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Informed consent and assent, and the ethical review process, with/for research with the very young

Liz Rouse, Centre for Research in Early Childhood

This post introduces the challenges associated with gaining ethical review board approval, and securing the informed consent and assent of participant families, in educational research. It draws on my experiences of conducting a doctoral study with two children’s centres, entitled How infant massage enhances pedagogical attachment in families facing challenging circumstances (Rouse, 2018).

My research aimed to build a ‘fine-grained’ understanding of the infant massage experiences of three infant-carer pairs, and proposed to use video with participating families. The expectation was that the films would provide detailed documentation of the shared experience, act as data sources and stimuli, and would be co-interpreted with families (Tobin, Mantovani, & Bove, 2010).

It was important to acknowledge that the ethics of the project were complex for three reasons.

  1. Participating babies were very young.
  2. Families could be considered ‘vulnerable’ due to the circumstances faced.
  3. The proposed use of video (Rouse, 2018).

In my view it was critical to the project’s integrity and successful ethical approval that informed consent was carefully addressed, and that a balanced co-researching partnership with families was achieved. The ethics underpinning the study were shaped by the European Early Childhood Education Research Association’s (2014) ethical guidance, which in my experience offers detailed support to researchers developing projects with young children and families. It was agreed that my application for ethical approval would need to robustly address the themes of informed consent (including babies’ assent/dissent), anonymity and secure data storage.

The study aimed to work with families facing challenges, requiring a detailed approach to informed consent. I developed a ‘matrix’ of approaches (see figure 1 below) which, in combination, appeared to support families in considered decisions around participation. It highlights the need for careful attention to participant infants’ multi-modal signs of assent and dissent, and proposes the use of observation guides developed by Bertram and Pascal (2006) and Doherty-Sneddon (2003).


Figure 1: A matrix of approaches to informed consent for research with the very young and their families

Source: Rouse, 2018, p. 157

Information videos (see the QR code below) are an approach suggested by researchers including Hammond and Cooper (2011) and Haigh and Jones (2007) as an accessible way to provide information to potential participants.

Among the consent forms designed for the project, families were asked to consider the level of anonymity they would require in order to participate in filming. The options offered were anonymisation of name, face, voice, distinguishing features, and ‘other’. A video consent form asked families to consider to what extent they would like their films to be used: within the project report only; at conferences and meetings; in training; or any combination of these. On the advice of an experienced filmmaker, it was agreed that participating infants would wear nappies during filming to protect their privacy.

The secure storage of data was another critical issue and, following expert guidance, filming protocols were developed. They specified that recorded data would be stored on the camera for the return journey after filming, carefully managed in transit, and downloaded and saved to a password-protected external hard drive within 24 hours. Furthermore, all filming equipment and data would be stored in a locked cabinet at all times when not in use.

It is my experience that a thorough consideration of the ethical challenges supports:

  • participants to feel safe to engage fully with research
  • successful application for ethical approval.

Readers may want to consider the following questions.

  1. What aspects of your research may be ethically problematic?
  2. How will you protect the rights of the very youngest participants?

References

Bertram, T. & Pascal, C. (2006). The Baby Effective Early Learning Programme (BEEL): Improving Quality in Early Childhood Settings for Children from Birth to Three Years. Birmingham: Amber Publications.

Doherty-Sneddon, G. (2003). Children’s Unspoken Language. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

European Early Childhood Education Research Association (EECERA) (2014). Ethical Code for Early Childhood Researchers. Retrieved from http://www.eecera.org/about/ethical-code/

Haigh, C. & Jones, N. (2007). Techno-research and cyber-ethics: Challenges for ethics committees. Research Ethics Review, 3(3), 80–83.

Hammond, S. & Cooper, N. (2011). Participant information clips: A role for digital video technologies to recruit, inform and debrief research participants and disseminate research findings. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 14(4), 259–270.

Rouse, E. J. (2018). <i. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wolverhampton.

Tobin, J. J., Mantovani, S. & Bove, C. (2010). Methodological Issues in Video-Based Research on Immigrant Children and Parents in Early Childhood Settings. In M. Tarozzi & L. Mortari (Eds.), Phenomenology and Human Science Research Today (pp. 204–225). Budapest: Organization of Phenomenology Organizations (Zeta Books).