Health & Psychology

Red Zone/Green Zone: Understanding School Transition Stress

by Lauren Wells, TCK Training CEO

We often hear about the challenges of transitions – how they can bring added stress and make life a bit bumpy for a season until a more settled state ensues. But what is ‘normal’ transition stress for children? At what point should adjustments be considered because the transition stress has gone beyond a healthy limit? 

When my company (TCK Training) talks about transition stress for Third Culture Kids, we use the concept of Red Zone/Green Zone. When a child is in the ‘Red Zone,’ their brain is constantly flooded with stress hormones. This isn’t concerning for a short period of time, but a developing brain should not be exposed to those stress hormones too consistently or for too long. 

What is ‘Normal’ Transition Stress?

This Red Zone/Green Zone concept is particularly helpful when we work with families regarding a school transition. We help families understand what the Red Zone looks like and ways to help their children move toward the Green Zone. Equally important, we help them recognize when a child has been in the Red Zone too long and help them plan how to move the child out of the Red Zone.

For younger children (up to about 10 years old), signs of the Red Zone include: 

  • Uncharacteristic behavior challenges 
  • Being overly emotional
  • Being extra ‘clingy’ to a parent 
  • Developmental reverting (accidents after being potty trained, sleep regressions, using baby talk, needing a comfort item they had grown out of, etc.) 
  • Development of new stress-induced habits (hair twisting, biting lips or skin, etc.) 
  • Not enjoying activities that used to bring joy 
  • Lack of ability to learn new concepts (this often shows up as difficulty meeting elementary milestones, such as reading, if those concepts are introduced while the child is in the Red Zone)

For older children (about 10 years and older) signs of the Red Zone include: 

  • Self-isolation 
  • Lack of desire to do things they previously enjoyed
  • Long periods of numbing/distracting behaviors (e.g. spending hours on an electronic device, consistently choosing to read for hours instead of spending time with family/other children) 
  • Development of new stress-induced habits (hair twisting, biting lips or skin, etc.) 
  • Being overly moody, temperamental, or having new/exaggerated behavior challenges 
  • Lack of ability to learn new concepts (this often shows up in poor grades)

While these behaviors are all normal for a transition season and aren’t inherently unhealthy, prolonged time spent in the Red Zone can be unhealthy, especially for developing brains. 

One of the most effective ways to care for a child in the Red Zone is to expect that these moments will happen during transition, notice when a child displays signs of the Red Zone, and then proactively interject Green Zone moments. 

Green Zone moments can include: 

  • Body movement (going for a walk, playing a sport, etc.) 
  • Anything rhythmic – rhythm regulates the brain (music, dancing, coloring, etc.) 
  • Talking about why this transition feels so hard (allowing them to share and/or giving them language for why they’re feeling this way) 
  • Laughing 
  • Deep breathing 
  • Experiencing something that feels physically comforting (a favorite food, a cozy blanket, a special treat, etc.) 
  • Quality time with a parent, sibling, or close friend 

Moving Toward the Green Zone

When a child transitions to a new school, it is normal for them to be primarily in the Red Zone for the first three months. During those three months, it is important to implement Green Zone moments for/with them. For teenagers, it can be helpful to invite them to join you in a Green Zone activity. For example, “I’m going to go on a hike. Would you like to join me?” If older children are uninterested in joining Green Zone moments, it is important to require something from the Green Zone list. You can explain why Green Zone moments are so important for their mental health and ask which types of moments they would like to schedule for themselves. 

Green Zone moments do not automatically move a child from the Red Zone to the Green Zone, but it does put their brains into the Green Zone momentarily. Imagine this as coming up for air after being underwater. They may be primarily underwater during this season, but it is the parent’s job to help them come up for air regularly by implementing Green Zone moments. 

After three months in a new school, we hope to see children having fewer Red Zone days, thus trending toward a more consistent Green Zone state. When this is happening, you will often notice: 

  • They talk about friends at school 
  • Getting ready for school in the morning isn’t as difficult  
  • They talk about things they’re looking forward to
  • They want to join activities such as sports or the school musical 
  • They are beginning to understand the concepts being taught and thus, grades are improving and academic milestones are closer to being met 
  • They seem to have a more positive outlook 
  • They are laughing and smiling more 
  • They are doing ‘Green Zone moments’ without prompting 

We typically notice that in the second half of the school year, transition stress has eased and children are in the Green Zone more regularly. 

What If it’s Not Getting Better?

If more than halfway through the school year, however, you aren’t seeing any advancement toward the Green Zone, it is important to take action. We suggest looking at this from two angles: in the home and in their environment. 

In the Home…

  • Are they receiving regular, positive attention from their parents? 
  • Do they feel they can talk about their emotions without being invalided? 
  • Do they feel physically safe? 
  • Does the family smile and laugh together often? 

In their Environment… 

  • Do they have access to preferred activities that would give them Green Zone moments? 
  • Do they have potential friends in their class/school? 
  • Is their teacher a factor that is putting them in the red zone?
  • Are there specific stressors that they or you can pinpoint? 
  • Are adults other than parents investing in them?

If the answers to these indicate that there are factors contributing to the red zone, it’s important to make some changes. In the home, for example, you might create routines to provide more one-on-one time between the parents and the child. In the environment, you may need to consider adding activities they would enjoy outside school, changing classrooms/teachers, or even a school change. 

Along with these changes, you may consider reaching out to a professional for support and additional advice. TCK Training offers parent consultations for this purpose. After understanding the concerns, we’ll give recommendations for actions you can take yourself and provide referrals to mental health professionals if necessary. 

Transition can be bumpy for the whole family – and that’s normal! Learning how to create Green Zone moments helps us all breathe a little easier during these hard times. As your time in the new location or school environment grows, the Red Zone/Green Zone tool helps us distinguish between healthy transition bumps and long term adjustment issues. This awareness can make a big difference for families managing global mobility.


Raising Up A Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids (2020), Lauren Wells

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