Researching with young children

Researching with young and developmentally young children – ethical considerations, dilemmas and compromises

One of the most challenging considerations when researching with young and developmentally young children is the question of gaining children’s consent to participate in research and their perspectives on the topic under study. Issues relate to the age at which children can realistically understand what they’re being asked to participate in as well as consideration of their cognitive and linguistic ability to give consent. Linked to this are the inevitable power relationships that inhere in research inquiry that involves adult researchers and child participants. This is an ethical consideration that I have pondered on and deliberated over considerably in the numerous projects I’ve undertaken.

Within the UK, the term ‘child’ means anyone below the age of 18 years. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Human Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) granted rights to children between the ages of birth to eighteen to have their wishes known, listened to and respected. The dilemma for researchers is that the perceived ability of a child to give consent will depend not just on an individual child’s chronological age, but also on their level of understanding, particularly if they are experiencing a developmental delay or disorder. Requiring high levels of understanding for a valid consent, however, could operate to exclude research with children (particularly those with SEND) unless an adult has consented on their behalf (Mason, 2004).

Whilst on the one hand researchers need to develop ways of engaging children in a wide range of different circumstances, including those with SEND, on the other hand in order to obtain high-quality information, they must also ensure that children’s rights are safeguarded (Mason, 2004). In this respect, young children are surrounded by adults who have a legal responsibility to act as ‘gatekeepers’, safeguarding them from outside influences, such as researchers, and arguably guarding their free choice of whether or not to participate in research (Mason, 2004). Children of all ages are subject to the control of those who have parental responsibility for their welfare and safeguarding. Legally, researchers who wish to include young children who are not considered mature enough (chronologically or developmentally) to make their own decision about participation must obtain the agreement of a least one person who has parental responsibility for the child (Mason, 2004).

Alderson (2004) acknowledged that consent is a key issue in research with children which raises hard, often unresolved, questions (Alderson, 2004). For example, there is no simple answer to the question of when children are old enough to give consent. Much depends on their prior experiences within the social, cultural and historical contexts in which they grow and develop. This poses an ethical dilemma for researchers, which requires reflection. Denzin reminds of our primary obligation as researchers that is ‘,. always to the people we study, not to our project or to a larger discipline. The lives and stories that we hear and study are given to us under a promise, that promise being that we protect those who have shared them with us’ (Denzin, 1989:83).

Fine and Sandstrom (1988: 46) urged that researchers provide children with an explanation of their involvement as ‘… children should be told as much as possible.. their age should not diminish rights, although their level of understanding must be taken into account in the explanations that are shared with them.’ Young children can be quite demonstrative in expressing their views, even if they do not verbally reject a researcher’s presence or questions. They can, for example, move away from a person they do not wish to be near (Aubrey et al., 2000), refuse to answer questions, change the topic of conversation or in extreme cases be physically aggressive if they feel particularly unhappy about situations. Certainly Flewitt (2005) found that children as young as three years old were ‘competent and confident enough to grant or withdraw consent – with some more outspoken and enquiring than their parents.’

The decision to adopt an ongoing process of assent whereby the child’s acceptance of the researcher within the setting can be taken as assent to participate in the research is sometimes considered appropriate where children have severe cognitive impairments. However, assent is not a term which sits comfortably with all researchers, some of whom argue that it may be used where children are simply too afraid, confused or ignored to refuse (see Alderson and Morrow, 2011). This indirect approach for assent/dissent has however, been successfully used within studies involving children with developmental delays/disorders (Blackburn, 2014; Brooks, 2010) and this may be for now the compromise that I will live with.

As far as gaining children’s perspectives within the research is concerned, I’ve really enjoyed working with Victoria Kinsella on one of the music projects to find ways of observing children’s involvement and engagement within projects when they have profound and multiple learning difficulties, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that, but I’ll leave her talk about that project at some point in the future.


Alderson, P. and Morrow, V. (2011) The Ethics of Research with Children and Young People: A Practical Handbook London: Sage

Alderson, P. (2004) Ethics in Fraser, S., Lewis, V., Ding, S., Kellett, M. and Robinson, C. (Eds) Doing Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage Publications pp 97-112

Aubrey, C., David, T., Godfrey, R. and Thompson, L. (2000) Early Childhood Educational Research: Issues in methodology and Ethics. Oxon: Routledge

Blackburn, C. (2014) The policy-to-practice context to the delays and difficulties in the acquisition of speech, language and communication in the first five years. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Birmingham: Birmingham City University

Brooks, T. (2010). Developing a learning environment which supports children with profound autistic spectrum disorders to engage as effective learners. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Institute of Education, University of Worcester: Worcestershire.

Denzin, N.K. (1989) Interpretive biography London, Sage

Flewitt, Rosie (2005). Conducting research with young children: some ethical considerations. Early Child Development and Care, 175(6), pp. 553–565.

Fine, G.A. and Sandstrom, K.L. (1988) Knowing Children: Participant Observation with Minors. Qualitative Research Methods Series 15 Beverly Hill, CA: Sage

Mason, J. (2004) The Legal Context in Fraser, S., Lewis, V., Ding, S., Kellett, M. and Robinson, C. (Eds) Doing Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage Publications


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