Engine Plate: The best way to teach self regulation!

I first learned about engine plates when I was studying Child Development at Texas Christian University’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. I am so grateful that I got to participate in several TCU Hope Connection Camps (therapeutic day camps for internationally adopted children). Engine plates were a very important tool used at the camps to help children regulate. The engine plate idea comes from The Alert Program which is a program used to teach children about self regulation.

What is self regulation:

Self regulation basically means being able to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts. It is the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. 

Engine plates can be an extremely useful tool in helping children who have experienced trauma learn self regulation but engine plates are also AWESOME for helping all children and adults!! Children 3 and up can understand the engine plates as long as you explain them simply. (I have often explained to little ones that the color blue is like EEYORE, green is like WINNIE THE POOH, and red is like TIGGER (or use a show that they like to help explain) With children under 3 you can use the engine plates to remind you that you and your little one need to regulate your engines.

After working with parents and teaching parenting classes as well as being parent myself, I have realized that the #1 trick to helping your children have better behavior is learning how to regulate yourself so that you can better serve your children.

The ideas below come from The Alert Program and The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development and their Trust Based Relational Intervention Model.

“Misbehavior” is often dysregulation.

Instead of viewing children as misbehaving, it can be helpful to look at their behavior and ask if they might possibly be dysregulated. If it is that they are dysregulated, we can figure out how to meet their needs in order to help them regulate.

How to use engine plates to teach children to be aware of their internal states:

Let your child help you make their very own engine plate. All you need is paper plates, markers, brads, and black construction paper for the arrow. (supplies are listed and linked below. I highly suggest parents make one for themselves as well (modeling is the best way to teach!) Pick a time your child is calm, rested, and fed to explain to them about how engine plates work. Tell them that your body is like an engine.

Sometimes your engine is running on RED: TOO HIGH (OR FAST) (I learned not to use the “high” term when working with substance abuse population and changed it to “fast” instead).

If your engine is running on RED this might mean that:

-You are feeling super super HYPER, you might have so much energy you feel like you could bounce off the walls, you might be running all over the house, you might be jumping up and down

-You might be ANGRY, you might feel so mad like you could punch something or like you might explode, your fists might feel tight, all the muscles in your body might feel tight

-You might be so hungry you are feeling angry

-You might be so tired that you are feeling so cranky

-Children who have experienced trauma often have overactive fear response systems and their brain may be triggered throughout the day because they are feeling scared.

-You might be so excited about something (even things that are exciting and positive like moving into a new house or going on a trip to disney world can register as stress in the brain and stress chemicals might be released in the brain) (like why you can’t fall asleep the night before you go to disney land etc)

If your engine is running on GREEN this might mean that:

-You feel just right, you feel calm, relaxed, ready to learn, able to concentrate, your tummy is fed, you have gotten the right about of sleep, you have had ample time to play

-The muscles in your body feel loose and relaxed

-You feel happy

If your engine is running on BLUE this means that:

-You may be feeling tired

-You may be feeling lonely, sad, or worried

-You may be hungry and feel so weak that you feel like laying down

-You might be thirsty

After explaining to your children what each of the colors mean then you want to teach them strategies to use when they realize their engine is running on red or blue to help get their engine back in the green. 

Teaching coping skills:


-Am I hungry? Have a healthy snack! Am I thirsty? Get a drink of water!! (Often children get dysregulated when their blood sugar is low or they are dehydrated. Children should have a healthy snack every 2 hours and their pee should be almost clear in color) ***TIP: keep a basket of healthy snacks and water bottles readily available in the home or classroom for children to get whenever they need it.

-Take deep breaths

-Do some jumping jacks, run a lap, listen to music, draw or color, play with play doh

-Push a wall (stand against a solid wall with knees slightly bent) and push the wall as hard as you can and count to 10. Repeat until you feel better. Take deep breaths. 

-Do a chair push up (can be done in a school desk, hold yourself up in your chair or your desk using your arms)

-Do a chair pull up (pull up on the bottom of your chair)

-Squeeze play dough, tear paper, punch a pillow (safely), 

-Use a calming glitter bottle to help aid in taking deep breaths 

*Have your child try different strategies and ask them what works best for them. Each child is different and some strategies will work better than others for some kids. 


-Do I need a nap? Do I need a snack? Do I need a drink of water? 

-Do I need some love and support? a hug? A friend to talk to?

-Maybe I need a happy book or music

-Do I need someone to sit with me for some companionship

How to use engine plates in the home:

Keep engine plates in the areas of your home that you are in most often. For my family, the kitchen is the center of everything so we keep our engine plates on the refrigerator. Throughout the day, take your child to their engine plate and ask them to examine where they think their engine might be at. First you might show your child how you are examining your own engine. “Mommy’s engine is running on blue because mommy is very tired and hungry”. Then you might say “Mommy needs to get a healthy snack and have a nap” (or coffee, lets be real). Or maybe you say “Mommy’s engine is running on red because when you yell and scream in the house it makes mommy feel stressed” (if this is the case, perhaps the child’s engine is running on red as well and you might say, I wonder if your engine is running on red too, maybe it would help if we went to the park to get some of your energy out, or maybe it would help if you did some jumping jacks or hopped like a bunny 10 times, do a wall push, carry a heavy bag of beans etc).

The important thing is to help your child become aware of their internal states. As a parent I am always checking my engine mentally. If I notice that I am getting very frustrated with my child I start to realize that maybe my engine is out of whack and I need to meet my bodies needs in a certain way. (this might mean, going to bed earlier the that night or increasing self care)

I would love to see how you use your engine plates in your homes! Please take pictures and tag me on instagram: @thewholekidandkaboodle and use the hashtag #engineplatesforthewin

How to use engine plates in the classroom:

Engine plates can be used in schools, daycare settings, residential treatment programs, etc. to help teach children self regulation.

Have your students each make an engine plate. Teach them what each of the colors mean. Hang the engine plates up in your classroom or have each child keep their engine plate at their desk. Create times throughout the day to have your children check their engines and evaluate how they are feeling. Allow your children to keep water bottles at their desk and have healthy snacks throughout the day to keep their blood sugar regulated. Allow children to have physical activity breaks throughout the day.

If you have a calm down corner in your classroom (hopefully you do!) then an engine plate is a perfect thing to add to your calm down corner.

If you are a teacher you might have each child create an engine plate and send directions home with the parents on how to use them at home. Getting teachers and parents to use the same behavior management strategies will be very helpful.

Engine plates can be used as an alternative to classroom behavior management strategies such as behavior charts. I am not a fan of behavior charts because often the same children are the ones who are struggling with difficult behavior. These children rarely get stars, coupons, prizes, etc because they are the ones who really need help learning how to regulate. If you are looking for new behavior strategies to use in your classroom I highly recommend checking out The Trust Based Relational Intervention Model for Classrooms.

I would love to see how you use your engine plates in your classrooms! Please take pictures and tag me on instagram: thewholekidandkaboodle and use the hashtag #engineplatesforthewin

Engine plates should never be used to shame children!

This should be a playful and positive approach to tackling difficult behaviors. A child should never be shamed for being “in the red or being in the blue”. Do not send notes home to parents explaining that the child was bad, you do not know what type of punishment children receive when they get home. Children deserves a fresh start when they get home. They shouldn’t have to get home and start out on a bad note at home because they had a rough day at school. In order for children to recharge for the next day of school they need to go home, play, and rest (not be scolded and punished). The goal is to help children become aware of their internal states and teach them coping skills for getting their bodies and brains back into the green into a calm, focused, and able to learn state.

Recommended Book:


Check out some of my other posts:h

How to create a gross motor/ sensory room in your house

How to “discipline” your one year old…T

Why Bubble Gum Can Help Your Child’s Sensory Needs!

#1 Tip for Calming a Fussy Baby

DIY Kid Sleep Hack: Sleepy Time Clouds

The Ultimate Calming Bedtime Routine

Why I choose to exclusively bottle feed my baby and how I feel about it 7 months later…

15 Must Have Baby Items!

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