Freeman Medical Musings Blog


The Behavior Traffic Light: Colors of the Light

Posted by Dr. Kimberly Fielding, on April 23, 2015

The behavior traffic light can be used to gain insight but also to enhance areas that improve mental health. One area of insight has to do with resiliency – if you’re concerned about your child’s resiliency, helping him or her build capacity for meeting challenges can help. You can help your child learn to have an accurate perception of the problem and a helpful interpretation of the necessary problem-solving steps.

Behavior traffic light activities can help children learn when it is best to go, slow or stop. For example, frequently reviewing the colors in different situations can help children rehearse important skills such as paying attention to relevant information, following a decision-making process, and/or activating a problem-solving plan. This process is important because, as usual, when referring to human experiences, they are a matter of perception. Situations hold different opportunities for each individual to use the behavior traffic light for finding insights and areas for improvement.

Each of the individual colors has a meaning related to going, slowing or stopping. Here is a brief overview for the colors in this behavior traffic light metaphor. (More in-depth posts for each color will follow in the future.)

Red: Stop
Valuable insight for this color is in the form of cultivating the perception that red is important due to safety issues. Also, its purpose is to send a message of protection. Red words typically communicate boundaries: “This is okay, but stop that because that is not okay.” The color red signals an alarm, heightens alertness and activates protective factors. Red light words are statements that include “no,” “not,” “don’t,” “can’t,” “quit,” and “stop” directives.

To enhance mental health, use red light words as little as possible. Reserve these red color phrases only for the purpose of immediate safety and protection issues. In other words, red color phrases activate a fight, flight or freeze response. Ask yourself, “Is this the color I want to use to cultivate child followership?”

Yellow: Slow
Valuable insight for this color is in the form of cultivating the perception that yellow is important to meeting the brain’s need for feel-good hormones. The electrical and chemical processes would then help the person to stay fully active in both thinking and feeling processes. The purpose of yellow in this metaphor is to reinforce a message of confidence in one’s abilities to make the connections between what is happening with thinking, feeling, and behavior choices. The use of this color typically comes in the form of a question to prompt the child to slow down and think. The color yellow in the behavior traffic light heightens awareness of thought patterns and activates a list of choices in doing something in response.

To enhance mental health, use yellow light words as much as possible. The purpose is to communicate choices and/or strategic questions through statements that provoke the brain’s fill-in-the-blank processes. For example, insert a lingering sing-song phrase before continuing a sentence and it helps open attention for the receiver. For example, “Ohhh…is that a calm voice to talk about a disagreement?” In other words, use Yellow color phrases to activate the thinking brain. Ask yourself, “Is this the color I want to use to cultivate child followership?”

Green: Go
Valuable insight for this color is in the form of cultivating the perception that green is important to growth in the physical, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual domains. In addition, its purpose is to promote child development into adulthood and beyond. The use of green light words typically comes in the form of “can do” statements such as, “Feel free to…” and “You’re welcome to…” The color green in the behavior traffic light heightens motivation and activates imagination, creativity and wonder.

To enhance mental health, use green light words as the back-up if a yellow phrase is not readily available. This way of speaking highlights what you want to happen – the expected behavior. Expressions may come in the form of statements that include the “when/then” phrase, emphasis on cause and effect and self-determination type of options. For example, “When your room is clean, then you can play outside,” points the focus on the child’s response rather than the adult’s reaction in the situation. Ask yourself, “Is this the color I want to use to cultivate child followership?”

Also, green color words can replace red color words, i.e., find a way to say “no” by saying “yes.” “No,” is typically followed by the fill-in-the-blank answer to the question of “Because why?” Green color words are typically communicated as “Yes,” and then followed with by the answer to the question of “Under what conditions?” Several teaching moments exist to invest in internal motivation issues. In other words, use green color phrases to activate the whole brain.

“No because” – a reason why the child can’t
“Yes under these conditions” – clear expected behavior

Just as there are automobile safety features, choice of car makers, and advancements in efficiency, the analogy applies to human psychosocial functions of thinking, feeling and doing. There are many other parallels between traffic lights and the behavior traffic light. For example, the lights must work in rhythm with each other; one direction may have a red light while the opposite direction has a green light. Yet, as with all metaphors, they only stretch so far. More specifically, a traffic light for cars moves from green, to yellow to red, and back to green. Beyond this metaphor, behavior moves from red to yellow to green with a preference for staying in the yellow zone as much as possible. Yellow words reinforce thinking for problem solving. Children can use the lessons of go, slow and stop to learn the social rules of the road while navigating the environment. The behavior traffic light is another way of investing in children.