Research with children – and why we need it


By Annie Williams

Research has long played a role in the lives of children and young people and those concerned with their welfare. For many years, though, research involving children and young people was predominantly conducted on or about, rather than with, them. This grew from the belief that children did not fully understand their worlds and lacked the ability to express themselves in a reliable and valid way. In 1989, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child set out the rights of children to express their views on matters that affect them, and to have these views taken seriously. This, along with a conceptual shift towards a view of children as active agents capable of participating in the research process,  changed the way research with children and young people was conducted. Young people now often act as both advisors and participants, with research conducted in a way that involves and consults with them.

Although this is undeniably a positive shift, the move towards collecting data directly from young participants rather than by observation or through adult proxies demands consideration of a number of challenges and complexities. I welcomed the opportunity to address some of these in a two-day workshop  on research with vulnerable children. The workshop was held in the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Research and the Family, which specialises in work with vulnerable children such as looked after children, children involved with child protection services, and adolescent offenders. Although many of those attending the workshop came from similar research backgrounds, the comprehensive list of topics to be covered gave high hopes that the workshop would be valuable to any researcher working with children and young people, regardless of their discipline.

Looking at the whole research process

So, did it live up to my expectations? The workshop was extremely thorough, covering all stages of the research process, from identifying a research question to dissemination.  I brought away a number of valuable insights: a better recognition of how much thought must be given to conducting research with children at different stages of development, an appreciation of how personal values can affect data collection and analysis, and a reconfirmation of the value of involving young people in as many stages of the research process as possible. 

Considering children’s different developmental stages is vital in understanding how children see themselves and those close to them.

Understanding how a child sees things

An early presentation argued that all children and young people involved in research can be defined as vulnerable or potentially vulnerable irrespective of their situation in life, as some influential factors such as a child’s age and stage of development affect all, while others, such as disability, abuse or neglect, only impact on some. This led to a discussion of the need to consider during study design factors such as the developmental state of children involved, in order to minimise any possible negative impacts on the quality of the data gained.

A later film gave a clear illustration of this need. We were shown an exerpt of a pilot interview  in which a child of about seven years old was asked to choose small figures to represent important people in their life, and to arrange the figures on a board marked with coloured concentric circles. The innermost circle was reserved for the child’s most important people and the outermost for those the child “didn’t like so much”. During this process the child was encouraged to talk about the people, their relationship with them and why they had placed them in this way. What complicated this for the child in the film was the need to select appropriate figures to represent family and friends. The child had a best friend, a baby brother and grandmother for whom figures that “looked right” couldn’t be found. Fortunately, although the child became quite upset at the prospect of leaving out these important people, the interview interaction was comfortable enough to allow the child to discuss the dilemma. However, it was easy to see how these figures could have simply been left out, resulting in a limited representation and discussion of the child’s important people.

                                    The use of props can help researchers to see a child’s view of their world.

We also saw the child placing another brother in the outer circle because “he is horrible to me, he keeps hitting me” although this comment was qualified immediately by telling the researcher that the blue of this brother’s circle was his favourite colour. Clearly aware of the possible impact of factors such as sibling rivalry and recent events on the child’s perception of their close family and friends, the researcher gently encouraged the child to explain the placements and talk about relationships whilst they worked. This gained a more detailed and accurate account of relationships and events that underlie ongoing feelings, which in turn gave greater understanding of the strength of ongoing relationships with family and  friends, rather than ‘snapshots’  that could be misleading. Another example of the importance of taking into account children’s understandings and representations of reality came later when the child described their best friend as “much much older than me” only for further questioning to reveal that their age difference was around seven weeks!

This presentation and the ensuing discussion demonstrated that researchers must not only be able to interact with children well, they must also have a good understanding of children’s cognitive development and how it can vary between and within age groups. Researchers must also be able to apply this knowledge at multiple points during the research process, such as when considering research methods; interacting with children and young people during data collection; and analysing qualitative data.

Different perspectives

Another interesting part of the day was concerned with discursive reflexivity.  Discursive reflexivity grows from the argument that data is always to a degree constructed through personal pre-existing values and theories, which can influence data collection and analysis.  The presenter introduced the idea of using ‘reflexivity groups’ to address these influences. These groups work on the analysis of one transcript at a time, focusing on the interactions in the interview to identify instances where researcher-held values or theories may have impacted on the interactions and potentially affected the construction of the resulting account.

Attendees were divided into such groups to try our hand at discursive analysis on a transcript provided by the workshop. The later feedback made it clear that although a number of instances were commonly identified by all groups, there were many examples of defining moments in the narrative which were recognised by some but not others. Whilst the accompanying discussion centred on how easy it is for the positioning of the researcher to subconsciously direct the narrative, the value of conducting group analysis was commented on by many. There was general consensus that discursive analysis could be a good way for researchers to improve their interview skills and consequently the quality of the data.

In ‘reflexivity groups’, researchers try to identify points in an interview
where the researcher’s values may have impacted on the interactions taking place.

Getting young people involved

The final, memorable part of the day was a presentation by a group of young people, all of whom were or had been in care themselves, who had worked as co-researchers in a study looking at how plans are made and reviewed for people in care. The young people were invited to work on the project to help ensure it was relevant, that recruitment methods were ethical and effective, and that research questions used the right terminology. The positive impact of their enthusiasm and energy on the project was evident, as was their commitment to the project, and the value of the insights they provided into the lives of young people.

For many, their involvement in the project was their first time at work. The experience of team working, attending meetings and working to schedules were all cited as valuable additions to their skills and CVs, as was the fact that the research team could now provide references for later employment. The young people also felt the project had increased their knowledge of the research world and the subject area, and a number said they would like to become involved in more research.

This part of the day showed the mutual benefits of involving children and young people as consultants and researchers throughout project work, particularly those with lived experience of the relevant research areas. It also demonstrated the importance of understanding what the young people see as valuable in order to ensure they can gain as much as possible from being involved.

Overall, the workshop proved extremely useful. Personally, it led to a greater awareness of the complexities of collecting and interpreting the views of children and young people. It highlighted the danger that without care, research can result in false representation or disempowerment of children. It also drew attention to the need for reflective practice when conducting and analysing research, whether with children, young people or individuals and groups in general. Finally, the workshop  resulted in increased appreciation of the need for and value of young people’s involvement in research.

Dr. Annie Williams is a Research Associate at DECIPHer, based at Cardiff University. Annie attended ‘Research with vulnerable children’, a two-day course held at the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Research on Children and Families.

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