C. elegans is widely used to dissect how neural circuits and genes generate behavior. During locomotion, worms initiate backward movement to change locomotion direction spontaneously or in response to sensory cues; however, the underlying neural circuits are not well defined. We applied a multidisciplinary approach to map neural circuits in freely behaving worms by integrating functional imaging, optogenetic interrogation, genetic manipulation, laser ablation, and electrophysiology. We found that a disinhibitory circuit and a stimulatory circuit together promote initiation of backward movement and that circuitry dynamics is differentially regulated by sensory cues. Both circuits require glutamatergic transmission but depend on distinct glutamate receptors. This dual mode of motor initiation control is found in mammals, suggesting that distantly related organisms with anatomically distinct nervous systems may adopt similar strategies for motor control. Additionally, our studies illustrate how a multidisciplinary approach facilitates dissection of circuit and synaptic mechanisms underlying behavior in a genetic model organism.