Divide and conquer

Behaviour Management

Divide and conquer

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Busy school classroom.

Similar to ‘pick your battles’, divide and conquer is a way of approaching a persistent behavioural problem that is unassailable with the usual techniques. Also apply this technique when you are faced with multiple offenders who feed off each other when together. Students are much more likely to run amok (as adults also do) when they can anonymously hide in the safety of a pack. Groups of students who form gangs, packs or cliques can be harder to manage than each member would be individually – students feel emboldened and overly confident when they have back-up. Additionally, compliance with your instructions may require more prodding and convincing than if each student was alone. If a pack student is quiet, polite, respectful and even timid when alone, this is a clear indication that you are dealing with run-of-the-mill pack behaviour. The answer is simple – divide and conquer.

Hint: A simple way to disarm a pack is to point out their alignment. Add a touch of tempered sarcasm such as, ‘how cute, you guys have formed your own little street gang – how do you see this ending today?’

When pack behaviour is identified, the teacher must first decide if the resulting issues are serious enough to warrant a divide and conquer approach. It may be a preventative, proactive measure to separate members of the gang but it does come with risks. Moving students around the room is potentially disruptive and may result in unintended consequences or further escalations (see ‘relocation refusers’). If the behaviour is borderline, a decision could be made to leave it for now. The option to dismantle the pack is reserved for offences that warrant further action. Sometimes students form temporary packs that dissolve themselves quite quickly once 1 or 2 members realise the situation that they find themselves in. When new and unsuspecting recruits realise that their association is resulting in unwanted teacher attention and consequences, they start searching for a socially acceptable ‘out’.

There are 2 aspects to the divide and conquer strategy that are worth understanding. First, the teacher must physically separate each member. This can be achieved in various ways, such as by moving 1 or 2 members, giving 1 or more students a job (such as helping another student) or simply sitting between the group for a short period of time. Usually the teacher only needs to deal with 1 or 2 students and the gang is effectively disbanded. The second half of divide and conquer, ‘conquer’, comes next.

Students are much more likely to run amok (as adults also do) when they can anonymously hide in the safety of a pack.

However, sometimes the teacher just wants to end the pack mentality behaviours and ‘divide’ is all that is required. Divide on its own is often a pre-emptive strike used to manage 2-3 students who find themselves distracted by each other’s company. In other instances, the teacher may see it necessary to subsequently ‘conquer’ the pack. This is where each student is dealt with individually and consequences are doled out. Say there are 5 students in a particular gang. 2 are ‘hangers-on’ and can be moved and spoken to easily enough (20 seconds each). The teacher knows they got sucked in by their socially-superior and charismatic gang leader – what is a kid to do? They are mere followers with an eagerness to please and to be accepted. No additional consequences need apply except to note their new place in the updated seating plan.

With the 2 allies easily removed, the pack is significantly weakened. The teacher chooses the next target who is loud and energetic, but who is unlikely to argue and gets along with the teacher quite well. The teacher catches this student on their way out the door and asks him or her to sit elsewhere ‘so that he or she does not get into trouble’. This third loss is a huge blow to the gang which is now a more manageable partnership of 2. The teacher can separate these remaining members or allow them to sit together under certain conditions (see ‘make a deal’) depending on their dynamic when together. Pack behaviour has been nullified.

To continue with the pack analogy, the ‘alpha’ may try to reinforce his or her pack with new recruits. If this happens, inform the alpha that you are aware of the pack behaviour and that it will not be tolerated. Developing a rapport with this individual is also effective as he or she will see no need to build an army for protection if you are perceived as caring, fair and reasonable.

Hint: Separating students may cause more issues than keeping them together because they may try to get each other’s attention from across the room. A student on his or her own often feels vulnerable and may act out or seek support from a colleague. By allowing the offending student to ‘have a friend’ under the condition they do not interact with any other student, the teacher averts more distracting attention-seeking behaviours.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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