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Blog post Part of series: Highlights from the first 1,000 BERA Blog posts

Researching with young and developmentally young children: Ethical considerations, dilemmas and compromises

Carolyn Blackburn, Reader in Interdisciplinary Practice and Research with Families at Birmingham City University

One of the most challenging considerations when researching with children is the question of gaining their consent to participate in research and their perspectives on the topic under study. Issues relate to the age at which children can realistically understand what they’re being asked to participate in, as well as consideration of their cognitive and linguistic ability to give consent.

Within the UK, the term ‘child’ means anyone below the age of 18 years. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Human Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child  granted rights to children between the ages of birth and 18 to have their wishes known, listened to and respected. The dilemma for researchers is that the perceived ability of a child to give consent will depend not just on an individual child’s chronological age, but also on their level of understanding, particularly if they are experiencing a developmental delay. Requiring high levels of understanding for a valid consent, however, could operate to preclude research with very young children unless an adult has consented on their behalf (Mason, 2004).

Researchers need to develop ways of engaging children in a wide range of different circumstances in order to obtain high-quality information, but they must also ensure that children’s rights are safeguarded (Mason, 2004). Young children are surrounded by adults who have a legal responsibility to act as ‘gatekeepers’, safeguarding them from outside influences, and arguably guarding their free choice concerning whether or not to participate in research (Mason, 2004). Children of all ages are subject to the control of those who have parental responsibility for their welfare and safeguarding.

‘The lives and stories that we hear and study are given to us under a promise, that promise being that we protect those who have shared them with us’

Alderson (2004) acknowledged that consent is a key issue in research with children which raises hard, often unresolved questions (Alderson, 2004).  There is no simple answer to the question of when children are old enough to give consent. Much depends on their prior experiences within the social, cultural and historical contexts in which they grow and develop. This poses an ethical dilemma for researchers, which requires reflection. Denzin reminds us that our primary obligation as researchers is ‘always to the people we study, not to our project or to a larger discipline. The lives and stories that we hear and study are given to us under a promise, that promise being that we protect those who have shared them with us’ (Denzin, 1989, p. 83).

Young children can be quite demonstrative in expressing their views, even if they do not verbally reject a researcher’s presence or questions. They can, for example, move away from a person they do not wish to be near (Aubrey et al., 2000), refuse to answer questions, change the topic of conversation or in extreme cases be physically aggressive if they feel particularly unhappy about situations. Flewitt (2005) found that children as young as three years old were ‘competent and confident enough to grant or withdraw consent – with some more outspoken and enquiring than their parents’.

The decision to adopt an ongoing process of assent whereby the child’s acceptance of the researcher within the setting can be taken as assent to participate in the research is sometimes considered appropriate where children have severe cognitive impairments. However, assent is not a term that sits comfortably with all researchers, some of whom argue that it may be used where children are simply too afraid, confused or ignored to refuse. This indirect approach for assent/dissent has, however, been successfully used within studies involving children with developmental delays/disorders (Blackburn, 2014; Brooks, 2010) and this may, for now, be the compromise that I will live with.


Alderson, P. (2004). Ethics. In Fraser, S., Lewis, V., Ding, S., Kellett, M. and Robinson, C. (Eds.), Doing research with children and young people. SAGE Publications, pp. 97–112.

Aubrey, C., David, T., Godfrey, R., & Thompson, L. (2000). Early childhood educational research: Issues in methodology and ethics. Routledge.

Blackburn, C. (2014). The policy-to-practice context to the delays and difficulties in the acquisition of speech, language and communication in the first five years. Unpublished PhD thesis. Birmingham City University

Brooks, T. (2010). Developing a learning environment which supports children with profound autistic spectrum disorders to engage as effective learners. Unpublished PhD thesis. Institute of Education, University of Worcester.

Denzin, N. K. (1989). Interpretive biography. SAGE

Flewitt, R. (2005). Conducting research with young children: Some ethical considerations. Early Child Development and Care, 175(6), pp. 553–565.

Mason, J. (2004). The legal context. In Fraser, S., Lewis, V., Ding, S., Kellett, M., & Robinson, C. (Eds.), Doing research with children and young people. SAGE Publications.