Classrooms used to be filled with them – old wooden desks with uncomfortable chairs attached to tilted writing surfaces with just enough room to store a few books.
Times have changed.
“The needs of children haven’t really changed, but we just realize that children learn differently,” explained Jordan Trinastich, special education teacher at Frisco ISD’s Robertson Elementary.
“Kids used to be told, ‘You have to sit still. Be quiet. Don’t move.’ So, they were spending all their energy and mental capacity thinking, ‘OK, I can’t move a muscle. I just have to sit here.”
Trinastich picked a large exercise ball, which some call a yoga ball, off a shelf in her room and demonstrated how desks have changed. “The kids will sit here at these tables and, with the yoga balls, they have the ability to move while they’re learning,” she said.
The yoga balls allow the kids to wiggle and fidget, which Trinastich says can help them focus. Her room, and every special education classroom across Frisco, is starting the 2018 – 2019 school year with yoga balls, thanks to sophomore honors student Emerson Palazzo. “It’s just something that’s really needed,” Emerson said.
When she was in sixth grade, she took a leap of faith during lunch. “It was like the first two weeks of school. I’d been sitting with my friends from elementary school,” she said. “They would sit over there. I’d see them every day and I felt like I should go sit with them. So, one day I did.”
She ended up becoming good friends with two classmates who have autism. She wanted to learn more about autism, and when a teacher assigned a research project, that’s the subject she chose to study. She spoke to her new friends’ special education teacher who told Emerson that her number one request, and that of many other special education teachers, were more flexible seating options, like yoga balls.
“Eventually I got to a point where I was like, ‘I know so much about it, why don’t I go do something about it?’” Emerson said. She designed t-shirts and started selling them. She quickly raised enough money to buy 70 yoga balls.
“The first phase of the project was to get yoga balls into all Frisco ISD middle schools,” she said. “After that I was going to stop.” But she couldn’t. She knew there was still a need, so she kept raising money and kept donating yoga balls.
“All of Frisco ISD now has yoga balls in every single school,” she said. Emerson has also donated yoga balls to Plano ISD. She’s put more than 300 yoga balls to 91 schools. The Dallas Cowboys recently awarded her a $6,000 grant to continue her efforts.
One of the teachers on the receiving end is not in the least bit surprised. “She was always a leader in class,” said Brae Williams, who is now a special education teacher at Talley Elementary School, one of Frisco’s newest campuses. Seven years ago, she was Emerson’s third grade teacher.
“She was kind-hearted and always thought of others,” she said. “And just seeing what a great amazing young lady she’s turning into just really touched my heart.”
She’s a shining example of generosity and acceptance. “They’re not any different than we are, they’re still people, you still can be best friends with them, I learn from them every day,” she said, describing her friends who have autism.
Emerson isn’t sure what career path she will follow, but she thinks it might be in education or physical therapy.