Over the years we have connected with many families who found their children’s teenage years really hard. Teenage-hood is an awkward time for most kids, a time where kids are discovering their identity, where they belong; all the while hormones are racing through their bodies. Add the complexities of disability into the mix and it can be even harder. When Jack was in Year 5 we noticed the schoolyard play was changing and Jack seemed to be alone at lunchtimes regardless of how many offers Jack had to join in.
Jack was well known at school, but we found friendships were not deepening. When Jack was asked to join a game of handball or build ups, he would usually respond with “no”. We could see where this was heading, kids giving up asking, leading to isolation and loneliness. We were becoming increasingly nervous as Jacks was fast approaching teenagehood.
Like any parent, we wanted Jack to thrive in his teenage years and have a real sense of belonging. We needed to understand why Jack wouldn’t join in, as we knew he liked the games being offered and liked to be with other kids. Was it how he was asked? Were they asking Jack to join in on a large group? We knew we needed his peers to help us figure this out. We decided intentionality was needed in order to gain insight to give us context to situations and discover opportunities for kids to be with Jack through shared interests.
A Bunch of Mates
This was the beginning of the idea of a Bunch of Mates forming – an intentional group of students coming together for the purpose of nurturing opportunities where healthy, positive and deep friendships could form. We knew we couldn’t make people be friends, but we could create opportunities for friendships to flourish simply by kids coming together, sharing experiences based on interests in and outside of school. Isn’t this how friendships flourish for anyone – through shared interests…doing something together?
We talked to Jack about the idea and then went to the school to discuss how it could work within the school context.
We had researched other initiatives from interstate and overseas to understand how other people have run similar groups. Many had a paid facilitator who would come into the school. Given our idea was in a fledgling stage, we were not willing to hand over the facilitator’s role to somebody we didn’t know, therefore we decided to facilitate Jack’s Bunch of Mates ourselves. We proposed this to Jack’s teacher, middle school coordinator and principal and they welcomed the idea. It was agreed we would run the Bunch of Mates once a week during the lunch hour.
An invitation (not permission slip – a very important distinction) was sent home with eight (8) students Jack had identified. The invitation included the purpose of Jack’s Bunch of Mates and how students could be involved. The Bunch of Mates then started the following week with over 15 students coming along. Clearly the word had got around and kids did not want to miss out.
At our first session we had pizza for lunch and focused on the kids getting to know each other. Food has remained a constant part of the Bunch of Mates coming together. The first gathering was an opportunity to talk about each child’s interests and how they spent their time after school and on weekends.
Spending time together in and outside of school hours
Since this first meeting in May 2014, Jack’s Bunch of Mates continued to meet every week. The gatherings usually consisted of a discussion around what to do outside of school and assisting Jack’s mates to try different ways to involve Jack in typical games played during lunch like handball, touch footy and soccer. We focused on their similarities and shared interests. We always reminded the Bunch of Mates of the purpose behind why we gathered together – which is creating opportunities for friendships to deepen.
As a result of the intentionality of Jack’s Bunch of Mates, incidental acts of true friendship have taken place. They may seem small to some but to us they are the golden moments – such as one boy dropping in at home to ask Jack to walk to school with him. Jack couldn’t get out the door fast enough. Another golden moment was stumbling across Jack involved in kicking the footy after school with kids from the Bunch of Mates. It may seem like something quite typical or insignificant, but it was huge for our family.
We were very nervous starting Jack’s Bunch of Mates, but we were open to learning as we went. Since we took the plunge facilitating Jack’s Bunch of Mates, we found the positives far outweighed the time invested. The weekly gatherings not only deepened Jack’s relationship with the Bunch of Mates but also our relationship with the kids and their parents. The Bunch of Mates has given us an easier avenue to initiate opportunities for Jack to be involved socially with his mates. This has been reciprocated through birthday parties, sleepovers and just hanging out. Some kids have moved to another school but are still keenly involved in the Bunch of Mates outside of school.
After three years of running Jack’s Bunch of Mates we have tried a few different approaches. For a number of months we tried to involve some Year 10 students in the school to occasionally facilitate the Bunch of Mates, particularly if I was away. This worked well, but the challenge of the year 10’s lunchtime being different to the year 8’s became problematic. We also employed a young and cool sports coach with Jack’s National Disability Insurance Scheme funding. He has facilitated muck around touch footy games after school and some bike rides. This has worked really well to connect Jack to his peers and allowed the uncool parent to fade into the background a little.
Intentionally nurturing these relationships are so important for Jack not just now but into the future. Jack may find it hard to join a big game of handball, but will always get involved with his Bunch of Mates. Jack’s Bunch of Mates provides him with a sense of belonging.
We can see the genuine friendships that have grown. Who knows, some of the Bunch of Mates may even become his first flatmates when Jack finishes school and moves into a home of his own.
In a nutshell…
- This is for kids in mainstream school in regular classrooms – no kids with additional needs are included in Jack’s Bunch of Mates.
- There is a focus on relationships.
- The impact should extend beyond the school gate.
- It should be driven by the family and could have complimentary paid facilitation
- Send invitations, not permission slips.
- Keep it small, 15 is a little unruly. I would recommend a good size would be 6 kids.
What the Bunch of Mates have done together
- Handball, touch footy and soccer games at school
- Learning how to get Jack involved
- Walking to school together
- Going to the pool
- Catching the bus to swimming lessons together (without mum)
- Movie nights
- Fishing trips
- Learning Minecraft together
- Star Wars movie nights
Tips for starting a Bunch of Mates
- Be intentional.
- Be driven by your vision.
- Be clear about the purpose of the Bunch of Mates and always revisit this with the kids.
- Talk to the school and tell them it has been done elsewhere and it is working. Relationships are the key to self worth, confidence and learning.
- It is understandable to be nervous, but remember that they are kids and this gives them a sense of belonging too. Have courage!
- The focus is your family member – they are at the centre of their Bunch of Mates.
- Just do it – otherwise you end up thinking about it for too long.
- Have fun.