Window of Tolerance

What is ‘The Window of Tolerance’?  

The Window of Tolerance is a term developed by Dan Siegel, and describes the best state of ‘arousal’ in which we can function in everyday life. When we are within this window, we can learn effectively, and relate well to those around us. We can all come out of our window of tolerance at times, and when we do, our mind and bodies can go into a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state. 

Source: Our Mental Health Space: Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust 


Hyper-arousal is when the mind and body have a fight or flight response, and the nervous system goes into high alert. This can happen even if there is no visible danger. 

What does this look like on our bodies? 

  • High energy 
  • Panic 
  • Quick movements
  • Easily scared or startled 
  • Angry outbursts or irritability 
  • Self-destructive behaviour 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Restless
  • Tense muscles 
  • Hypervigilant 


What can help? 

It is important to consider that what might work for one CYP, may not be preferential for others, and part of this process will include tuning into their individual needs and current preferences for coping strategies. For older children, it can be beneficial to include them in planning strategies for when they are feeling dysregulated. This should always be done when the CYP is within their window of tolerance, and calm. Younger children may need more support to identify and practice regulatory strategies. Some ideas include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Moving to a calming or quiet space in the classroom/house
  • Using a stress ball or object to squeeze
  • Listening to music
  • Going outside for fresh air or taking a walk. 
  • Using a weighted blanket



Hypo-arousal is when the mind and body response is to freeze. This is also known as 'shutting down', and like hyper-arousal, this response from the nervous system can also be triggered when the person is feeling threatened. 

What does this look like on our bodies? 

  • Lethargic
  • Ashamed
  • Depressed
  • Numb
  • Passive 
  • Withdrawn 
  • Frozen


What can help?  

As with hyper-arousal, what might help for hypo-arousal will differ between individuals; therefore the initial focus should be on 'tuning into' the CYP.  As you begin to identify some strategies that help, make a list that can then be shared with the CYP and their family/school.

  • Asking a CYP to find something they can see, something they can hear, and something they can touch, smell or taste. This can connect them back to the present moment, activates their senses and tunes them into subtle movements around them  
  • Work that involves carrying or transporting something that involves physical exertion (risk assessed for the individual) 
  • Activities involving movement, rhythm or sound, such as drumming, dancing or listening to music 
  • Physical activity such as walking, running, star jumps etc. 
  • Giving the CYP a role, or a job in their home or classroom that requires them to move, such as helping with cooking, delivering a letter or handing out resources. 

How Trauma can affect your window of tolerance 

Click here to see a pdf graphic from nicabm around "How trauma can affect your window of tolerance"

Stress and trauma 

Everyone's window of tolerance will be different, due to external factors such as childhood experiences, social support and environment and internal factors such as our neurobiology, and coping skills. The size of our windows can also be different day to day; however, those who are experiencing acute or long term stress or trauma are more likely to have a narrower window of tolerance. The effects of stress and trauma can shrink our window of tolerance, meaning that what might seem like a small stressor is something that can throw you out of balance, and into a hyper or hypo-aroused state.  

What can help? 

  • By recognising your own window of tolerance, it can help by increasing your awareness of what dysregulation looks like for you, and how it feels in your body. This can help you identify the warning signs, and problem solve/strategise before it feels unmanageable. 
  • By recognising your own triggers and signs for dysregulation, when you are in your window of tolerance, you can learn and practice techniques for re-regulating when experiencing hypo-arousal or hyperarousal.  


How does this help children and young people?  

‘A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child’  

It is important that we are aware of, and have time to tend to our own regulatory needs before we are able to support someone else to do the same.  

Childrens emotions also fluctuate when they are feeling stressed or in crisis. They can struggle to express or name what they are feeling, and find an appropriate coping strategy. It is often the adults role to support them in identifying the emotion they are feeling using their physiological and behavioural clues, and supporting them to use a coping strategy. Using a ‘Window of Tolerance’ approach is one way of achieving this. 

Zones of regulation  

The Zones of Regulation is a curriculum based around the use of four colours to support children to identify how they are feeling and categorise it based on colour. This helps children understand their emotions, their thinking, and the sensations they feel. Children can learn different coping strategies for each zone, and this can help them to self-manage their emotions.  


Updated 27-02-2023