The Wellbeing Curriculum with Andrew Cowley

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Andrew Cowley

I am joined today by Andrew Cowley. I last spoke to Andrew two years ago when The Wellbeing Toolkit was published and I am delighted to see a follow up in the form of The Wellbeing Curriculum. So Andrew, I asked you two years ago if writing had changed your life. Has it changed now?

Hi Sam. Great to chat again. Has life changed? It has. I have left teaching to take up other projects. I am involved in coaching for the school mental health award, recording podcasts and webinars, writing articles and speaking to trainee teachers and headteachers about working in and creating cultures of wellbeing in school. My books have certainly given me the exposure which has led to these opportunities. My biggest change though has come with the arrival of our granddaughter. 

Congratulations! You must be so proud. Has becoming a grandparent had an impact on your writing?

I knew she was coming as The Wellbeing Curriculum was in its final stages. I actually reference her arrival in the final paragraph. I sincerely hope that when she gets to school, the principles and ideas I have set out are more widely embedded in our schools. High stakes accountability and a model of assessment that is focussed upon children being “secondary ready” has risked the pastoral side of primary school being relegated in the name of progress. The present inspection framework doesn’t help and the ongoing impact of the pandemic has very much focussed the attention of many on the anxieties that children are now feeling.

Has Covid-19 impacted mental health in our schools?

It certainly has. There was a narrative being put around social media from September 2020 and since that a ‘mental health crisis’ either didn’t exist, wasn’t going to exist and didn’t need a change to curriculum or to any behavioural systems in school. I realised very early on in the first lockdown that children were being impacted, missing their friends and teachers. The return in autumn 2020 was abbreviated for many children as outbreaks began again and the third lockdown in the winter months with the pressure on families with online learning, shortage of devices and overloaded wi-fi connections coupled with domestic and economic pressures was a tipping point. My recent conversations have shown that schools have had concerns relating to self-harm, eating disorders, inappropriate use of the internet and social media and more children showing anxiety about leaving parents. There has been an increase in domestic violence, substance misuse and parental mental health issues too. Year 7 and Year 8 children have presented as much more immature on arrival at secondary school having missed out on the traditional rite of passage that the final part of Year 6 normally allows for. Children in Key Stage 1 are having to be retaught social skills that Nursery and Reception would have given them. It is worth remembering that children in Year 3 last had an uninterrupted school year when they were in Reception. We cannot be so instantly dismissive of mental health with this weight of evidence.

The Wellbeing Curriculum. Is it a natural successor to The Wellbeing Toolkit?

I certainly had children’s wellbeing in mind when I was writing about staff wellbeing. The two have to go together, because if we can’t get staff wellbeing right, we are going to struggle with that of the children. Children know when their teachers aren’t in the right place, as they are perceptive of the stresses and anxieties their teachers show. As for writing the book, you don’t have to have read the first as the two sit as separate volumes. The Wellbeing Toolkit sets out principles for wellbeing, whereas The Wellbeing Curriculum proposes a three part program for developing wellbeing and character development: children knowing themselves, knowing others and putting wellbeing principles into practice. 

Tell me about ‘knowing themselves’.

This section covers self-awareness which includes mental health and encouraging children to be open about their feelings. It starts with where the children are, hence working from the traditional EYFS topic of ‘Ourselves’ and including social skills and manners but also aspects such as personal safety. I cover what can be seen as a dry subject in road safety too, but I suggest that schools go beyond the token days which tick a box to ensure the messages from these vital areas of learning are embedded in the culture of the school, so they become a personal choice. Wellbeing is, I believe, a life skill, both in terms of self care and in supporting others.

You include a chapter on the environment and gardening. Is this a personal interest?

Very much so, but one which I have shared with the children over the years, from making our own compost to growing our own potatoes, from repurposing plastic bottles as planters to growing salads for the kitchen to serve at lunch. This has been an effective way to engage the interest of the children in the environment, which is of concern to them, especially when they can witness directly the impact of traffic fumes, noise pollution and littering. The worry expressed by children about their environmental future is most definitely part of a wellbeing agenda.

I can clearly see that wellbeing goes beyond mindfulness lessons in your writing. How are you seeking to define wellbeing?

Everyone, children and adults alike, should recognise that they cause an impact with everything they do, say or even think. This impact may be neutral, negative or positive. As a simple example, think about a child passing a teacher in the corridor; if the teacher says “hello” that’s a positive interaction, a telling off is a negative interaction. Where there is no exchange of words, that is neutral, though I would hope any teacher could turn this positive with at least a smile. Wellbeing should be an everyday experience, but it is the negative experiences that cause upset and angst. We teach the children social skills from EYFS and this needs to continue through school. Wellbeing, like I said earlier, is a life skill and is about life choices. 

Such as choosing kindness? You very eloquently make the point that kindness should be genuine.

Thank you for picking that up, The hashtag #BeKind is often bandied about on social media by people who in other posts or in their daily behaviour don’t show this as consistent. Children need to be taught that kindness is genuine, not something to pursue for reward or attention; the actual reward for kindness comes in the respect shown by peers and adults which is of greater value than a certificate or a sticker. I’m not knocking stickers either, but do feel when they are awarded the child understands why it has been given. Choosing kindness, as the book Wonder makes clear, can go a long way to addressing issues of bullying in schools.

You talk extensively about digital safety and cyberbullying. What is your key message here?

This is really about parental engagement and asking them to take serious control over their child’s digital use. From inappropriate messaging to playing computer games outside of the age range, parents either don’t know or don’t understand what their children are doing online. Concerns about online grooming, password protection, trolling and gaslighting all need some quite blunt explanations to parents. Children have access to devices at increasingly earlier ages, show more tech savvy than adults, but sometimes little awareness of the risks. I cite the case of Breck Bednar in the book, a child who lost his life to an online groomer through a gaming site. 

Your final section is about putting values into action. This was a powerful part of the book. What was your motivation for this?

This part was very much about fairness and opportunity. The chapter on leadership addresses the idea that we should give every child the chance to lead. School council is one role that might only go to the children who are confident and more vocal, but what about the quiet ones. Leadership isn’t about being loud or pushy; it is more appropriate to consider values such as honesty and hard work, which is why I have advocated the place of roles like digital leaders and eco monitors which can give the children a chance to develop and promote their interpersonal skills and their personal interests. The chapter on diversity addresses how to challenge discriminatory language and behaviour. Much of this has been drawn from my experience over nearly thirty years teaching. I have drawn attention to the story of Lily Parr, the greatest woman footballer of her generation, at a time when women were banned from playing in stadiums by the Football Association, because when I began teaching, I couldn’t select girls for the school team. If we are as a society seriously going to address racism and sexism, discrimination against disability and the neurodiverse, language and attitudes around sexuality and gender identity, we have to teach how to challenge prejudice to our young people.

Thank you Andrew. What I enjoyed most about the book is that not only is it principled, it is highly practical. What can you share with readers about this?

Each chapter has suggested activities to use in class for EYFS and each Key Stage, so each theme can be returned to in a spiral curriculum. There is also an assembly for each chapter which can be adapted to suit the needs of schools using them. On the Bloomsbury website we are adding interactive presentations for these assemblies and editable knowledge organisers for teachers to use in class. There is also a booklist of twenty suggested texts to use to address different aspects of the wellbeing curriculum that the school will deliver.

One last question. Any plans for a third book?

There are plenty of ideas in my head! I have always had the thought of writing fiction for children, but in terms of writing for wellbeing, the experience of writing these two books has made me very much appreciate that wellbeing is a universal and societal concern, as much a right for health service staff and firefighters, lawyers and those in manufacturing and the service industries, as well as for everyone in their neighbourhoods and communities. I’m sure there’s more room for research there!

Thank you Andrew

Thank you Sam, Keep safe, have a great Christmas and a successful 2022.