Freeman Medical Musings Blog

The Behavior Traffic Light: The Yellow Light

Posted by Dr. Kimberly Fielding, on May 21, 2015

In the overall theme of the behavior traffic light, the purpose of the yellow light is to help children understand that many important parts of life need to be thoroughly considered. Adults use yellow light words to send a message of “slow down.” When a person is using the yellow light in their behavior traffic light, he or she are aware, resilient and self-directed – healthy, safe and happy effects are predictable. Children need to become accustomed to life in the yellow zone.
Most of the thinking, feeling, and doing in life happens in the yellow zone. It is the opposite of the automobile traffic light. The signal moves from an extended green, to a brief yellow, with another transition to a long red. The yellow light highlights staying engaged by staying calm.

Healthy yellow light examples:

  • “Ohhh…how do we sit on the chair?”
  • “Hmmm…what is the rule when using the tablet?”
  • “Yeah, that’s frustrating. What are you going to do?”

The above examples how to phrase yellow light communication so that it sounds as if you are sending the powerful message of “You can figure this out.” Notice that each of the phrases could have a slightly drawn out pace and a sing-song tone. These are also considered “strategic questions” – purposeful ways of stating a question so that it engages motivation. These types of techniques help reduce the possibility of a perceived threat that would start a fight, flight, or freeze response. But neither is it a simple matter of figuring out the obvious action in the situation. Yellow light emphasizes the “slow down” process so that children can focus on problem solving.

As a parent, you can role model this process by verbalizing your yellow light. When approaching a task, list three possible options to completing the task. Then, list the consequence of that option. Finally, discuss the decision you would make on the best-fit consequence. Over and over, children can be exposed to cause-and-effect, weighing of consequences, accurate perception of time, moral development, empathy, reasoning skills and more! Those “what if” scenarios help children internalize important life lessons.

Using the yellow light means a person is purposefully checking what is happening in his or her thoughts. The person is checking the facts and challenging him or herself for accurate perceptions and helpful conclusions. The person becomes aware of his or her feelings – like a thermometer reading, a person checks the intensity and determines whether he or she can cope. Yellow light also signals a review of the menu of actions that could accompany the thinking and feeling. These all work together and slowing down helps ensure that the person is completely reviewing all options.
Red lights are quick, “Stop!” Green lights are quick, “Go!” Yellow lights tell us, “Slow: proceed with caution.” All three are important for the development of happy, healthy and safe children.