Ethical considerations in research and evaluation with children and young people
When designing a new program or evaluating an existing program, we may not think of research ethics. Needs assessment, consultation and evaluation are all forms of research and are subject to the principles of ethical research. The core ethical research principles—respect, research merit and integrity, justice and beneficence—are detailed in this CFCA article. When conducting research or evaluation with children and young people, there are some additional considerations—particularly if the research or evaluation is taking place in a service organisation or a school (Morrow, 2008).
Consent and assent
We often talk about requiring consent from participants in research and evaluation. For research or evaluation to be considered ethical, consent must be voluntary and must be based on a sufficient understanding of the research or evaluation and the implications of participating in it (National Health and Medical Research Council [NHMRC], 2007). While parental consent is usually required for children and young people under the age of 18 (for an explanation of circumstances where parental consent may not be required, see NHMRC, 2007, section 4.2.7–4.2.9), parental consent alone is not sufficient for older children and young people (Spriggs, 2010), who must also assent to participate (Morrow & Richards, 1996; Spriggs, 2010). This assent must be based on an understanding of the research or evaluation and must be voluntary.
In order to give informed consent or assent, participants must have adequate information in a format they can easily understand. It is the responsibility of the person or organisation conducting the research or evaluation to provide this in a way that is accessible to the participant. This is particularly important with children and young people, as their level of comprehension can vary (NHMRC, 2007). When working with children and young people (or participants in other categories, e.g., those with low English literacy), this may require visual or audio methods. If the research includes children and young people of different age groups, they may require recruitment and project information tailored to their particular age group. Information provided to children and young people should include any limits to confidentiality (e.g., if they disclose abuse) and what information will be shared with their parents, teachers or other adults in their lives (Mishna, Antle, & Regehr, 2004).
Considerations of power dynamics
It is important to also consider whether or not the child or young person can provide free and informed consent to participate. Children and young people are more vulnerable to exploitation by adults in research and evaluation (Morrow, 2008). For example, parents or other adults may exert pressure on a child or young person to participate. This may be exacerbated in a school or service provision setting where there is a pre-existing relationship and power differential between children or young people and teachers or staff. Depending on the role these adults play in recruitment and the consent process (NHMRC, 2007), children and young people may feel obliged to participate. This risk can be mitigated by having someone else (e.g., an external evaluator or researcher, or a staff member not known to the child or young person) undertake the recruitment and clearly explain there will be no negative consequences if they choose not to participate.
Consent as an ongoing process
Consent and assent are an ongoing process, not a one-off event (Morrow, 2008; Spriggs, 2010). Children and young people can withdraw from research and evaluation at any time, including after data collection has begun. They may find it difficult to withdraw their assent due to the power imbalances between children or young people and adults (Mishna et al., 2004). To ensure they are able to enact their right to withdraw their assent, it should be explained exactly how to do so (e.g., they can say they changed their mind) rather than just that they can do so (Mishna et al., 2004). Attention should also be given to children and young people’s verbal and behavioural cues (Mishna et al., 2004), and verbal reassurance should be provided that they can withdraw from the research or evaluation without consequence if they become disengaged (in addition to this being made clear in the project information provided to participants).
Adequate time should be allowed for the recruitment and consent process, including providing information to parents, children and young people, and giving them time to consider their participation. If conducting evaluation activities as part of a program or class, suitable alternative provisions should be made for students who choose not to participate.
Meeting ethical requirements is a key element of any research or evaluation project. Planning, developing clear materials for participants and ensuring all staff have a good understanding of the importance of these principles will help ensure that research and evaluation are conducted ethically.
- Understanding consent in research involving children: The ethical issues (PDF)
This handbook provides guidance on the issue of consent in research involving children and young people.
- Developing a culture of evaluation and research
This paper provides practical information on the structures, practices and actions that support a change toward a strong culture of evaluation and research.
- Demystifying ethical review
This resource provides an overview of the process of ethical review and how it may apply to those outside of a "research organisation" who wish to conduct research or evaluate their own programs.
- Ethical considerations for evaluation research
This short article outlines how going through the ethics application process and receiving ethical clearance provides welcome reassurance.
- AIFS Evidence and Evaluation Support
A range of resources to help service providers with research and evaluation initiatives
- Mishna, F., Antle, B. J., & Regehr, C. (2004). Tapping the perspectives of children: Emerging ethical issues in qualitative research. Qualitative Social Work, 3(4), 449–468.
- Morrow, V. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments. Children's Geographies, 6(1), 49–61.
- Morrow, V., & Richards, M. (1996). The ethics of social research with children: An overview. Children and Society, 10, 90–105.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. (2007). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research 2007. Updated May 2015. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/e72
- Spriggs, M. (2010). Understanding consent in research involving children: The ethical issues. Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children's Research Institute.