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Research with children: ethics, safety and promoting inclusion

Guidance about managing the risk of harm, obtaining informed consent and what researchers should do if they have concerns about a child

Conducting research with children can help us understand what they think about the issues that affect them. But any research involving children must balance the aims of the research, the safety and wellbeing of the children and their rights to participate in research that impacts on them.

By providing the right support and knowing when to take appropriate action, researchers can ensure that children feel respected and can participate safely.

Types of research methods involving children

There are several ways to gather information about children and their lives, including:

  • asking children about their feelings, opinions and experiences through face-to-face interviews, in focus groups with children or by questionnaire.
  • observing children's behaviour using monitored experiments and activities or in an uncontrolled environment to see how they react during specific situations.
  • analysing information contained in files about children, for example reviewing information held in social care case records, case reviews or school files.

Identifying and managing risk

Research for the sake of research isn’t ethically sound. You must assess the justification for conducting research with children, and there must be clear benefits. Ensure there is a balance between the needs of the research, the need to hear children's voices and the need to minimise the risk of harm.

Consider whether the research poses any risk of harm to the children or researchers involved. Research shouldn’t involve any greater stress than is commonly experienced in day-to-day life.

In research about children’s experiences, the main risk is the potential to trigger or cause emotional or psychological distress. For example:

  • children may find participating in research stressful
  • the research may reawaken, trigger or uncover feelings or memories
  • children may be worried about how researchers will respond to the information they have shared.

The impact of these issues can be affected by a range of factors, including:

  • the age, and potential vulnerability, of the children involved
  • the sensitivity of the research topic
  • the way the research is collected.

Once you have identified potential risks, you should establish how you can avoid or minimise them.

Explain research confidentiality and obtain consent

Before taking part, children should understand the nature of the research and what will be expected of them.

It is important to explain confidentiality to the child before they give their consent and at the beginning of the research process. Explain:

  • how you will use what they tell you
  • how you will keep that confidential
  • who else will see their data
  • when you will have to break confidentiality and the process that you will follow.

> Find out more about sharing information

Adapt the collection methodology

The way information is collected can minimise distress caused to children. For example:

  • position sensitive questions in the middle of an interview or focus group session to allow the children to warm up and cool down from these topics
  • take breaks during data collection
  • conduct the research in a friendly and comfortable environment
  • avoid times of day when support services aren’t available.

Respond to distress and disclosures

It’s important to have a clear plan for responding to children’s distress or disclosures of harm to themselves or someone else.

You should have a process in place for referring child protection concerns. You should also provide information or encourage participants to seek help when an unmet need, such as a mental health concern, is disclosed.

Debriefing children at the end of the research can help identify any needs. This also provides another opportunity to refer participants to appropriate help or address any concerns.

Signpost to sources of further support

It is good practice to give children information about sources of support and remind them of these throughout the process.

A thank you leaflet containing information and contact details is particularly useful and should be given to all participants.

Childline provides confidential help and advice to children or young people. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Assess and mitigate risks to researchers

You should also consider the potential impact of research on the researchers.

If researchers feel affected by what is discussed during the sessions, they should seek support through supervision with their manager. It may also be helpful to direct them to the NSPCC helpline to talk about anything that is concerning them.

Research supervisors should ensure that proper attention is paid to the researcher’s safety, particularly in lone working situations.

> Take a look at our guidance on lone working

Set out and approve your research plan

You should produce a research plan which clearly outlines, assesses and provides mitigation for potential risks.

Where possible, we recommend that plans for research with children are approved through a rigorous ethics review process by an appropriate ethics body.

> Read more about how the NSPCC approaches research governance

Participation and inclusive research

Consider who you need to seek data from as part of the research. Not every study can include a complete cross-section of society, but you should aim to be as inclusive as possible.

Children can face different types of discrimination which could act as barriers to their participation in research. By addressing these barriers, research can be opened up to wider social and cultural groups and this will improve the quality of the study.

To facilitate participation with children, you could:

  • adapt research tools to meet their needs and abilities
  • translate supporting documents into other languages
  • hold the research at a time and place which is easy for children to access
  • consider whether the language or design of the research excludes any groups of children, or whether any specific recruitment strategies are needed to make sure there is a representative sample of children
  • consider if children would prefer to have an interviewer of a specific gender, ethnic background or age.

Sharing the results of the research with the children who take part is important in creating a positive and inclusive experience. You may want to create a version of your report, a presentation, or some other creative output specifically for children.

Informed consent

When you ask for permission for children to be involved in your research, ensure that children and their parents or carers (if needed) fully understand:

  • what the research is about
  • what is expected of participants
  • what the risks and benefits of participating in the research are
  • that participating in the research is voluntary.

This is known as informed consent.

Make sure you consider children’s capacity to consent to involvement in the research. This will depend on their level of understanding of the potential risks and benefits of taking part.

When considering whether a child is mature enough to make decisions about things that directly affect them, professionals often talk about whether the child is ‘Gillick competent’. Gillick competency means a young person is mature enough to fully understand what they are agreeing to.

> Learn more about Gillick competency and applying the guidelines

If a child isn’t fully able to understand the consequences of taking part, but is able to express willingness to participate and understand what is expected of them, it may be appropriate to seek their ‘assent’. In such cases consent should always be sought from their parent or carer.

Consent should also be obtained from the parent, carer or other appropriate adult for all children under the age of 8, and in most cases for children aged 8-15. For young people aged 16 and 17, you should carefully consider whether parental consent is appropriate.

If you don’t seek parental consent, you should justify your approach and consider whether parents should be informed of the research.

If a child doesn’t consent or assent to participate in research, this overrides the consent from the parent, guardian, carer, or other appropriate adult with a duty of care.

It must be made clear that there are no negative consequences to refusing to take part in research and that children or their parent or carer can also withdraw consent at any time. You should regularly check with young people and their families during the research that they are still happy to take part.

Requesting and recording consent

You should have a formal record that consent has been given before the research starts. Using a consent form enables children to confirm they understand what the research will involve and are happy to take part.
See our research ethics principles for an example of good practice of guidelines for seeking consent from young people and their parents.

Storing personal information

You should keep all participants’ personal information confidential and comply with the Data Protection Act 2018.

> Find out more about children and data protection on our children and the law pages

Complaints procedure

A complaints procedure should be in place when conducting any research. It should include a way to talk to someone not connected with the research, information on how children can make a complaint and the measures in place to ensure their interests are adequately represented. You should make the complaints procedure available when obtaining consent and promote it again during and after the research.

What to do if you think a child has experienced abuse

If you are concerned that a child might be at risk of harm, the child’s welfare should take priority over the research.

If you are concerned about a child

If you notice patterns of behaviour which worry you, you must share your concerns.

  • Follow the child protection procedures set out as part of your research plan. This should include information on how to respond to safeguarding concerns.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email Our child protection specialists will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police.

> Find out more about recognising and responding to abuse

If a child tells you about abuse

If a child discloses abuse to you, it's really important to:

  • listen carefully to what they're saying
  • let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
  • tell them it's not their fault
  • say you will take them seriously
  • explain what you'll do next
  • follow the instructions above to report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

Don’t confront the alleged abuser but follow the instructions above to report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

> See our information about responding to disclosures of abuse for more tips