for your hot chocolate.”

7. Rewards can be very helpful. For example, you say, “First, we watch the parade and then we play on the Wii when we get home.” Or perhaps you can let your child earn Lego Bucks whenever they do what is expected at a challenging holiday event. Be sure to explain your expectations first and make a visual behavior chart.

8. A powerful, natural reward to focus on this season is working to make someone else feel good without the expectation of a prize reward.   Let your child know when they are doing things that make us feel good or make others feel good. This is an important part of Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Behavior Mapping (  If you do what is expected, then I feel good and then I treat you well, which makes you feel good.

9. Get your child involved in the holiday event by giving them small jobs to do before the party and during the party. This would also be a good time to give them a reward for a job well done!

10. Sometimes children get stuck on their family’s holiday traditions. Rock Brain (from the Superflex Curriculum by Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle Garcia Winner sometimes takes over and may make it difficult for others to understand that it’s Ok if our holiday traditions change. Talk about the changes with your child and help them match a small problem with a small reaction. Remember, it’s only a small problem when our holiday plans are different. In fact, it can be a lot of fun doing something new! You can also make a photo album of all your happy holiday memories or traditions and add more pictures each year.

11. Often children struggle with all the new food presented at the holiday meal. Be sure to have at least one of your child’s favorite foods at the table. However, be sure to practice being mindful and using their social filter by not making hurtful comments about the smells or tastes of foods when they are with others.

12. It’s OK to allow your child to wear something more comfortable to a party. If a family photo is in the mix, your child can don the fancy holiday attire for just a few minutes and then change back into something that is less scratchy.

13. Remember that your child may not enjoy all the hugs and kisses and the loud greetings. Allow your child to wave or shake hands with people. If there is one special relative that may not understand your child’s sensitivities, perhaps you can practice a quick 3-second hug saved just for grandma.

14. Talk about events well in advance to ease anxiety. Books, social stories, pictures, and role-plays will help your child know more about the event and feel less in the Yellow Zone. I remember one student of mine that was very anxious about seeing The Nutcracker because she was afraid that the dancers might fall off the stage. We talked about the play and how the dancers had practiced a great deal and would most likely not fall into her lap even though they had front row tickets.

15. Role-Play or write a social story about gift giving and receiving. Talk about what to do when we receive a gift we like or do not like as well as how to say thank you. This is also a good time to teach your child about perspective taking and thinking about what type of gift a person might want. For example, a three-year-old boy would not want the same gift as a 16-year-old girl.

16. Help your child with making conversations with relatives. You can practice some possible scripts for your child such as “I got a new Lego set from Santa.” “What did you get for Christmas?”

17. Watch funny holiday movies together. Elf is one of my favorite movies for the holiday season. Laughter is a great way to stay in the Green Zone!

18. Have some quiet time each day. Allow for some transition time between activities. Practice mindful relaxing and breathing. Remember, it’s OK not to commit to every event.

19. Practice gratitude. When we focus on the things we are grateful for, our happiness increases and we are in the Green Zone.Create a paper gratitude tree as a family. On each leaf, draw people, experiences, or write things you are grateful for and place them on the tree. Reflect on all your blessings.

20. Help others during the holiday season. Perhaps your family can volunteer to prepare a meal at a shelter or you could make cookies for a nursing home. This can be a great way for your child to learn to be mindful and think about others.



About mhkeiger

I am a Social Learning Specialist and owner of Ausomely Social LLC. I have presented at the Social Thinking Providers Conference. I received my bachelor's degree in English from Salem College and my master's degree in Cross-Categorical Education from the University of North Carolina - Greensboro. I am a long-term member of the Autism Society of North Carolina. I was awarded Professional of the Year by the Autism Society of North Carolina in 2003. I have over 29 years of extensive training and experience in the area of social skills.

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