The meeting came to order. Wriggling second graders gathered into a circle on the rug, jostling and toying with each others’ hair. Scrawled in a child’s handwriting on the agenda: “Smelt it delt it.” One boy earnestly explained to classmates that he didn’t like when people joked, “You smelt it, you dealt it!” after he smelled something bad.

“It makes me feel embarrassed,” he told his classmates. “And I didn’t really do it.”

So his classmates weighed the matter. One boy scoffed that the saying was just a joke. Another said it hurt his feelings, too. The second graders voted to set a simple rule: Just don’t say it. Their teacher, Erica Diamond, sat alongside them, offering suggestions but never overruling them.

“At my old school you just told the teacher and the teacher would talk to them,” said Amelia Marshall, a second grader in Diamond’s class. “Here we solve it with friends.”

Setting the rules is part of schoolwork at Innovations Academy, an unconventional K-8 charter school with roughly 200 students that practices what it calls “positive discipline.” Children handle disputes together instead of running to the principal. They create rules adults might not agree with. The idea is children will become more independent, cooperative and thoughtful instead of merely compliant, learning the how and why of following the rules.

And the question is bigger than coping with fart jokes. The unusual Mission Valley school is testing out a competing theory to address an age-old problem: How to convince children to not act up.

Instead of adults laying down the law, Innovations has handed much of the power to the kids. Children at the school have confronted a classmate who was too loud during class. Middle schoolers brokered rules for when students can spin in rolling chairs. Third graders figured out how to share a single, coveted cardboard fort. And they agreed to stop teasing boys who were friends with girls.

Danielle Strachman, one of Innovations’ directors, explains that they teach children the natural or logical consequences of their behavior. Running behind the swing set means you’ll probably get kicked in the face. Talking over your classmates makes it hard for everyone else to hear. Classroom rules at Innovations aren’t so different than elsewhere — but what is unusual is the way they create the rules.

“It’s easy to get kids to buy into these things” with rewards and punishments, Diamond said. “But what we want is for them to want these things.”

Punishments and rewards are frowned upon. Instead, the school seeks to help children right the wrongs they make, figure out why a student is misbehaving and how they can redirect their actions. When a boy graffitied a bathroom wall with a thick black marker, Strachman sat down and explained to him she had to clean up graffiti because Innovations lacks a janitor. Did he need paper to draw on? she asked. School leaders say the boy, who had repeatedly been in trouble at his old school, stopped acting up.

One professor says it’s a better way of preparing kids for the real world. “It’s actually a much more common sense approach than what we had when we were growing up,” said Carol Prime, who teaches classroom management at San Diego State University. “‘Do what I tell you to do because I’m the boss’ isn’t the way the world works anymore.”

The method flies in the face of traditional school discipline. Child psychologists typically fall into two camps: Behaviorists believe in using punishments and rewards to train kids to follow directions from adults. Humanists deride them as bribes; they argue for building relationships with children to respect others’ needs. David Strahan, a Western Carolina University education professor who has studied discipline, said most educators have only experienced a traditional classroom in which adults have control. It’s more familiar — and it can be much easier for a nervous teacher to handle.

Humanists have an uphill battle to convince others that their methods will work, said R.T. Tauber, professor emeritus of education at Pennsylvania State University. “To the uninformed, it sounds like you’re turning over the institution to the inmates.”

As schools across California try to curb detentions and referrals, “positive discipline” is the zeitgeist. But educators don’t even agree on what that means or what it entails. Few are trying anything as bold as Innovations, where discipline falls at the far end of the humanist spectrum. Experimenting is easy because it’s a charter school, free from school district and many state rules.

Not everyone likes the experiment: San Diego Unified officials fielded “a number of complaints” from parents last year about “a lack of discipline,” according to a school district monitoring report about Innovations. School leaders added class councils to mediate student complaints and disputes, but its classrooms can still seem disorderly. Earlier this week in one classroom, third graders stood on desks, tossed paper idly and gabbed as the class tried to discuss an upcoming bake sale.

A girl in neon pink fishnets grew frustrated at the noise. “I think that everyone should be quiet because it’s my turn!” she exclaimed. “I’m waiting!”

But children kept chatting.

“Can you sit over there please?” teacher Patrick Garland asked one third grader, pointing to another seat across the room.

“I’m OK,” the boy replied.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Garland replied.

But he didn’t force him to move. Later Garland talked with the boy outside along with two troublesome classmates. They admitted they’d been disruptive and talked about their mistakes. Not all classes were as rowdy as this one: Third grade is especially difficult because many of its students are new to Innovations, a school still in its infancy. The longer students spend there, the more they adapt.

Still, kids are resistant at first and don’t immediately cooperate, said Aisha Pope, a consultant who assists the school. “The adults can get scared and back off. The traditional model is, the teachers decide what’s going on. If everybody decides what’s going on, it’s going to feel a little more chaotic.”

Teachers also let children make mistakes or choose things they might not think are right. Second graders, for example, agreed that telling secrets was allowed if just a few people were around.

Adults will still step in and prevent the kids from making dangerous rules, said Christine Kuglen, staff director. And Strachman said the school has resorted to more traditional discipline when kids make serious mistakes. Two students were recently suspended after middle schoolers goaded each other to inappropriately grab girls. But unlike in some schools, “the girls got to talk to them about it,” said Warren Grover, an eighth grader. “We all talked about it together.”

Doing discipline this way also involves a bracing level of honesty. Garland encourages his students to talk candidly about their needs with each other. Class councils sometimes center on problems with specific students, such as someone holding the class hamsters for too long or getting called a name they don’t like. The unexpected thing, teachers say, is that kids can be stricter with each other than the adults.

“It gets us thinking about what we should do differently,” said sixth grader Agustin Aguirre. “Because we come up with the rules — even if sometimes we break them.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

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