Children and young people are fully capable of expressing and communicating their lived realities and that those realities are a valued focus of study. Just like any potentially vulnerable and marginalized population, conducting research with children requires an ethical understanding of how to involve them in the research and how not to perpetuate systemic injustices and discriminations that they often face in their daily lives.
Back to Basics
All research involves at least two
main participants, the researcher and the subject. The relationship between
researcher and subject is defined by the methodology of the research. The
methodology is critical in determining any truth claim that a research study
suggests. When researching childhood, a critical methodological concern is the
power dynamics that occur between adults and children. Unequal power can
compromise your data and severely distort truth. But more importantly, it can
cause harm to your subject. In order to make any truth claims based on the
scientific process, careful consideration must be given to the ethics of
involving children in research so that power dynamics can become more
equalized, while also acknowledging that they may never truly disappear.
The UN Convention on the Rights of
the Child articulates various rights and responsibilities that children have.
Article 3 states that the best interests of the child must be the primary
concern in making decisions that may affect them—including on their
participation in research. As holders of rights, even the youngest children are
entitled to express their views. Young children are acutely sensitive to their
surroundings and acquire an understanding of people, places and routines in
their lives, along with the awareness of their own identity. They make choices
and communicate their feelings, ideas and wishes in numerous ways, long before
they are able to communicate through spoken or written language. It may be
through drawings, body movements, or eye contact. Children even use silence to
The new sociology of
childhood is a scientific discipline that promotes the process of
obtaining assent from children to participate in research. This discipline
recognizes that children’s agency in research is based on the view that
children are individuals who experience their worlds in unique ways, and that
these unique experiences are a valued focus of study. So, what is assent? In
addition to parents and guardians providing informed consent, seeking children’s assent is a process
where children can exercise choice about their own research participation.
There are different conceptions of assent and consent between the medical field
and sociological studies—so, it is important to know how to use it and within
So, how do you seek assent with children?
Tip #1: Researchers
often balance written and visual information with verbal information. Knowing
the individual child participants well enough to be able to make judgments
about what information is necessary to facilitate their understanding is an
ongoing process, also known as process assent. Respect for children as an
individual also includes respect for their developing competencies. Competence
is a developmental process. That means that the content and process of assent
may have to be explained in different ways at different times. Develop
an assent and accountability framework that will help you explain the process
of research and its findings in a child-friendly manner and systematically
‘check-in’ with children about their participation in the research.
Tip #2: It is important that voluntary participation
involves an active decision to take part—rather than failure to give dissent,
or passive resignation. The voluntary nature of participation can also be
undermined by things like obligations to parents or teachers. Familiar
contexts, people and experiences can promote participation. However,
familiarity can also put pressure on children to participate. Supportive
contexts facilitate children’s developing competencies, while recognizing that
their interests and understandings change. Develop protocols to use
when seeking children’s assent that considers as many factors as possible about
why they would answer in a particular way.
Tip #3: Work
with and build a relationship with children’s gatekeepers. In addition to
parents as gatekeepers, there may also be educators or supervisors at early learning
and child care centres. Gatekeepers provide a familiar and trusted mediator
between participants and researchers. They may have knowledge about the social
and cultural contexts and language protocols. Building a relationship will give
the researcher a better sense of a child’s interests and preferences which
provides opportunities to gauge their comfort with participation. These
relationships also allow a child to get to know the researcher within
supportive and safe interactions. Dedicate time to building
relationships and having conversations with the gatekeepers and remember that such
conversations need to strike a balance between providing critical information
and too much detail that can lead to confusion.
Tip #4: Researchers can use reflexivity to analyze the
personal, intersubjective and social processes which shape their research and
acknowledge their role. Reflexivity includes critical and ethical reflection on
the assumptions underpinning the research and the processes to obtain assent,
conduct the research and interpret the findings. Researchers should also be
able to explain in an understandable way how the research findings will be
used. Children may have critical and ethical questions about who benefits from
the research; what is their future involvement; and how will they be
represented in the research findings. Engage in internal reflection
through an explicit and systematic process throughout the research process and
think about how the insights gained may influence how you converse with
children and their gatekeepers.
I recently presented on a webinar for professionals in the social research and evaluation sector that was organized by YouthPower. Check out the video below for my section of the webinar including the question and answer period.
If you are starting to think about
how to genuinely involve children’s participation in research, fortunately,
there is lots of great reading material out there. By reading some of the great
material on research with children you can begin to understand
children’s position in research–and even in our adult-centric world.
Meaningfully and authentically involving children’s participation in research
can contribute immensely to the truths that you are trying to uncover in your
research. Not only will your programs or studies be better off with a good
understanding of your stakeholders, but you will be actively supporting and
advocating for the realization of the UN Convention on the Rights of the
Child–one of the most important and widely
accepted international conventions.
some material to get you started on you reading adventure:
these organizations publish material that relates to involving children in
research, monitoring and evaluations:
This post is cross posted with the following article from the American Evaluation Asssociation’s AEA365 Blog.
Academic Articles on Child
Assent and Participation
Schiller, W., & Einarsdottir,
J. (2009). Special Issue: Listening to young children’s voices in research –
changing perspectives/changing relationships. Early Child Development
and Care, 179(2), 125–130.
Schnoor, O. (2012). Early childhood
studies as vocal studies: Examining the social practices of “giving voice to
children’s voices” in a crèche. Childhood, 20(4),
S. (2015). Researching children’s silences: Exploring the fullness of voice in
childhood research. Childhood.
Underwood, K., Chan, C., Koller, D.,
& Valeo, A. (2015). Understanding Young Children’s Capabilities: Approaches
to Interviews with Young Children Experiencing Disability. Child Care
in Practice, 0(0), 1–18.
White, L. a. (2014). Understanding
Canada’s Lack of Progress in Implementing the un Convention on the Rights of
the Child. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 22(1),
Pyle, A., & Danniels, E. (2015).
Using a picture book to gain assent in research with young children. Early
Child Development and Care.
Nussbaum, M., & Dixon, R.
(2012). Children’s Rights and a Capabilities Approach: The Question of
Special Priority. Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers.
Mayes, E. (2015). Shifting research
methods with a becoming-child ontology : Co- theorising puppet
production with high school students. Childhood, 1–18.
Matthews, S. H. (2007). A Window on
the “ New ” Sociology of Childhood. Sociology The Journal
Of The British Sociological Association, 1, 322–334.
Hurley, J. C., & Underwood, M. K.
(2002). Children’s understanding of their research rights before and after
debriefing: informed assent, confidentiality, and stopping participation. Child
Development, 73(1), 132–143.
R., & Karlsson,
L. (2013). Lollipop stories: Listening to children’s voices in the classroom
and narrative ethnographical research. Childhood,
Harcourt*, D., & Conroy, H. (2005).
Informed assent: ethics and processes when researching with young
children. Early Child Development and Care, 175(6),
Grimes, S. M., & Street, W. H.
(2008). Researching the Researchers : Market
Researchers, Child Subjects and the Problem of “ Informed ” Consent. International
Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 1(1), 66–91.
Frost, K. H., Lincoln, S. H., Norkett,
E. M., Jin,
M. X., Gonzalez-Heydrich, J., & D’Angelo, E. J. (2016). The Ethical
Inclusion of Children With Psychotic Disorders in Research:
Recommendations for an Educative, Multimodal Assent Process. Ethics
& Behavior, 26(2), 163–175.
M., Rocca, C., Marchesi,
V., & Maggi, S. (2014). Ask Them : Child
Participation in the Development of Educational Services. Canadian
Journal of Children’s Rights, 219–234.
Dockett, S., & Perry, B. (2011).
Researching with young children: Seeking assent. Child Indicators
Research, 4(2), 231–247. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-010-9084-0
Dockett, S., Einarsdóttir,
J., & Perry, B. (2012). Young children’s decisions about research
participation: opting out. International Journal of Early Years
Education, 20(3), 244–256.
Dockett, S., Einarsdottir,
J., & Perry, B. (2009). Researching With Children: Ethical
Tensions. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 7(3),
Di Santo, A., & Kenneally, N.
(2014). A call for a shift in thinking: Viewing children as rights-holders in
early childhood curriculum frameworks. Childhood Education, 90(6),
Bourke, R., & Loveridge, J. (2014).
Exploring informed consent and dissent through children’s participation in
educational research. International Journal of Research & Method in
Education, 37(2), 151–165.
Baines, P. (2011). Assent for children’s
participation in research is incoherent and wrong. Archives of Disease
in Childhood, 96(10), 960–962. http://doi.org/10.1136/adc.2011.211342
Adcock, K. G., Hogan, S. M., Elci,
O. U., & Mills, K. L. (2012). Clinical Investigation Do Illustrations
Improve Children’s Comprehension of Assent Documents ? Journal
of Pharmacological Therapy, 17(3).