The importance of consulting with children throughout the researching process

Plenty of evidence has emerged over the last decade that emphasizes the importance of involving children and young people more directly in the research process, whereby research philosophies that are more interactive than extractive are being more frequently promoted. This emphasis means that young participants have more of an equal role to play in making decisions about their treatment, rather than passively following the recommendations made by their mental health professional, all of which has driven improvement and innovation in children and young people’s mental health provision. For instance, in the mental health field, the DOH in 2015 made history by not only listening to children and young people’s experiences of their mental healthcare but also summarizing their opinions in the Future in Mind (DOH, 2015) policy document. Never before have children and young people been so centrally involved in driving forward such important strategic policy in child mental health. Another good example of this type of child involvement in the mental health arena is the “CYP-1APT Learning Collaborative” which provides children and young people with an opportunity to be involved in participation groups that enable them to give feedback on their experience of using services via participation groups.

Considering the above, it is important when carrying out child-centred research to consider how you may involve children more proactively in your research. There is no one right way to involve them, however it is important to ensure their role is one of “active” participation. This might mean consulting and working alongside them at various points in the researching process. A seminal model proposed by Sherry Arnstein, back in 1969, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, proposed ways of ensuring adult citizen involvement in planning processes. This seminal work has since been adapted by Hart in 1992, whereby he more directly linked it to school pupil participation in research. It is now a tool well utilized by child-focussed researchers. Based on rungs of a ladder, it outlines the various levels at which young people can actively participate in research.

Adaption of Hart’s ladder (1992, p. 8)

Figure 14.1 Adaption of Hart’s ladder (1992, p. 8).

It may not be feasible for researchers to be able to get to rung 7 or 8 because of research methodology or ethical implications; however, whatever your form of enquiry you can try to ensure you have listened and involved young people in the planning or reviewing of your research (rungs 5 and 6). This is because the more discretion young people can exercise over the content and direction of the project, the more likely the research conducted will reflect their true views; for instance, consulting with children about interview research questions will ensure the questions that are asked matter to children and children see the point in answering them. Tania’s reflection below demonstrates this:

Reflection: The power of participation I was project leading an evaluation of a city whole-school resiliency promotion programme, whereby various new strategies had been introduced into schools to promote pupil well-being and resiliency from classroom activity looking to promote emotional and digital literacy to parenting support groups. Our task as evaluators was to evaluate impact.

As often is the case, we were financially restrained and working to meet a dictated deadline. Our project would not allow us to reach 7 or 8 of the participation ladder, however to ensure the right data was captured, we undertook some important preparatory discussions. Whereby we consulted and listened to young people from similar age groups and backgrounds as the children who were to participate in our research (ladder rung 5). This phase of consultation enabled us to better develop and adapt our questionnaires and interview guides, thus ensuring our survey tool would be fit for purpose suiting the various populations of school children from those in key stages I and 2 and the needs of children who did not speak English.

It was surprising how much useful information the children gave us. For example we learnt that some of the pictures or stories we wanted to include in our questionnaire, that made sense to us, made no sense to them. They also provided us with better ways to engage their peers with the questionnaire exercise, by suggesting teachers should not just give pupils the questionnaire because they felt their peers would not see why it should be completed. They suggested the questionnaire filling should follow a fun class activity around emotions. So, we developed short lesson activities considering their recommendations; for key stage 2 we developed a word search activity linked to an emoji PowerPoints game. It was interesting to find that the schools that incorporated the additional activity had fewer defaced or blank questionnaires. So, the children were correct!

The consultation group also advised us to change some of the words on our questionnaire and include short vignettes to promote comprehension (see fig 14.2 below that illustrates how one question was framed using a vignette (other questions followed on from this one).

Children’s feelings question from the STRENGTHS AND DIFFICULTIES QUESTIONNAIRE (SDQ) SI 1-17 adapted by T Hart to include a vingette to promote understanding

Figure 14.2 Children’s feelings question from the STRENGTHS AND DIFFICULTIES QUESTIONNAIRE (SDQ) SI 1-17 adapted by T Hart to include a vingette to promote understanding.

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