Top Down vs Bottom Up in the Classroom

Planning heirarchy

I‘ve been in a few conversations lately that have made me think about my way of viewing classroom problems. Top down and bottom up aren’t quite right, but I suppose it’s such a common metaphor that I’m finding it difficult to break free of it. The top and bottom in this case are not people but the different levels of action and planning that go into teaching.

Have a look at the heirarchy at the top. The base level is the classroom, the things you do in the moment. Above that is your lesson planning, the detailed short term planning. Then there is programming, where you ensure that your activities are leading to your outcomes and you have the assessments to prove it. At the top is your class philosophy – your vision, your goals and your behaviour management policy. The size of the step indicates the time spent in each level, and each step does some of the work for the step below it.

All levels are influenced by outside things like school policies and procedures. But they cannot be replaced. It may sound as if it’s just extra work, but spending a bit of time clarifying and writing down how you want your classroom to run and why supports everything else you do. It keeps you on track because you know where you are trying to go. It gives you a range of options for managing behaviour that you’ve already thought about.


By classroom problems I mean things like engagement, assessments that aren’t working or behaviour – the day to day ‘this isn’t going how I want it to.’

Focusing on fixing the problems individually is bottom up thinking. Looking at your whole program or delivery is top down thinking. Say you have a group who are coming late, opting out and mucking around.

Bottom up –

  • You could have a consequence of making up the time they’ve missed, either through lateness or not working.
  • Set a minimum amount of work that has to be done and chase them in their own time for it.
  • Have a system of escalating consequences that are followed through including involving parents, contracts and other supports.
  • Use routines, agendas and break lessons down so that there is a sense of moving forward, not getting bogged down.

Top down –

You might analyse the pattern in the classroom and decide it is based around non-engagement, they are deciding not to be involved in the work and finding ways to avoid it.

  • Look at your program and try to increase buy-in so they want to do it. eg negotiated curriculum or directly relevant work.
  • Increase learning activities that play to their strengths and interests, eg art or presentations rather than essays.
  • Have lots of active lessons such as visitors, experiments or going places around the school so they aren’t spending a lot of time sitting at their desks.


I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing wrong¬†about either of these ways of dealing with classroom problems. Both are valuable strategies and should be used in their place. However teachers have a tendency to get stuck in bottom up reactions¬†rather than pro-actively looking for top-down preventions. It’s top-down that is going to give you long term momentum, and ultimately it becomes less work.

Yes it’s a little more at the beginning of term. It does give you less control if you are negotiating (although I question how much control you actually have). It can be hard to think of inventive ways of teaching some topics. But it soon becomes a habit and a style you don’t have to think about. I haven’t done more than re-read and tweak my behaviour management philosophy in years because it’s at a point where it’s working for me. And that is far easier, and much less depressing, than writing out incident reports after every lesson or giving up my breaks chasing students.

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