Research with Children and young people

In this post we will explore consent vs assent and what additional considerations you may have in obtaining assent where your research is with children and young people.

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Contents

Introduction

Consent is the agreement to take part that is provided by your participant. If your participant is aged 16 years or older, we use the term consent but if they are under the age of 16 years we would use the term assent to describe this agreement.

The possible methods for obtaining assent from a person under the age of 16 are the same as those used for obtaining consent: written, verbal or implied. However, the templates to help you draft assent forms/scripts use simpler language and often contain suggestions of pictures or other images to support understanding.

The method for obtaining assent will also differ depending on the age of the child. For example, a child of 4 years wouldn’t be able to read and understand an information sheet so verbal would be the preferred method for obtaining assent. Just as for recording consent, you must ensure that you document all instances of verbal assent appropriately in case of future query or concern.

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Obtaining parental consent

When you are planning to recruit children and young people under the age of 16, you must not only consider how you will obtain assent from those individuals but also how you will obtain consent from their parents/guardians to take part.

Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

In most cases, assent from a child is not sufficient for them to be able to take part in a research study and you must also obtain parental/guardian consent. To do this, researchers will often liaise with the school/nursery/organization where the children are being recruited from for assistance with contacting parents/guardians. In this capacity, the school/nursery/organization is acting as a gatekeeper and will usually distribute study materials directly to parents.

It is recommended that information should be distributed to parents/guardians by at least two different methods to ensure the information is received. These may include:

  • Information placed into the child’s backpack
  • Emails/newsletters
  • Text messages or messages on social media
  • Information handed out by teachers directly to parents at the school gates

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Types of parental consent

Obtaining consent from parents/guardians can take place in two different ways but there are specific University requirements and stipulations to these methods.

The first way is called opt-in which means that the parents/guardians receive detailed information about the study and then sign a consent form or indicate agreement verbally to the researcher. This is the preferred method of the University ethics committees as it ensures there is no discrepancy between the parent’s/guardian’s understanding of what their child will be asked to do and what will realistically occur during the research.

For ethical purposes, opt-in consent is also required for the following types of studies:

  • Those involving invasive procedures (e.g. dental exams)
  • Those using audio/video recordings or photographs
  • Those which will likely result in the child becoming distressed or upset

The other method for obtaining parental/guardian consent is called opt-out. In this method, detailed information about the study is sent to parents/guardians along with an opt-out form that has a specified deadline for completion. The opt-out form is an opportunity for the parent/guardian to indicate that they are not happy for their child to take part in the research. Should the parent/guardian complete this form and return it to the researcher, the child will not be able to take part in the research. However, if no form is received by the researcher it is assumed that the parent/guardian is happy for their child to take part.

For ethical purposes, opt-out consent is only permitted for low risk studies where parents/guardians receive the detailed study information by at least 2 different methods. The opt-out consent method involves a level of assumption, so as a researcher, you must ensure you have a plan of what you will do should a parent/guardian contact you to complain that they did not receive the study information and are not happy about the fact that their child took part.

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Information sheets for children and young people

Depending on the age of the child, an information sheet may be appropriate in order to help the child understand what they are being asked to do and what will happen to the information that they share with the researcher.

The information sheet should include simple language that is easy to understand, and if appropriate include pictures or figures for further clarification.

However you must be cautious not to overly simplify the sheet for older children as this may interpreted as patronizing and result in the child not wanting to take part.

If the child is aged 13 years or over you must also ensure that the information relating to GDPR is included. For ease, simple wording that relays this information has been included as part of the information sheet template.

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Summary

In this post we have explored what considerations there are for obtaining assent if your research is with children. There may be different best practice advice where for example your research is with vulnerable groups. We recommend you read this post next.

Alternatively go back to our ‘Managing and sharing data from human participants’ post and explore all the posts in this series.

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