By Laura Benton (UCL Knowledge Lab)
Here at the UCL Knowledge Lab many of us involve children in our research projects. As with all research participants it is important that they are informed about the research and the data that will be collected, as well as are given the opportunity to provide their consent to take part. However, this can be much more challenging with children as we need to ensure that we explain what we are doing in an understandable and meaningful way, and that the children don’t feel pressured into participating if they don’t want to. UCLKL researchers have come up with lots of creative ways to address these challenges, so we decided to arrange a knowledge exchange workshop to provide a forum for discussing common issues and sharing ideas for best practices in working with children. It was a really insightful and inspiring meeting and we all came away with some new ideas to try out in our future research. Below we share a summary of these personal experiences in that hope that they may also inspire others…
Dr Laura Benton (Research Associate – iRead Project)
I have worked with several different child populations in design-oriented research including children with autism, dyslexia and currently young children (aged 5-7) who are learning to read. For my current project I had put together an information sheet and child-friendly consent form (see below). However, although this was in line with UCL ethical guidelines the information sheet in particular was not accessible for young children who have limited reading skills. In schools I adapted my approach to verbally explain the project and consent form, trying to link it to their own experiences with using technology such as iPads and Kindles. The consent form proved to be a useful tool for those children that did not want to participate as although they were hesitant to verbally express this, their reluctance to tick the boxes on the form alerted me to the potential issue and I could reassure them that it was fine to return to class if they did not want to participate. My work often involves working with lots of children for short periods to test out different technologies, which does not allow much time to dedicate to the consent process since this is time away from their learning and so this can often be a challenge to get the right balance.
This workshop has given me more ideas about sharing some of this information in visual ways and to whole classes in advance of sessions to better communicate the purpose and outcomes of research project. I am also keen to build in better processes for debriefing children at the end of projects so they can see what has happened as a result of their involvement.
Dr Rhiannon Thomas and Minna Orvokki Nygren (Research Associate and PhD Student – Move2Learn Project)
We work with children from a wide age range (3-11) studying how they interact with science-themed exhibits, how they make meaning and embody experiences. Our work is part of a wider research project titled Move2Learn that looks at embodied science learning at science museums and centres. Our experience and work in nurseries, schools and science installations so far has given us much food for thought with regards to study design and consent. Some of the key points noted so far have included, for example, have to do with how to arrange the sequence of events within any research session.
We would first introduce ourselves to the children participating in the research, tell a little bit about where we are from (e.g. a big university building) and what we are doing (e.g. we are interested in what the children think about science). With smaller children we have seen that giving children the opportunity to see and interact with the toys or other interactive media (including recording technologies such as video cameras and microphones) at the beginning of the session has created a more welcoming environment for the children, and gives all of those taking part to get to know each other. We think that this approach would work well with a wide range of children, not only the youngest ones. In our research, we have arranged for the participating nursery or school to send consent forms and information sheets to parents before the research sessions. In addition for those children whose parents have given their consent, we always ask the children if they would still like to take part before the session begins, and make sure they know that they can finish at any point they like.
We often had the cameras positioned at the child’s level in order to record from an angle beneficial to our research. However, it turned out that some younger children were very keen to keep on playing with them (e.g. making faces and taking the camera around the space). Therefore, we thought that in future it might be easier to set video cameras higher up during recording. Sometimes the teacher would bring children whose parents had given consent to the research session from their classroom. Although helpful, this setup may have biased the children to agree to do the session: a teacher is a known authority figure in those children’s lives and they are used to saying yes. We tried to avoid this type of situation where possible by going to invite the children to the research sessions ourselves. Although the parents have given consent for their children to be involved in the research process, it is imperative that the researcher actively “double-checks” this consent with that child her/himself before the session. Every child and situation is different – so the researcher must “go with the flow” and to their best ability, read the child’s body language in addition to their verbal consent before and continuously during the session to make sure that they are willing to take part. This type of approach has, in our view, made the research sessions more fruitful and fun for all those involved.
Seray Ibrahim (PhD student/clinician – Communication Technologies)
At the workshop, I shared my experiences on some of the ways of discussing consent with children who have learning difficulties and severe speech and physical impairments. In my clinical work, I often use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems to provide a visual method to support speech. This can be useful both for supporting understanding and expression. In my PhD research, one of the systems I used was ‘Talking Mats’ which allows conversation partners to have a visual record of the conversation related to a certain topic, for example, how to capture recording. It can be a useful method when one person communicates in ways other than natural speech or has a cognitive impairment that affects how they understand language. More information on training for using Talking Mats can be found at: https://www.talkingmats.com/.
I have also explored ways of discussing abstract concepts like ‘information sharing’ and ‘storage’ through concrete representations – this is still a work in progress! One of the key take home messages for me was examining how to continue renewing consent and observing some of the more subtle ways that children express discomfort to take part. I’m keen to explore ways of explaining concepts to larger groups of child participants so as not to put children on the spot, as well as keeping them informed once the data has been collected.
Omar Ceja Salgado (PhD student – Virtual Reality and Science Education)
One of the issues I found when I went through the ethics approval for my research was to make provisions for the GDPR when it was still being discussed in Parliament. Since most of my research would be taking place after the new Data Protection Act had come into force I had to design consent forms and information sheets that covered more than was probably needed to be on the safe side and comply with that future law. This was particularly challenging when it came to consent forms and information sheets for children as I was asked to include so many clauses and detailed information and I needed a balance between what I was required and what would be appropriate for children not to be incomprehensible or simply not appropriate. Although I tried to reduce the amount of data as much as possible while keeping the requirements of the Data Protection Act 2018, I also tried to use pictures and organize everything in a brochure (see below) rather than a series of pages filled with text. I found that the end result would still not necessarily be the best option for some of the younger children in my study, so I decided to do an oral brief of the project and what participating entailed. That way, I could also show children the technology that I would be using.
Jenny Vafeiadou (Phd Student – Self-tracking and digital health)
My experience with seeking consent was when I conducted research in two museums regarding the learning experience in the museum context through technologically-mediated exhibitions. The focus was on the museum learning and technological strategy and how that was translated into practice during educational programmes run by museum educators. Museum managers acted as the main gatekeepers to allow me to observe school groups which participated in their educational programmes. Their main concern was that they wanted to avoid any disruptions and maintain the flow of the programme so there was the requirement that I don’t disclose my identity beforehand as a researcher in order to avoid shifting the focal point of the visit. Teachers were informed about the fact that a student-researcher was being there but children were not informed for being observed. No video or audio-recording was employed because of this but I kept detailed field notes. When students asked the researcher on an individual basis, I would explain my role and the purpose of the research. Undoubtedly, this practice provokes many questions, however, it is interesting to see the role that the gatekeepers play in this case and how the act of seeking consent of children was considered as disruptive because the observation was employed in natural settings rather than in a data collection session organised separately from the educational event.
Other Perspectives (Dr Kate Cowan, Dr John Potter and Dr Michelle Canon)
Not all lab members could attend in person, but we were lucky to be able to also look at some of the resources shared in advance by UCL KL researchers Kate Cowan, John Potter and Michelle Canon. Kate and John work together on the ‘Playing the Archive’ project, which examines the nature of children’s play through working with children as co-researchers. Before starting fieldwork, Kate and John explained the project and discussed with the children their potential involvement. They began by visiting the schools and were available to meet with parents/caregivers who had questions about the project and their children’s involvement. They then presented the project to the class and explained what would be involved should the children choose to take part. They provided child-friendly consent booklets (see below) and at the end of the first year shared a summary of the research activities that they had participated in. This was to keep the team of child researchers involved in the research process and help them make ongoing decisions about their participation. This was shared with the whole class, so that even those who weren’t the ‘core’ researchers felt they understood why the researchers had been there, and so the team of child researchers had the chance to tell their classmates what they had been doing. The ‘Playing the Archive’ team are continuing to consider ways of working with children as researchers as the project progresses into its data analysis phase.
Michelle discussed a project she had been working with UCL Institute of Education researcher Dr Eleanor Hargreaves. In this project the researcher dedicates around half an hour to speaking with each child about the consent process, so they really had the time to ask any questions and really understand what it means to participate in the research. Although having this amount of time with children isn’t always possible, within research projects involving their long-term participation it is worth making significant investments in this process at the start to ensure the child is comfortable and knows what to expect.
During the workshop we watched a short film which explain research-related concepts in child-friendly language. This is a great way to help childen understand what we are doing and why:
UCL Institute of Education researcher Dr Rosie Flewitt has undertaken extensive work in this area with young children and has published some of her reflections in this short paper entitled ‘Conducting research with young children: some ethical considerations’