Children and young people participating in research

Children and young people participating in research

7 April 2020
Preteen girl meeting with school counselor or therapist

This short article discusses key considerations for involving children and young people in research, using an AIFS project as an illustrative example.

Children and young people’s participation in research is vital to informing policies and practices that impact their lives (see e.g. Smith, Taylor & Gallop, 2000; Taylor & Gollop, 2015).

For researchers and sector professionals looking to understand the experience of children and young people, this short article describes what needs to be considered when undertaking research with children and young people using the example of the Children and Young People in Separated Families Study. Specifically, it focuses on the approach to obtaining ethical clearance, recruiting study participants and conducting interviews, to offer some insights for others about to embark on similar research projects.

The project

Conducted by the AIFS family law team in 2016–18, the Children and Young People in Separated Families Study involved in-depth interviews with children and young people whose parents had separated and had used family law system services. The study involved asking children and young people about their experiences to understand how the family law system may better meet their needs.

Ethical clearance

All research projects that ask people questions about their experiences will require ethical clearance (see National Health and Medical Research Council, 2018, National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research). This AIFS study had particular sensitivities relating to children’s involvement in the research and particular ethical concerns needed to be addressed.

Our research team’s experience of obtaining ethical clearance for this project reflected a cautious approach towards the conduct of research directly involving children and young people. The National Statement provides specific guidance for research involving children and young people, which includes their capacity to consent (see Chapter 4.2, National Statement). Concerns were raised in the ethics application process about the potential harm to children and young people as a result of participation in the proposed research.

Aware of these sensitivities, we developed a recruitment strategy (see below) and protocols that covered all aspects of how we engaged with participants to ensure that their participation did not cause them undue distress. These protocols guided us throughout the process of recruiting and screening potential participants, obtaining informed consent, interviewing and maintaining confidentiality.

Recruitment

Recruiting children and young people for research can present challenges. For this study, these challenges mainly related to our strict screening requirements.

Given the sensitive nature of the research, our screening requirements ensured a sufficient period of time had passed since the final resolution of the parents’ family law matters before children were interviewed. These time periods varied by age group:

  • 12 months for children aged 10–11 years
  • 3 months for children aged 12–17 years.

These waiting periods were in place to address any risk that a family’s participation in the research might affect their engagement with courts and other dispute resolution services, should a family re-open negotiations or legal proceedings.

However, the waiting periods also resulted in a complicated and lengthy recruitment process. This meant the research team often needed to keep in contact with the families involved over an extended period to maintain their interest in the study.

Conducting interviews

Engaging with children and young people in research of a sensitive nature requires researchers who are trained in child-safe research practices.

All researchers involved in the project completed training in interviewing children and young people in the family law context with an experienced psychologist. Their engagement with children and young people during recruiting and interviewing was guided by comprehensive protocols prepared in compliance with the National Statement.

The project also required that children and young people (and their parent) were given sufficient information to understand what the research involved and be able to give their informed consent. Two researchers were present at each interview and a registered psychologist on AIFS staff was available to support either the relevant child or research staff, if required.

Conclusion

Overall, the project was successful, with 61 children and young people interviewed by the research team. Results of the project support the value of research involving children and young people. This was demonstrated by the richness of their insights and experiences, their maturity and resilience, and the appreciation they expressed at having been heard:

I've gotten a lot out but I haven't gotten a lot, you know, like straight up, today I've gotten so much out that I've just wanted to get out for so long … it's one thing to tell people bits and pieces but to just whoosh it out, you know, and just like to really just like burn it off, just, it helps. (Zoe, Female, 12–14 years)

The project not only gathered valuable evidence about how family law system services may better meet the needs of children and young people, but also acknowledges the relevance and significance of their experiences. By prioritising their views and experiences, this research acknowledges the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) that recognises children’s right to participate in decisions relevant to their care (Article 9) and to make their views known in administrative and judicial proceedings affecting them (Article 12). The research team also prepared a child and parent-friendly summary to share the main findings of the research with the children and parents who participated.

In successfully addressing the challenges faced in implementing this research, researchers and sector professionals can work towards informing policies and practices that reflect the needs of our children and young people.

Further resources

References

  • National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia). (2018). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research 2007. Updated 2018. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
  • Smith, A., Taylor, N., & Gallop, M. (Eds.) (2000). Children’s voices: Research, policy and practice. Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand.
  • Taylor, N., & Gollop, M. (2015). Children’s views and participation in family dispute resolution in New Zealand. In A. B. Smith (Ed.), Enhancing children’s rights: Connecting research, policy and practice (pp. 242–255). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • United Nations. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Featured image: © GettyImages/SDI Productions

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Authors

Rachel Carson

Dr Rachel Carson is a socio-legal researcher with expertise in family law and qualitative research about family law disputes. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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