The attributes of good child- and young-people-focussed research communication

Very importantly a prerequisite of any successful research activity is effective interpersonal communication, whether it be engaging with an individual child or a group of children. Research is however often constrained by various variables that is, availability of time, finance, ethical, or safeguarding constraints, often making it challenging. The literature on child- centred research provides some helpful recommendations as to how to engage and communicate more successfully with children. Some of these recommendations, along with our own practice reflections, are themed below:

Promote understanding and respect from the outset

Before meeting your young participants, it is important to prepare to listen. Often children and young people have given up their time to talk to you and it is therefore very important not to fall into the trap of carrying out research on children and young people rather than with them (Balen et al., 2006). As an adult researcher, you can misinterpret or not comprehend properly what they said because your adult assumptions get in the way. It is widely recommended amongst those who carry out child-centred research methods to help safeguard against this phenomenon by carrying out some worthwhile preliminary reflexive work. This involves you examining your own experience of childhood or getting in touch with the child inside you. Laws and Mann (2004) in their Save the Children toolbox recommend you spend time reflecting on your childhood (which is never an easy task the older you get). Ask yourself how you as a child established your trust in an adult. For instance you may ask yourself any of these questions:

  • • What components of this adult’s persona promoted two-way adult/child conversation? Or indeed prevented adult/child conversations?
  • • If two-way conversations were promoted, what components of any conversation promoted it?
  • • Think back. What made you feel happy to share your point of view and trust this adult in these instances.
  • • What has made you hesitant in the past to share anything with an adult?

This type of preliminary reflective exercise aims to help you better engage with your young participants, as you are more likely to adopt some of the identified helping attributes, which promotes careful listening, enabling you to make fewer assumptions.

It is also important at the outset of the study that the adult researcher thinks very carefully about how they will equalise the power dynamic between themselves and the young person to promote better interpersonal engagement. It is therefore important you do not perceive yourself as the expert, as this is an “adultist” attitude which risks hampering engagement and may prevent you from obtaining valid and reliable data. A good tip is to ensure every young participant is made to feel like the “expert”, as this in itself helps to balance the asymmetrical power dynamic. Freeman and Mathison (2009) suggests the researchers should introduce themselves to the child using their first name and reframe from the use of titles; the rationale being it goes someway to equalise the balance the power. We have always found it useful when engaging children in research, to say very clearly at the outset of the research activity “I am really interested in what you have to say and share, as it is your views that are important”. We also emphasise to them at the outset, and remind them at appropriate intervals during the research, “There are no right or wrong answers or responses”. This We have found goes some way to break down the power dynamic between an adult and child.

Setting the scene

All child-centred conversation should be conducted in a setting where the child or young person feels physically and emotionally comfortable and safe. A pleasant pre-booked, warm room with comfortable surroundings suggests to the young person that they are valued and important (O'Reilly and Dogra, 2016). In some instances, this may be the school, CAMHS, or Social Services office. Researchers tend to be divided when it comes to conducting interviews in the family home. Some saying it is not always an ideal venue, especially when discussing sensitive topics when there is a risk of interruption; however, the other school of thought is that it is best to engage children in the place they feel most relaxed in which is often the home. So, when carrying out research in the home it is important to establish there is no safeguarding concerns prior to conducting the interview and that the child feels free to be able to talk. If carrying out research in the home is deemed acceptable, be mindful of how the interview space is set out. Special attention needs to be placed on proxemics, explaining to the child again why you are there, how long you maybe there for, and what activity they will be asked to participate in. You may then negotiate with child where they would like you to sit before sitting down and where they wish to sit.

It is also important at the very beginning of any engagement with a child or a group of children that ground rules are established. For instance, when conducting a focus group, we might consider “ground rules” like respecting each other by listening, trying not to talk over each other, not making fun of each other, or not talking about what is shared in the group outside. When interviewing one child, you may agree as to what happens when there is an interruption, that is, stop conversation or carry on.

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