Research with Young Children

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, PhD Candidate, ESRI

What is research? What is consent? Who can we trust? These are some of the questions that arose in our second seminar in the Navigating Research Ethics with Integrity seriesThis seminar focused on research with young children. I was honoured to speak alongside Abigail Hackett and Christina MacRae introducing some of the ethical complexities that we have encountered in our different research projects. These projects are based within a variety of spaces where young children are present including galleries, museums, nurseries and play groups. The subject spurred a vibrant discussion with attendees showing an abundance of care for the subject matter and the importance of continuing spaces like these for sharing discussions on ethics within the university. 

The first presentation, from myself, focused on research with babies in a gallery space, sharing my experience of navigating between NHS ethics protocols and the university’s ethical review system. This introduced themes on the role of co-researchers in multi-professional research and what we mean by ‘assent’ when working with young children. I covered ways to tune into the often non-verbal communication of assent or dissent with babies. As one attendee commented, this requires experience and expertise on the part of the researchers. Sharing an ‘assent promise’ with parents, whereby I am clear how I will ensure I have the child’s assent throughout the activity is important. 

How do we move our attention from written and verbal communication to take note of the embodied effect of ethics in the moment when carrying out research?

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett

Abi Hackett extended the theme of assent within her own research in play group settings with families. She shared considerations on the relationship between the researcher and the participant and what it means to be involved in research. She suggested that seeking consent and assent is an on-going process in an agreement that is never quite fixed. When considering ethics as involving the body and emotions, and not just discursive, consent becomes emergent and provisional.

There are no positions of unquestionable virtue for the researcher. I cannot keep myself pure of the messy implicated, power infused, world making, storytelling nature of research just by following certain key principles or processes

Abi Hackett

Next, Christina MacRae focused on recent work with families from a local nursery with attention to parents as co-researchers. As working with parents in this way becomes more popular, and is often regarded as good practice, it is essential to consider what this means in practice. Christina described the messiness of co-researching with parents through the pandemic and questioned what counts as co-research. She considered the role of the parent co-researcher from the initial stage of research design through to how this style of working is written about at the report stage. This included troubling the notions of ‘we’ and ‘with’ and the tensions that arise between claims of impact and the participatory nature of the research.

Research cast as ‘with’ parents can reinforce some problems associated with research that is ‘on’ or ‘about’ parents.

Christina MacRae

The seminar provoked a compelling and careful discussion which spun the initial themes into an assortment of rich threads. A few of these are included here, though there were many other threads that continued throughout the discussion.

One attendee questioned the distinction between assent and consent and suggested the use of ‘assent’ belittles children’s rights and participation. There was an agreement from many in the room that there was unease in the use of ‘assent’ and a possibility emerged of suggesting ‘legal consent’ and ‘consent’; this could be a way to show more value in this process.

Another colleague shared the idea that ethics is a pause in the research process and articulated thoughts on creating a space where it is possible to say ‘no’. A discussion bloomed around how this works in research when conducted in environments such as schools and nurseries, where children expect to have less choice in their day-to-day activities.

There was a discussion on the role of consent forms and shared concerns that the layering of legal language in consent forms could become a barrier to working in participatory ways. This led onto a discussion of the increasingly prescriptive process of consent forms and the ethical and practical implications that these create.

There was a comment from a memory of Elisabeth St. Pierre which suggested some ethics protocols are disentangled from the philosophy of ethics in research which becomes problematic and counteractive for methodological thinking. 

The Chair of the Faculty of Education ethic committee stated that a lot of the topics discussed throughout the seminar are not specific to young children but traverse research with all ages. Nobody can fully know what they are consenting to at the beginning of a research process. He proposed a series of ethical principles that we abide by and communicate this to others. He suggested that, as researchers, we want to learn, not to prescribe, and that we all want to be baffled.

As we moved to a discussion of trust, a final question from Abi was: why should participants trust us? As she reminded us, we are often unknown to them, living elsewhere, entering their space and asking something from them. Perhaps this is something we should always keep in my mind when considering the ethical complexities of our own research; but, trust can take time to develop. As articulated by a colleague, we perhaps also need to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a participant, for example, how would we feel if our words were taken out of context?

Many thanks to all who contributed to this discussion and thanks to Claire for creating a space to discuss these experiences of ethics within research. Shining through the conversation was an appreciation of the work that Claire, Ricardo and others do in navigating a way for researchers to keep ethics integral to their practice. 

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