Hill, M. (2006). Children’s Voices on Ways of Having a Voice: Children’s and young people’s perspectives on methods used in research and consultation. Childhood, 13(1), 69–89.
Malcolm Hill defines consultation as finding out views in order to inform decisions, whereas participation seeks direct input for decision-making. Recognizing that consulting children and involving children in research are two separate ventures and have traditionally used different methods to get at those aims, the methods for communicating with children used by researchers and facilitators are now more fluid between the two ventures. Just as more organizations seeking to collect the perspectives of children are now employing questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups, researchers are beginning to use art, games, and role-play exercises in their research both for fostering a more comfortable social space for research as well as to gather data.
Those working with children recognize that some children respond better in one-on-one settings, while others in groups. This has led some researchers to ask children at the outset what their preferred way of contact would be, and subsequently adapt their method of interaction accordingly. Children also recognize that some children will be more comfortable in groups, while others will prefer responding directly to an adult – children respect it when adults discuss this decision with them. Children also recognize and note that their participation will very depending on the task involved. Especially when participation involves reading and writing, children are acutely aware that this is a skill of different levels of competency that will affect children’s willingness to participate. This consideration also extends to different skill levels in using technology. Although adults often assume that children are comfortable with computers, children’s comfort with and competence in using technology will affect their participation. This is especially important to keep in mind as there are differences in comfort in technology use of children of different SES levels, and between genders. Children also expressed concerns about privacy when using computers, which is important to note if we are trying to engage them on sensitive topics.
If the research topic is not personal and sensitive in nature, children tend to feel more supported and less shy in the company of their peers, less like they are being put on the spot by a strange adult. One other way to foster a sense of comfort in group research is to speak with already established friendship groups, or suggest children to bring their friends to the research setting. If the issue being discussed is sensitive, children prefer to be in a group of those they do not know and will not meet again if it must be in a group setting.
While children are miffed when they are not given an opportunity to participate or when participation is not fair and representative, they do not immediately jump at every opportunity to participate. They see offering their views as a right that should constantly be standing, and not a gift they are obliged to accept. Why children have these preferences however was the primary question that Malcolm Hill tried to examine. Generally, the methods that children prefer for engaging them in research are those that best address these critical factors: fairness, effectiveness, agency, choice, openness, diversity, satisfaction, and respect. It must be noted here, especially in relation to my own work, that these are the values that underscore democracy and good governance, relating to values such as equality, transparency, inclusiveness, efficacy, and subsidiarity of power.
Children elect to participate in research activities and weigh it against the potential benefits and constraints to their participation. When research deals with difficult issues, children identified altruism as a major factor encouraging their participation, in the hopes that “something positive [would come] out of what seemed an overwhelmingly negative experience.” Recognizing that they are subjected to an ever shrinking pool of free time, children will choose to participate if they did not have something better to do or if they believe the benefits are worthwhile. Conversely an opportunity to escape the rhythms and work of a normal school day may attract children to participate in research activities. In Samantha Punch’s research, she found that where research was conducted in schools, the desire to miss class played a role in children’s interest in participating in research activities.
Children are sensitive to the elements of privacy and power imbued in the places where they participate in research, influencing their location and context for communication with researchers. Socialized in many settings where the power dynamics are unequal, children often “respond to questions according to the expectations of the researcher and are influenced by their perceptions of the microenvironment in which research takes place” (Christiansen, 2004; McKechnie, 2002 in Hill, 2006). Aware of the authoritative role of teachers in school settings, children advocated that outsiders administer surveys if given in the school setting. When children are asked about their everyday lives however, children feel more listen to at home than at school (Mayall, 1994; Morrow 1999a in Hill, 2006).
Children respond better when they think that children had a role to play in designing the research instrument. Not only does it help to make the research instrument more valid, it also demonstrates a participatory ethic and increases interest and participation. Interestingly, while children seem comfortable with their ability to contribute to research design and data collection, they often take a step back from the later stages, seeing it as beyond their competence, their role or their willing availability.
It is interesting that Malcolm Hill’s study examines the perspectives of both children who participate and don’t participate in examining the methods by which children would like to be consulted in research.Those who did not participate were usually more critical of youth forums, school councils and one-off events than those who participated. They recognize when adults are only consulting with a small minority of children, and often either by appointment or self nomination thereby compromising the representativeness of their views. Children are acutely aware of the fairness or lack thereof in participating in consultative activities—even if and when they exist. Children are aware that it is the charismatic ones, the ones that are most comfortable speaking in groups that often get chosen or are given the opportunity to participate in consultative forms. This is why in Malcolm Hill’s study, the children elected to use a survey questionnaire method to obtain the views of other children as they deem this method to be fair and representative.