We often do research to inform services or policy that affect children and young people, either directly or indirectly. As a result, we may wish to conduct research with these user groups to support service design and development.
The aim of this guidance is to support user researchers with:
- deciding whether research with children and young people is appropriate and proportionate
- outlining an ethical approach to research with this user group
- selecting research methods to suit the age of the participants
- safeguarding both users and researchers during and after research
- Definition of children and young people
- Why we need to conduct research with children and young people
- The importance of active participation in research
- Gathering informed consent
- Safeguarding yourself and your users during research
- Methods for conducting research with children and young people
- Top takeaways
- Further reading
Definition of children and young people
According to the Children Act 1989, a child can be defined as any person under the age of 18.
Due to some differences in recruitment, consent and research methods, in this guidance we are distinguishing between a child and a young person. The Market Research Society defines children as those under the age of 16 and young people as those between the ages of 16 and 17 years old. The term ‘adult’ refers to those who are over the age of 18 years old.
There is no recommended minimum age when carrying out research with children but it is expected that researchers will involve very young children directly in research only when necessary and appropriate to the particular project.
Why we need to conduct research with children and young people
The first consideration to make is whether conducting research with children and young people is the right approach to gathering the insights you need. A common misconception is that the vulnerability of this user group means they should not be researched with.
However, there is a wealth of research and guidance which suggests that conducting research with children and young people is the most ethical approach to understanding their needs, as long as appropriate consent is sought. You may wish to use the information below to help make a case for conducting research with children and young people.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child explains that “the child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice” (Article 13). This means that children and young people should be given the opportunity to express their views on matters that affect them, and that they should be provided with accessible methods to engage in research.
The importance of active participation in research
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to tokenistic or even manipulated participation in user research, often unintentionally. This is precarious as it means that research findings may not be an honest representation of the participant’s feelings or needs and the services built to meet those needs will be ultimately flawed.
Roger Hart’s ladder of participation highlights that there are 8 “rungs” of participation, from rung 1 - manipulation (adult-led activities in which children and young people do as they’re told) through to rung 8 - youth-initiated (where decision making is shared between adults and children/young people as equals). It’s important to note that your research approach doesn’t need to align to rung 8 in order to be ethical - as you’ll see below, there is a place for research that aligns to rung 4 and above.
The key difference between rungs 1-3 (manipulation) and 4-8 (ethical, participatory research) is that the latter refers to research approaches that involve the child or young person in decision making and/or giving feedback.
The key take-away here is that we should not treat children and young people as tokens, or individuals to be “done to”, but should instead provide them with the means to give feedback on matters that affect them. This active participation in research enables researchers to uncover the participant’s feelings and needs, which they can then incorporate into their service design.
Therefore, if you’re conducting research into a policy or service that will directly impact children and young people, you should be conducting user research with them.
Currently, the DfE’s guidance for use of cash incentives, through bank transfer, is that they can only be made to people of 18 years or over. This means that it is not suitable to offer children or young people an incentive in the form of a bank transfer payment for your research.
There are alternative means to providing incentives to participants under the age of 18 with further guidance found in the Incentives Guidance (coming soon).
Gathering informed consent
Informed consent for research with children and young people should have a minimum of two levels of consent (child/young person and parent), and three levels of consent if appropriate (child/young person, parent, responsible adult). Read further guidance on gaining informed consent in research.
1. Checking whether you need consent from gatekeepers and responsible adults
In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to gather consent from a gatekeeper or responsible adult. For example, when conducting research in a school setting, the headteacher acts as the responsible adult tasked with protecting the children and young people in their care. You should therefore seek consent from the headteacher to reach out to parents and children for the purpose of research in their setting. In other settings, for example at a local youth football club, you should seek consent from a relevant gatekeeper/responsible adult if you are going to be conducting research during club time and on their premises.
2. Gathering consent from parents and legal guardians
You must always have the consent of a parent or legal guardian before asking for a child or young person (up to the age of 16) to participate in your research. You may need to amend your consent documents or process to enable users to give their consent, for example by using an opt-out approach (where appropriate), creating information leaflets or sending consent forms via the gatekeeper’s school or setting.
On the DfE Reception Baseline Assessment team, research was conducted with reception pupils in class.
To gather consent from parents and legal guardians, an opt-out letter template was provided to the school and sent home with every reception pupil 1-2 weeks in advance of the research visit. A contact name, number and email were provided for parents to send follow-up questions to and a large window (2 weeks) was given for parents to opt-out on their child’s behalf. Parents were asked to let their child’s school teacher know if they did not wish for their child to take part in the research. School teachers noted which parents had opted out on behalf of their children and did not bring them into research sessions.
This approach would not have been possible without the prior consent and buy-in from the school Headteacher and class teachers; therefore, in this example, both steps 1 and 2 were crucial to ensuring informed consent was sought.
3. Gathering consent from children and young people
There are a number of important requirements for a project to be truly labelled as participatory:
- The children understand the intentions of the project.
- They know who made the decisions concerning their involvement and why.
- They have a meaningful (rather than ‘decorative’) role.
- They volunteer for the project after the project was made clear to them.
In order to gather informed consent from children and young people, you may need to amend your consent documents to make them digestible for your user group. See gaining informed consent guidance for more information on how to do this.
As with selecting research methods, you can use relevant curriculum documents to help you to determine the best method of explaining your research to users. For example, the Early Years Foundation Stage Development Matters framework states that, for 3 and 4 year olds, “When appropriate, you can check children’s understanding by asking them to point to particular pictures. Or ask them to point to particular objects in a picture. For example: 'Can you show me the big boat?'”. If this was the age group of your users, you may therefore wish to use a visual aid to support their understanding of the research and what they’re consenting to.
It is important to gather consent often with children and young people. Not only are their attention spans limited earlier on in life, they are also more likely to experience interviewer effect which may impact their willingness to stop the research session if they’re uncomfortable. You must therefore give users multiple opportunities for withdrawing consent and should check in more regularly than you would with older users.
Marlies Kustatscher conducted research into how ethnicity, gender and social class intersect in young children’s social identities and relationships in a culturally diverse primary school. Their research involved in-class observations and interviews with 25 5-6 year-old children.
After an initial period of trialling more traditional consent approaches (using booklets with consent information in and discussing these with the class), they iterated their approach and opted for a ‘magnet model’. Using this model, children were given a magnetic picture of themselves and were encouraged to place the picture of themselves into the relevant part of a magnet board to indicate their ongoing opting in or out of research.
On the DfE Reception Baseline Assessment team, research was conducted with participants aged 4-5 years old, who were either in a nursery school or primary school setting. Pupils were given a set of red and yellow ‘cards’ and were asked to use the cards to indicate whether they didn’t want to answer/take part in a certain task (yellow) or if they wanted to stop the research completely (red).
Safeguarding yourself and your users during research
As with all research, it is of the utmost importance that users, participants and researchers are kept safe during the research process.
All Civil Servants and contractors working with DfE will have an up-to-date DBS check or BPSS clearance, which outlines their suitability for working with minors. You do not need to undergo a second check for the purpose of conducting research with children and young people and they are not technically required to make research visits to institutions such as schools. However some organisations may ask to see evidence of a DBS check or BPSS clearance depending on things such as their specific safeguarding policy for visitors. To avoid confusion, before conducting research with children and young people, you should check if you are required to provide evidence of a DBS or BPSS upon entry.
It is important to note that regardless of your DBS or BPSS status, you should never be left alone with participants in this age group.
Researchers and observers should:
- never be left alone 1:1 with a child or young adult under the age of 16, even if they have a DBS check
- familiarise themselves with local safeguarding agreements, for example by reviewing a school’s safeguarding policy in advance of a visit and making a note of escalation routes/the school’s safeguarding lead
- flag any potential issue, no matter how small, to the relevant safeguarding lead
- not ask follow up questions on any potentially sensitive comments from a child or young person, especially where they may be a safeguarding risk. Instead, the researcher should always end the research session and escalate their concern to the designated safeguarding lead
- ensure all devices used for research have appropriate filters and web blocking active and, where possible, connect to the school or setting’s WiFi for added security
- gather ongoing consent through use of red/yellow cards system and/or regular checks with the participant of if they wish to continue
- check-in on participants’ wellbeing, being especially cognisant of non-verbal cues and power dynamics
- stop the research if they have any doubts over the child/young person’s comfort
Methods for conducting research with children and young people
Selecting an age appropriate approach
The research methods used should be appropriate for the age of the participants you’re researching and the setting in which you’re researching. Documents such as the Development Matters curriculum guidance explain which skills children will be learning at each age group (from 0 to 5). From ages 5 - 11, the National primary curriculum applies and, from 11 to 16 the National secondary curriculum will apply. By cross-referencing the appropriate curriculum guidance when planning your research, you can identify what a reasonable method may look like. For example:
- If your users are 4 years old, the Development Matters guidance states that they should be learning to “Talk about their feelings using words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ or ‘worried’” and “Use one-handed tools and equipment, for example, making snips in paper with scissors. Use a comfortable grip with good control when holding pens and pencils”. Therefore a research method such as drawing a picture of an experience they’ve had, while talking about their feelings, could be appropriate. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that younger children might feel more comfortable with friends or classmates present in the sessions, so consider the use of pair interviews or slightly larger group work.
- If your users are 11 years old, the National secondary curriculum states that they should be “participating in formal debates and structured discussions, summarising and/or building on what has been said”. At this age, participants might be more comfortable to partake in research individually away from their friends or classmates. Group sessions, such as focus groups, are still a good option but power dynamics should be factored into planning. This may be in the form of group bias effect that can negatively impact a participant’s response to maintain agreement with the group rather than provide their own candid response. Such social constructs in groups might mean that participants, especially young people, would feel uncomfortable disagreeing with other participant’s opinions’, and this could bias your findings.
It’s important to note that children and young people with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND) may have a younger cognitive age than their peers. The above approach can be used as a general rule of thumb, but for users with SEND you may need to further amend your approach.
Selecting an engaging method
As a general rule of thumb, a child’s focus and attention span will increase as they age. A 4-year old child has an average attention span of 8-12 minutes, so research with users of this age group must meet your aims quickly and efficiently.
There are a number of methods that researchers can use to engage younger participants in research, especially where a traditional user research method (such as an interview or usability test) might not be appropriate. Below are some examples of how you might adapt research methods to meet your research aims whilst remaining age appropriate.
Instead of an interview, you might:
- provide the participant with stimuli (e.g. Lego/Playmobil/image cards/teddies) and ask them to use the stimuli to tell you a story, for example “Tell me about how you get to school in the morning”.
- provide the participant with an image that represents a journey (for example a river, or a train track). Ask the user to tell you a story as you plot the journey together. Attribute emotions to different points in the journey.
- ask the participant to write a letter to another child/young person of their age range, giving advice or guidance on how to overcome something. This letter can then be used as a reflective account of an experience which highlights what they’d have done differently/what their likes and dislikes were.
Instead of a focus group, you might:
- acquire a Jenga set. Write a question on each Jenga block, then facilitate a game where each participant has to ask the question on their block to the group - this will start a discussion amongst participants.
- ask participants to perform a mini-play or engage in ‘make believe play’ to show their understanding of something. For example, asking reception pupils to “play teachers” will enable you to observe how they perceive teachers to act/react.
Remember to plan in processing time for participants - young children in particular need at least 10 seconds to process what you have said and think of their reply. This is also of particular importance when it comes to gathering informed consent, as it’s crucial that users have enough time to digest what you’re telling them.
Conducting research with children and young people is the most ethical approach to understanding their needs, as long as the method is appropriate for the participant’s age and appropriate consent is sought.
When conducting research with children and young people, active participation (rung 4+) is vital to ensure findings are an accurate representation of your participant’s needs and feelings.
Due to the vulnerability of the user group, you may need two or three levels of informed consent from gatekeepers, parents / guardians, and the children and young people themselves.
Understand how you will safeguard yourself, observers and participants and what special measures you should put in place when conducting research with children and young people.
Select an age appropriate research method and consent process to the comprehension levels of your participants.
Finally, if you are unsure about anything then just ask. Seek guidance from your line-manager, lead researcher or ask in the #ethicsadvisorygroup in DfE Slack (opens in new tab) or #user_research in DfE Slack (opens in a new tab). Research with children and young people might be uncommon, but there is a wealth of experience across DfE and the community is always there to help out.
- Video of DfE UR community meeting: "Researching with children" - Jessie Ferguson, Anna Rapp, Elena Bracey, September 2023 (DfE users only)
- Templates, examples and resources library
- Roger Hart/UNICEF - Children’s participation - from tokenism to citizenship.
- Ethical Research Involving Children (ERIC) guidance - Informed Consent
- Pia Haudrup Christensen - Children's participation in ethnographic research: Issues of power and representation
- Reflexive Tool for carrying out ethical research with children and young people - Ethical Research Involving Children: Getting Started (childethics.com)
- User research with kids - practicalities and pitfalls of researching with kids with Frances Brown
- User research with kids - more extremes in research with Thomas Snitker (LEGO)