Top-Down and Bottom-Up Behaviors: Understanding the Critical Difference

Did you know that there are (at least) 2 different kinds of behaviors? Most people don’t. I didn’t, even after years of college, training, and earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Most graduate programs in mental health, education, social work, and medicine don’t yet consider this dichotomy important enough to teach or train about. But times are changing. My recent Facebook post on the topic reached well over a million people.

Over decades of clinical practice, I have found it’s critical to know the difference between top-down and bottom-up behaviors.

Bottom-up behaviors are instinctual and unintentional. They are survival-based stress responses, and operate through the activation of the brain’s threat-detection system. Infants only have bottom-up behaviors. They are called bottom-up because they come from cues in the body and areas of the brain that are driven by instincts.

Top-down behaviors are deliberate and intentional. Top-down thinking and behaviors develop over many years through connections to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. They are called top-down because they are literally driven by the top part of our bodies, the “executive function” center of our brain.

These two types of behaviors have completely different causes and should lead to very different solutions depending on the type of behavior. But this isn’t happening. Too many approaches to helping behaviorally challenged children and teens are based on the assumption that all challenging behaviors are alike.  And the main way we solve them? Punishment.

Here are a few cases in point:

Preschool suspensions—America’s preschools suspend an average of 250 preschoolers daily.

Seclusion and restraint —Across the US and internationally, schools send students into seclusion and isolation rooms under the guise of “protecting self or others.”

Isolation–When children and teens are hospitalized, too often isolation from family and friends is used  as an intervention.

Level- drop programs–Facilities frequently use this reward and consequence protocol for teens in residential psychiatric care.

What do all of these approaches have in common? They all involve discipline, and are based on the view that behaviors are top-down and deliberate, and should be dealt with through punishments, consequences or rewards.

That’s the problem. Not all behaviors are top-down; many disruptive behaviors are actually bottom-up.

Bottom-up behaviors do not respond to rewards, consequences or punishments. Bottom-up behaviors are brain-based stress responses that require understanding, compassion and actively helping an individual feel safe, based on that individual’s unique neurology. When we punish a bottom-up behavior, we can easily make matters worse. And this is why so many of our treatments fall short, or even deepen a child or teen’s emotional and behavioral challenges. As a point of reference, almost all toddler tantrums are bottom-up because children don’t begin to develop the ability to reliably control  emotions and behaviors until late toddlerhood. The process continues through early adulthood.

Parents, teachers and providers can avoid making matters worse by differentiating between the two types of behaviors.

A few ways to rectify the problem:

*Understand the difference between top-down and bottom-up causes of behaviors. This requires more than a blog post, and I explain it in my book Beyond Behaviors.  

* If the behavior is bottom-up, use bottom up strategies first, starting with helping the person feel safe rather than using discipline or punishment as the first approach.

*Share this knowledge among educators parents and professionals so we can all contribute to a system change.  

This shift in our thinking will help all children and teens who struggle—including those from loving homes, to foster children who have been needlessly blamed for their behaviors, and neurodivergent children inappropriately disciplined for their natural inclinations. All of that can change if we understand the difference between bottom-up and top-down behaviors.

I share more about the difference between top-down and bottom-up behaviors and how we can support children with each in Beyond Behaviors and in a CE course for teachers, providers and parents.