Advice: Children’s Assent to Participate in Research

This post is the extended version of a post that I wrote for the American Evaluation Association’s AEA365 Blog.

Our work with children and young people over the last decade and a half has impressed upon us that they 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 so often face in their daily lives.

But before that, let’s go 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 express themselves.

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 which context.

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 teachers or managers at early childhood 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.

Rad resources:

If you are starting to think about how to genuinely involve children’s participation in research, you better be ready to read. 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. Doesn’t that sound great?!

Here is some material to get your started on you reading adventure:

Also, these organizations publish material that relates to involving children in research, monitoring and evaluations: