Capturing the voices, views and experiences of children and young people directly and involving them more actively in the research process are increasingly seen as essential for good social research, evaluation, policy and service development.
Often, the perspectives of children and young people are filtered through the interpretations of adults: with either parents or carers serving as their ‘proxies’, or by adult researchers. Adult views may need to be considered as well as, but not as a proxy, for those of the children they parent, teach or provide services for. As anybody who engages with children and young people knows, the views of children and young people are rarely the same as those of the adults who care for them and work with them. Children and young people are people in their own right – citizens, with agency, lived experience and rights, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to have a say in matters which affect them.
Over the last eight years we have run a course on ‘social research and evaluation with children and young people’ for the Social Research Association. Course participants highlighted the need for a concise, practical, overview of key ethical and methodological considerations and the involvement of children and young people in the research process. This work and input resulted in a book, recently published as part of the Policy Press Social Research Association Shorts series: Social Research with Children and Young People: A Practical Guide.
The book explores the principle of enabling children and young people to employ their own agency and express their own experiences and views. Good research and evaluation need approaches and methods which value children’s and young people’s agency and lived experience and enable children and young people to be listened to, so that the policies and services better reflect their priorities and concerns. For example, to be effective a programme designed to minimise school exclusions will need to explore the perspectives of pupils who are at risk of, or who have experienced, exclusion, not just the views of education professionals and/or parents. To work, interventions need to be trialled, tested and evaluated with the groups who will use them.
Doing research with children and young people often requires additional ethical and methodological considerations to research with adults, for example the development of accessible and age-appropriate information is essential for informed consent and confidentiality, privacy and anonymity. Greater attention is needed regarding power differentials between adults and children, children and young people’s relative inexperience of research and the need to work with an array of adult ‘gatekeepers’ such as parents or carers and schools. Accessible and age-appropriate information is essential for informed consent; protect children’s and young people’s confidentiality, privacy and anonymity; and minimising bias in sampling. For example when working with children and young people using a service, it is not uncommon for staff to enquire about who is being interviewed in the research or what opinions they express.
Sampling, the research strategy and methodologies need to be carefully considered to ensure that the data collected accurately reflects the views and experiences of the enormous diversity of children and young people who will be affected by the issues under research. It is not uncommon to see certain groups either over- or under-researched. For example, when working with settings such as schools, staff may presume you want to talk to the children who are most needy, or to those who are the most articulate. ‘Children and young people’ are not a homogenous group: they live in a wide variety of communities and familial compositions, with associated variations in social inclusion and access to opportunities. So, sampling and methodologies need to encompass multiple factors including age, cognitive development, ethnicity, culture, disability, gender, socio-economic, living circumstances and other aspects.
Involving those who are the focus of research has been found to have a positive impact on what is researched, how research is conducted and the impact of research findings on services and in the lives of those involved (Staley, 2009). Involvement can lead to research, and ultimately services, that better reflect young people’s priorities and concerns (Brady et al., 2018). Involving children and young people in research also benefits those involved, for instance by helping them to develop useful skills and experience. Children and young people can be involved in any stages of the research process, from identifying research topics to dissemination. Involvement is not a prescriptive approach: it can take different forms and levels (including consultation, collaboration and co-production) and vary between and within projects, depending on the nature of the research and the interests and availability of the children and young people involved. For example the GenerationR young people’s advisory groups support the involvement of children and young people in the design and delivery of paediatric research in the England. Another a group of young people with relevant lived experience were involved in a one-off workshop to inform a systematic review on services for people affected by adverse childhood experiences (Lester and Brady, 2018).
At a time of limited budgets and, often, a need for fast results for social research and evaluation, there is often a considerable distance between the research we would like to do and the research we are able to do. But there is nonetheless still a need to ensure that the voices of children and young people are captured in ways that are ethically and methodologically sound. Our top tips for involving young people are to be honest, be open and have fun! In the rather dry world of research and evaluation, working alongside children and young people is hugely enjoyable as well as a chance to keep seeing the world from new perspectives and keep learning.
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