A Bunch of Mates is an intentional gathering of a small, select group of kids for the purpose of increasing and deepening social connection for a student with disability.
It is human nature to crave closeness to other people resulting in friendship. Navigating the complexities of friendship starts from a very young age and continues throughout our life. But I think it is true to say, we all yearn for a friend; someone to lean on; someone to make us feel like we belong. During the school years, we learn how to be a friend and grow through the friendships that we hold.
This yearning for friendship is no different for a person with disability.
We had noticed that play was changing in years 5/6 and Jack was often described to us as floating alone through the schoolyard. Jack was well known at school, but friendships were not deepening. When Jack was asked to join a game of handball or build-ups, he would usually say “no”. We could see where this was heading…isolation and loneliness. We knew the teenage years were going to be even harder after talking with other families further along the road than ourselves; we needed to look for a solution.
Like any parent, we wanted Jack to thrive now and during his teenage years and experience a real sense of belonging. We knew friendships only deepen when kids spend time together. We needed to understand why Jack wasn’t joining in when invited, as we knew he liked these games. We knew we needed his peers to help us figure this out. Therefore, we decided to be very intentional and ask for some input from his peers
A Bunch of Mates
We knew we couldn’t make people be friends, but we could create opportunities for friendships to flourish
This was the beginning of the idea of a Bunch of Mates forming – an intentional group of students coming together for the purpose of exploring opportunities to deepen his relationships with his peers. 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 who didn’t know Jack like we did. We, therefore, decided to facilitate Jack’s Bunch of Mates ourselves. The school agreed we could run the Bunch of Mates once a week during the lunch hour.
We asked Jack who he would like to invite into his Bunch of Mates and he quickly named 8 kids. We ran the names by Jack’s teachers to check if the kids Jack suggested made sense to her with regards to their current relationship. She totally agreed.
An invitation (not permission slip – a very important distinction) was sent home with eight students to share with their parents. The invitation included a description of a Bunch of Mates and how students could be involved. The Bunch of Mates then started the following week with ten students coming along (news had spread).
At our first gathering, we had pizza for lunch and focused on getting to know each other. It was a good opportunity to talk about each other’s interests and how they spent their time after school and on weekends. We had prepared a few photos of Jack that highlighted Jack’s interests that he could share with the group. I helped the kids make the connections between the shared interests they held with Jack and we kept notes for future reference.
We talked about what types of things the kids could do together outside of school and started to make a list. We then went outside so the kids could play a game together before heading back into class.
Spending time together in and outside of school hours
We focus on the similarities and the shared interests…
Jack’s Bunch of Mates ran from May 2014 to April 2016 where they met once a week in school. The key elements for all gatherings after the first
- The sharing of food was always an important part of any gathering
- At each school gathering, there was always an attentive focus on planning an outside-of-school activity
- Always making time to play a game together, like handball, touch footy or build-ups
- We always revisited the purpose of the Bunch of Mates, creating opportunities for friendships to deepen.
As a result of the intentionality of the Bunch of Mates, little incidental acts of true friendship took place. We call these the golden moments – such as one boy dropping in and asking Jack to walk to school with him. Jack couldn’t get out the door fast enough. Another was when Jack was invited to kick the footy after school. These ‘golden moments’ may seem small, but they were huge for our family and we celebrated. They were ordinary experiences within the kids’ day and they thought to invite Jack to join in, Jack said YES and we didn’t facilitate it.
Since we took the plunge facilitating Jack’s Bunch of Mates, we have found the positives far outweighed the time invested. Not only have the gatherings deepened Jack’s relationships with his peers, but it also offered us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the Bunch of Mates and their parents. The intentional gathering of the same group of kids over a number of years has offered us the opportunity to share Jack’s vision for his future with his peers and their parents. Our efforts have been reciprocated through birthday parties, sleepovers and opportunities to just hang out. Some kids have moved to another school but remained keenly involved in the Bunch of Mates outside of school.
What else did we try?
Who knows? Some of the Bunch of Mates may even become his first flatmates…
When Jack was in year 7 we involved four Year 10 students in the school to occasionally facilitate the Bunch of Mates.
We employed a young and cool sports mentor with Jack’s National Disability Insurance Scheme funding. He sometimes supported Jack and his mates
when appropriate. For example, kicking the footy around in the lead up to the touch footy team competition to ensure Jack stayed engaged. This worked well when it was much cooler to have the sports mentor rather than the uncool parent.
Jack’s Bunch of Mates ran the gathering with Jack in year 8.
When Jack’s Bunch of Mates grew to up to 15 kids and we felt it had lost the purpose we decided to take it out of the school to run a breakfast club for just six boys. This was fabulous. We provided breakfast and chatted to the boys while they were still waking up and eating food. The boys then had a kick of footy in the back yard before walking to school with Jack. This led to Jack joining one of the boys’ youth group.
These relationships remain important for Jack now and into the future. Jack may find it hard to join a large game of handball, but for reasons we cannot explain he will always get involved with a game of handball with his Bunch of Mates. Jack obviously felt like he belonged.
We can see the genuine friendships that have grown not with all the kids, but certainly a few. 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 schools in regular classrooms. Kids have to spend classroom time together to consolidate the relationships or else they are seen as visitors to the class.
- 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 not by the school.
- Send invitations, not permission slips.
What the Bunch of Mates has done
- 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 help them see it has been done elsewhere and it is working.
- It can provide a deeper sense of belonging for all kids involved.
- The focus is on 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.
- It is really nerve-wracking, but remember, they are just kids. Have fun.