me kay cooke

The Colour of Magic

pen pot

This is a recycled/reworked article first published in a national magazine several years ago. My work with kids hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s fun, colourful and can appear quite magical.

Sitting at traffic lights a few days ago, I remembered a seven-year-old called Adam whom I had helped to manage his ‘rage’ by associating his feelings with colours. We’re conditioned early on to build associations in this way. For example, even as I type this article, my mistakes are underlined in red – and teachers mark mistakes in red, too. We even talk about “seeing red” when we get angry or frustrated. Then there’s that traffic light stopping us. From early on, we learn to associate that particular colour with being stopped and with frustration.


I often use a traffic light analogy when working with children to help them think about their thoughts, feelings and subsequent behaviour. Here are some ways we think about it.

Red – stop, stuck or danger.

Green – start, go ahead, calm, nature.

Orange / amber – state of flow with time for choices.


Adam would get stuck in a tantrum for around 45 minutes and not know how to get out of it. I showed him new ways to handle his behaviour through the traffic light analogy.

Unprompted, he decided that red represented his angry brain, green was the colour of his happy brain and orange was the colour of his helper brain that could unstick his feelings.

Chatting about things that made him angry, sad or mad, I encouraged Adam to feel those feelings before he drew them.

Red lines soon appeared on the paper in front of Adam as he drew his representation of his angry brain – a ‘red’ spiky creation of tangles and sharp edges.

Next, I redirected his attention away from red feelings by having him play with my dogs. I even got him to hand over his negative ‘red brain’ to our dog, Oscar (who seemed quite oblivious), which caused much laughter. That’s a much more useful emotional state!

I asked Adam to remember having fun playing with his friends and his beloved lego, and to recall the feeling of pride he’d experienced at a school assembly recently. He drew these expressions, as green smiling faces, soft edges and flowing lines.

Then we explored orange/amber thoughts. Adam decided these were his “little helpers” – explorers of smart ideas and possibilities. He told me these little guys even made sounds like working on a computer keyboard! They could pull levers inside his mind and give him good advice and the picture was a busy yet organised set of orange shapes.

Adam cut out and laminated these images which then became useful resources during our work together. We used them in many ways, for example:

  1. Flash Cards – we acted out a sequence of feelings to train Adam into awareness of his moods, and to encourage more control.
  2. Splat – we acted out the feelings as we took the green card and SPLATTED it on top of the red, to squash it, with a big “splat” noise. This metaphor uses sound, sight and action to generate a sense of control in Adam.
  3. Squish – we talked about a difficult and unresolved red issue and then took the orange card and SQUISHED it (ie: gave it a side-to-side movement) on top of red. Next, we took take 3 deep calming breaths and blew each out onto the orange card. On the last out-breath, we gently placed the green card on top.
  4. Visualisation – by closing his eyes and imagining each of these activities, we firmly imprinted the processes onto the mind’s eye.


It seems so very simple – and that’s why it works. Behavioural change really does happen in an instant. Adam’s mum wrote to me some months later delighted to report he’d had no further tantrums, just like magic. I’d say it was fun too!


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