25 SES 03, Children in Research - Methodological Issues
Research on children’s wellbeing has traditionally focused on the identification of risk and protective factors with the implementation of support provisions predominantly adult-directed. It remains that children are rarely invited to contribute to conversations about their wellbeing (Adams, 2012, Anderson & Graham, 2016; Fattore, Mason & Watson, 2007; Gillett-Swan, 2013; 2014; Mashford-Scott, Church & Tayler, 2012; Simmons, Graham & Thomas, 2015). As such, the reference point from which indicators of child wellbeing are determined, rarely, if ever, include the child’s perspective (Gillett-Swan, 2013; 2014). Given that child wellbeing programs are designed to meet children’s needs, it stands to reason that children are well positioned to provide insights that may improve program provision, and therefore improve their wellbeing.
However, when developing a research agenda that seeks to include the child’s voice, methodological considerations often focus on access tochildren in transactional (often unidirectional) research designs such as survey, interview, focus group and observation. This paper explores the relational aspects of research involving children and the insights gained from a project that offered an immersive guidance approach over an extended sequence of activities. Of particular interest is the emergence of the unanticipated methodological insights, the impact on adult-child relationships over time (Mannion, 2007), and the personal investment by participant children in project implementation (regardless of outcome) (Hunleth, 2011). These factors are not recorded frequently in the literature.
The importance of researchers learning fromchildren throughout the research process is frequently argued from an ethical and methodological perspective however such learnings are usually contextualised to ensure either “clean” focused data or safe research practices. We argue that by being open to listening to children within and beyond the structure of the particular study, researchers can achieve more than a defensible design and tight data set (Coyne & Harder, 2011). The purely scientific approach to research with children will never be methodologically satisfying nor ethical if we seek to suppress children’s desire to comment on our processes. Not only does real-time commentary by child participants provide valuable feedback for future projects, design adjustments are able to directly benefit the current study participants, an effect rarely achieved in normal research review processes.
Through the application of the Voice-Inclusive Practice [VIP] framework (Sargeant & Gillett-Swan 2015), sixty-one primary school children provided their perspectives on the conditions, experiences and challenges of childhood as they relate to their personal wellbeing. Aspects of childhood such as societal positioning, attitudes to contemporary issues and the child's expected future were also explored. Fundamentally, this project sought to reveal in children's own words, a conceptualisation of wellbeing and its relevance to students' school experience. Alongside the main study, the researchers were also interested in the methodological implications of facilitating VoiceInclusive Practice to determine its feasibility and degree of ease of implementation for those not currently aware of, or receptive to the merits of student voice in service development. In essence, Voice-Inclusive Practice entails the application of decision-making processes that are informed by an ongoing and open dialogue with children on matters affecting them. A key objective of VIP is to authentically seek and listen to children's perspectives and include these perspectives in pedagogical and educational research decision making. The research was underpinned by a strengths-based belief that children have an inherent capacity to make meaningful contributions to conversations on matters that affect their lives (Gillett-Swan, 2013; 2014; Gillett-Swan & Coppock, 2016; Sargeant, 2014; Sargeant & Gillett-Swan, 2015). By transposing the VIP philosophy of responsive pedagogy into the research space, researchers are authorised to consider elements of their projects they may sit outside or just beyond their project focus. The project was specifically designed to allow for as much freedom of topic choice expression as possible. The researchers regularly reminded the participants that they were in control of the process and the outputs with the researcher providing guidance and topic prompts as appropriate. This experience challenged the researchers throughout the project as it was not always evident that timely progress was being achieved. At times though the children lamented the lack of specific instruction but also acknowledged the level of freedom they were afforded with commentary such as "I like how you've done it, you give us option of doing poster, yeah you give us options of what we want to do".
As researchers often do, we felt the pressure to perform (and produce), for the consenting adults, our funding partners and for the children. The children however, did not express or seem to experience the same pressure. However, at the end of the project when no final 'product' of tangible significance emerged, they did express a desire for recognition for their labours, not just their outputs. The children were particularly interested in initiating a wider engagement by the broader school community. Despite this intention, the children did however, express uncertainty, but also hope, that key adults would take their ideas and commentary seriously. It is noteworthy that the children did not see their role as agents but rather as initiators of change. This alongside the seriousness with which they reflected on their roles warrants significant acknowledgment. The evident progress did not become completely clear until the final stages of the project when all of the data and contributions by the participant children were collated and prepared for analysis. The extent to which the children were given autonomy was identified as a key factor in the development of the rich and diverse assessments of their school's wellbeing performance. Not only did we achieve our primary research aims - "what do tweens know about wellbeing and what would they do about it?" but also by being open to the commentary and advice offered by children along the way (some we accepted, some we rejected), our project insights were significantly extended. In this context, the contributions "along the way" through the participant children's commentary and feedback provided immediate affirmation or critique of the research process. This enabled timely and relevant modification to the process in-situ and also enabled refinement of prepared processes for future projects.
Adams K. (2009). The rise of the child's voice; the silencing of the spiritual voice. Journal of Beliefs and Values: Studies in Religion and Education 30: 113-122. Anderson, D. L., & Graham, A. P. 2016. Improving student wellbeing: having a say at school. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 27(3), 348-366. Coyne, I., & Harder, M. (2011). Children's participation in decision-making: balancing protection with shared decision-making using a situational perspective. Journal of Child Health Care, 1367493511406570. Fattore, T. Mason, J. & Watson, E. 2009. When Children are Asked About Their Wellbeing: Towards a Framework for Guiding Policy. Child Indicators Research, 2(1), 57-77. Gillett-Swan, J. K. (2013). Time to tell: The complexity of wellbeing from the perspective of tweens. Australian Catholic University, QLD (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation). Gillett-Swan, J. K. (2014). Investigating tween children's capacity to conceptualise the complex issue of wellbeing. Global Studies of Childhood, 4(2), 64-76. Gillett-Swan, J. K. & Coppock, V. (2016). Children's rights, Educational research, and the UNCRC: Past, present and future, Symposium Books: UK. Gillett-Swan, J., & Sargeant, J. (2015). Wellbeing as a Process of Accrual: Beyond Subjectivity and Beyond the Moment. Social Indicators Research, 121(1), 135-148. Hunleth, J. (2011). Beyond on or with: Questioning power dynamics and knowledge production in "child-oriented" research methodology. Childhood, 18(1), 81-93. Mannion, G. (2007). Going Spatial, Going Relational: Why "listening to children" and children's participation needs reframing. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 28(3), 405-420. Mashford-Scott A, Church A, Tayler C. (2012). Seeking children's perspectives on their wellbeing in early childhood settings. International Journal of Early Childhood 44: 231-247. Sargeant, J., & Gillett-Swan, J. K. (2015). Empowering the disempowered through voice-inclusive practice: Children's views on adult-centric educational provision. European Educational Research Journal, 14(2), 177-191.
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