Critically discuss the challenges associated with ‘participation’ when conducting research with children and young people.

 Research with children and young people has a varied history across the centuries. Approaches and methods have changed as the concept of childhood have grown and expanded due to the influences of societies and cultures, how adults viewed children would dictate the extent to which children were allowed to take part in research, if at all. The challenges to children taking part in research will be discussed within this essay and will include the topics of voice and whether children who do take part in research are truly heard, agency and how research methods have been adapted to allow children more choice to participate, and ethics, how researchers deal with the issues of children consenting to participation.

Children can give researchers unique views of their lives that are critical to understanding their worlds. An important feature of childhood studies is the recognition of children and young people as valuable partners in research. Using the example of looked-after children, it can be noted that carrying out research with children and young people rather than on them can help to improve their quality of life and allows a child’s voice to be heard. However, in the past children did not have a voice when it came to taking part in the research. Aires (1962) cited in Kellet (2014) claims that in medieval times children were seen as ‘adults in waiting, there was no transition between infancy and adulthood. However, Evans (1997) cited in Kellet (2014) criticized this in that the children in the portraits he was referring to were dressed in their best clothes and not their average everyday wear. A lot of the time children were not given any influence over any aspects of their life, for example, early puritan dogma saw children viewed as innately evil and that they needed discipline and control. By the eighteenth-century Rousseau (1762) cited in Kellet (2014) saw children as needing protection from adults' corruptness. Due to these ideas of children and childhood, children were thought of as objects to carry out research on, Fraser, Flewitt and Hammersley (2014) argue that recent literature argues against treating children like objects within research. A unifying theme throughout research on children’s lives is the importance of children’s rights.

Concerning children’s rights, article twelve and thirteen of the UNCRC states that children should be free to express their views and that they have the right to freedom of expression. However, not every society and culture views children’s voices as important and some children may not have the freedom to express their opinions. The case study carried out by Sutton (2007) cited in Montgomery (2013) was intended to involve the children in the research process to ensure as little influence from the researcher as possible. This did not happen as although the children took part in discussions the researcher instigated and designed the study, analyzed the data, and authored the report. Lundy, L., McEvoy, L. and Bronagh, B. (2011) discuss how children’s rights allow for the right to have a voice, a child as a co-researcher is still rare. A limitation to this study is the level of understanding the children have. This is evident when it comes to analyzing and reporting the findings as children will not be as adept in this area as a trained researcher. On the other hand, the article does suggest adapting certain methods to enable children to take part in the more difficult areas of research. Phal and Pool (2011) give an example of adapting methods, the listening methodology ensures that what children say will be taken seriously. It is also mentioned that methods emerged in the field rather than being agreed upon beforehand. Using a multi-modal approach to research can ensure that children of different communication levels are still able to participate (The Open University, 2021c). Applying a combined, mixed-method approach facilitates a broad-based understanding of the range of issues and experiences of growing up. The different fields of psychology, anthropology and sociology have allowed researchers of childhood studies to use a range of investigative methods to help children begin to participate in research. Different theories of participation have also been developed.

Hart (1992) cited in Kellet (2014) developed the ‘ladder of children’s participation. Some people have found this tool to be useful for evaluation, however, Treseder (1997) cited in Kellet (2014) says that it fails to acknowledge the cultural context of children’s participation as this can vary depending on societal structures. The ladder also does not consider that some children may never reach certain rungs, a case for this can be seen in Bradwell et al. (2011) cited in Kellet (2014) and how ‘Looked-After’ children are denied choice when it comes to their placements. This also links with children of a certain age and how researchers’ assumptions that a child’s age can affect their understanding and hinder their participation. Greig et al. (2013) cited in Fitzgerald, Stride and Enright (2020) also note how assumptions about children’s abilities can also reflect in the questions the researchers ask. This can influence the outcome of the research. Researchers can use reflexivity to try to remain aware of how they may shape the data and the findings they produce. It has also led to the development of other methods that are better placed to support young people in research as relying on models of cognitive development can narrow the focus of studies and limit opportunities.

Continuing with this theme, Fitzgerald, Stride and Enright (2020) advocate for inclusion, participation, and empowerment. To ensure a child felt their voice was heard it was first necessary to build relationships. For example, Haley mentions in her diary how a child is sent to work with her because he was naughty and she worries that working with her will be seen by the other children as a punishment and in turn affect her relationship with them. This is important as building relationships can help research practice and consolidate knowledge sharing, this is also true when allowing children to participate in research, as previously discussed researchers can gain an ‘insider’ view or separately see the research project because the child has thought of a point that the research did not consider.

Linked to children’s rights is the concept of children having agency and influence over their own lives. James et al. (1998) cited in Kellet (2014) say the social child signified children as agents in their own lives while Morrow (2009) cited in Cooper (2014) claims that childhood studies represented a significant shift from examining children and young people and how they are socialized within families to include approaches which appreciate children and young people’s agency in influencing their own lives. Prout and James (1997) cited in Fitzgerald, Stride and Enright (2020) also recognize young people as social actors and not ‘cultural dopes’. This involves children having the understanding to be able to make the choices necessary for influencing decisions. The mosaic approach developed by Clark and Moss (2001) cited in Fraser, Flewitt and Hammersley (2014) allows children under five to take part in the research. It involves using participatory visual methods, observation and interviewing. The Young Lives project (2002) cited in The Open University (2021a) is an example of using different methods of research to help include all children and ensure their voices are heard. This also gives them the choice of how their world is presented to others. Children who are too young to write about their experiences can express them on video. This can also link with the mosaic method of research. Fitzgerald (2009) cited in Fitzgerald, Stride and Enright (2020) mentions also using Makaton, this can ensure that children who experience verbal communication difficulties can also participate. Giving children choices to help themselves is important for the development of children’s agency within research. Webster (2007) cited in Kellet (2014) demonstrates how young people can be involved in projects. The children became advisors, co-researchers, and evaluators. The outcome was that children felt that they were not listened to in the clinics, and their choices are taken away by professionals who felt they understood what the children were going through. This is also evident in the case of Shannon, (The Open University, 2021d). This shows how children are competent in being able to plan, design and carry out research and conduct investigations. Mand (2012) cited in Bucknall (2014) notes how children can become passive in participation due to adults’ roles within research and how the collected data is interpreted. Despite the best intentions to have children participate in all areas of the study, Mand found that the adult’s views and interests can overpower the children’s views and voices.

Ethical dilemmas can happen within research and it can be difficult for the researcher to know how to approach them. For example, Fitzgerald, Stride and Enright (2020) demonstrates ethical dilemmas when conducting research that involves children and participation. They were worried that a teacher would see the children eating, singing, and dancing rather than ‘working.’ Carrying out ethnographic research can capture emotions in a way that a survey cannot, however ethical issues such as illegal activities can arise. This is evident in the ‘Vortex’ study carried out by John Oates, (The Open University, 2021e). This study raises ethical questions about researching poverty and family relationships. Oates discusses how ethical conduct must be maintained throughout the study. He also emphasizes how important obtaining consent is. Following this research can become unethical in regards to gaining consent from children, (The Open University 2021b) discusses why it is important for people participating in the research to understand what it involves so that they can fully consent. This can link with children’s rights as, although children have the right to expression, they do not have the right to fully consent themselves. Usually, an adult with parental responsibility also must consent to the child participating. On the other hand, Alderson et al. (2006) cited in Alderson (2014) found that social researchers were able to show that children were usually more competent in their everyday lives than when they are in research laboratories. Equally important in the discussion of ethics are the consequences of scientific knowledge. Some researchers argue that the theoretical framework that concerns children and young people’s lives but does not reflect their viewpoints may be misleading. Participation rights require that children be well-informed and that they have their own views listened to and respected by adults. This also links with children having their voice heard and having agency and making informed choices.

In conclusion, children’s participation is challenged by many things. Firstly, researchers assume that children would not be capable of understanding certain aspects of studies such as designing, implementing and planning. Shannon’s work demonstrates that children can contribute to research design and implementation. Secondly, communication can also affect children’s participation and so different methods have been adapted to allow children with communication difficulties to be included. The research diary written by Fitzgerald (2009) shows how they were able to use Makaton as a method to help children with communication difficulties. Thirdly, children’s voices can get lost in the views and concepts of adult researchers. This takes away their agency as shown with the example of the looked-after children, the adults believe they know what the best outcome for the child would be. Fourthly, children’s rights play a large part in their participation and a challenge to this is that children have a right to express their views and opinions but when it comes to research, they may not be taken seriously. Fifthly, ethics and deciding if children have the right to consent can be a challenge as a child may want to participate but their parent may say no. However, it has been demonstrated that children are more competent than adults may have thought. Children should be able to fully participate in research. This would allow for newer methods to arise as we find ways to open more doors for children in research. 


Alderson, P. (2014) ‘Ethics’ in Clark, A., Flewitt, R., Hammersley, M. and Robb, M. (eds) (2014) Understanding Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage in association with The Open University.

Bucknall, S. (2014) ‘Doing Qualitative research with children and young people’ in Clark, A., Flewitt, R., Hammersley, M. and Robb, M. (eds) (2014) Understanding Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage in association with The Open University.

Clark, A., Flewitt, R., Hammersley, M. (2014) ‘What is Research with Children and Young People’ in Clark, A., Flewitt, R., Hammersley, M. and Robb, M. (eds) (2014) Understanding Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage in association with The Open University.

Cooper, V. (2014) ‘Designing Research for Different Purposes’ in Clark, A., Flewitt, R., Hammersley, M. and Robb, M. (eds) (2014) Understanding Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage in association with The Open University.

Fitzgerald, H., Stride, A. and Enright, E. (2020) ‘Messy methods: making sense of participatory research with young people in PE and sport’, European Physical Education Review, September 2020. doi:10.1177/1356336X20953462. Available at: https://journals-sagepub-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1177/1356336x20953462 (Accessed: 14 November 2012)

Kellett, M. (2014) ‘Images of childhood and their influences on research’ in Clark, A., Flewitt, R., Hammersley, M. and Robb, M. (eds) (2014) Understanding Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage in association with The Open University.

Lundy, L., McEvoy, L. and Bronagh, B. (2011) ‘Working with young children as co-researchers: an approach informed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’, Early Education and Development, 22(5), pp. 714–736. Available at: https://www-tandfonline-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1080/10409289.2011.596463 (Accessed: 13 November 2021)

Pahl, K. and Pool, S. (2011) ‘Living your life because it’s the only one you’ve got’, Qualitative Research Journal, 11(2), pp. 17–37. Available at: https://www.proquest.com/docview/920894768?accountid=14697

Sutton, L. (2007) ‘A child’s eye view’ in Montgomery, H. (ed) Local Childhoods, global issues. The Policy Press: in association with The Open University

The Open University (2021a) Young Lives project (I) in EK313, Unit 1: Childhood and Youth research. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1778145&section=1.5.1 (Accessed: 14 November 2021).

The Open University (2021b) Why are research ethics important? [Audio]. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1778150&section=1.4.1 (Accessed: 14 November 2021)

The Open University (2021c) The value of childhood and youth research [Audio]. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1778148&section=1.4.2 (Accessed: 15 November 2021)

The Open University (2021d) Child-led research in EK313, Unit 4: Voice, power, and diversity. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1778149&section=1.3.3 (Accessed: 15 November 2021).

The Open University (2021e) ‘Vortex’ in the reality of research ethics

[Video]. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1778150&section=1.3.1 (Accessed: 15 November 2021)

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