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Working With Young Children as Co-Researchers: An Approach Informed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

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Research Findings: Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), children have the right to express their views on all matters affecting them and to have those views given due weight. This right applies in the context of research; however, examples of young children being engaged as co-researchers remain rare. Practice or Policy: This article examines the implications of adopting an explicit UNCRC-informed approach to engaging children as co-researchers. It draws on a research project that sought to ascertain young children's views on after-school programs and that involved a university-based research team working along with 2 groups of co-researchers; each composed of 4 children aged 4 to 5. The article discusses the contribution made by children to the development of the research questions and choice of methods and their involvement in the interpretation of the data and dissemination of the findings. It suggests that, although there are limits to what young children can and will want to do in the context of adult-led research studies, an explicit UNCRC-informed approach requires the adoption of supportive strategies that can assist children to engage in a meaningful way, with consequent benefits for the research findings and outputs.
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Working With Young Children
as Co-Researchers: An
Approach Informed by the
United Nations Convention on
the Rights of the Child
Laura Lundy a , Lesley McEvoy a & Bronagh Byrne a
a School of Education, Queen's University Belfast
Available online: 14 Oct 2011
To cite this article: Laura Lundy, Lesley McEvoy & Bronagh Byrne (2011): Working
With Young Children as Co-Researchers: An Approach Informed by the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Early Education & Development, 22:5, 714-736
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2011.596463
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Working With Young Children as
Co-Researchers: An Approach Informed
by the United Nations Convention on
the Rights of the Child
Laura Lundy, Lesley McEvoy, and Bronagh Byrne
School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast
Research Findings: Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the
Child (UNCRC), children have the right to express their views on all matters
affecting them and to have those views given due weight. This right applies
in the context of research; however, examples of young children being engaged
as co-researchers remain rare. Practice or Policy: This article examines the
implications of adopting an explicit UNCRC-informed approach to engaging
children as co-researchers. It draws on a research project that sought to ascer-
tain young children’s views on after-school programs and that involved a
university-based research team working along with 2 groups of co-researchers;
each composed of 4 children aged 4 to 5. The article discusses the contribution
made by children to the development of the research questions and choice of
methods and their involvement in the interpretation of the data and dissemi-
nation of the findings. It suggests that, although there are limits to what young
children can and will want to do in the context of adult-led research studies, an
explicit UNCRC-informed approach requires the adoption of supportive stra-
tegies that can assist children to engage in a meaningful way, with consequent
benefits for the research findings and outputs.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
applies to every child younger than age 18, without discrimination.
However, the term child undoubtedly ‘‘masks a wide range of categories
of children’’ (Morrow & Richards, 1996, p. 90), and it is clear that some
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Laura Lundy, School of
Education, Queen’s University Belfast, 69-71 University Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland,
BT7 1NN. E-mail: l.lundy@qub.ac.uk
EARLY EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT, 22(5), 714–736
Copyright #2011 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1040-9289 print=1556-6935 online
DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2011.596463
714
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vulnerable groups are not given specific attention in the current formulation
of the UNCRC (Freeman, 2000). The United Nations Committee on the
Rights of the Child (hereafter, ‘‘the Committee’’) has expressed concern
at the lack of attention given to early childhood. It has produced a General
Comment, ‘‘Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood,’’ in which it
has made clear that all children, including the very youngest children, are
holders of all rights enshrined in the UNCRC and as such should be
‘‘recognized as active members of families, communities and societies, with
their own concerns, interests and points of view’’ (United Nations [UN],
2005, para. 5).
The Committee has thus recognized a distinct category of children as
those who are in their ‘‘early years’’ and defined this period to include those
‘‘at birth and throughout infancy; during the pre-school year; as well as dur-
ing the transition to school’’ (UN, 2005, para. 1). Given the variation in the
latter events in different cultural contexts, it has suggested a working defi-
nition that extends to all children younger than age 8 (UN, 2005, para.
4). Because all of the rights in the UNCRC apply universally, children in
their early years of life enjoy a comprehensive set of rights covering almost
all areas of their lives, including education, play, privacy, health, and health
care as well as an adequate standard of living and protection from all forms
of abuse, neglect, and violence. In establishing these rights, the UNCRC
clearly positions children, including young children, as rights holders and
places a corresponding duty on ratifying states to respect, protect, and fulfill
the extensive obligations contained therein.
Children of this age, like older children, also enjoy the right to express
their views freely and to have those views be given due weight in accordance
with their age and maturity, a right established in Article 12 of the UNCRC
(Lundy, 2007). The significance of Article 12 is such that it has been elevated
to the status of a general principle alongside the right to non-discrimination
(Article 2); the best interests principle (Article 3); and the right to life,
survival, and development (Article 6; UN, 1991 ). Moreover, a General
Comment elaborating on the nature and content of Article 12 was adopted
by the Committee in 2009 (UN, 2009). Freeman (1996, p. 37) has observed
that Article 12 is significant ‘‘not only for what it says, but because it recog-
nises the child as a full human being with integrity and personality and the
ability to participate freely in society.’’ It was partly as a result of this
that Article 12 became one of the most controversial provisions of the
UNCRC during the drafting process: For example, its perceived potential
to undermine adult authority was a key reason why the United States did
not ratify the Convention (Kilbourne, 1998). Moreover, its implementation
in practice, particularly in relation to younger children, has been problem-
atic not least because children’s enjoyment of Article 12 is dependent on
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the cooperation of adults, who may not be committed to it or who may have
a vested interest in not complying with it (Lundy, 2007) or who simply may
not be used to recognizing children, especially younger children, as com-
petent meaning-makers in their own lives (UN, 2005). The Committee has
further asserted that achieving meaningful opportunities for the implemen-
tation of Article 12 requires a preparedness to challenge assumptions about
children’s capacities and to encourage the development of environments in
which children can build and demonstrate capacities (UN, 2009, para. 135).
Notwithstanding the challenges in implementation, it is clear that chil-
dren’s right to have their views be given due weight extends ‘‘to all matters
affecting the child’’ and thus necessarily applies in the context of research
projects relating to children, a position underscored by the Committee in
its assertion that the right to express views should be ‘‘anchored in the
child’s daily life ...including through research and consultation’’ (UN,
2009, para. 14; emphasis added). The significance of the UNCRC has been
acknowledged frequently by childhood researchers as a key driver in the
trend toward the active participation of children in research studies (Kellett,
Forrest, Dent, & Ward, 2004; McKechnie & Hobbs, 2004; Powell & Smith,
2009; Thomson & Gunter, 2006). Moreover, the use of methods that engage
directly with children as research subjects and that are respectful of chil-
dren’s competencies has become a distinctive feature of early childhood
research. Young children have increasingly become involved in research
projects as participants through the use of age-appropriate methods, includ-
ing, for example, cameras, drawing, tours, map making, and ranking
exercises (Clark, 2010; Clark & Moss, 2001; Darbyshire, MacDougall, &
Schiller, 2005; Dockett, Einarsodottir, & Perry, 2009). In childhood research
more generally, there has been a trend toward involving children in research
not just as research participants but also as peer or co-researchers through-
out all stages of the research process, including designing of the research
questions (Kellett et al., 2004), data collection (O’Brien & Moules, 2007),
analysis and reporting (Coad & Evans, 2008), and dissemination (Tisdall,
2008). Increasingly, it is accepted that this involvement in the design and
delivery of research projects is essential if children’s rights and best interests
are to be duly respected (Alderson, 2008) and indeed is arguably a necessary
and logical consequence of adopting a UNCRC-informed approach to
research (Lundy & McEvoy, 2009). Nonetheless, this move toward the
direct engagement of children in shaping research processes—not just as
subjects—has undoubtedly been skewed toward the involvement of older
children. Thus, instances in which children younger than age 8 are involved
directly in research design, interpretation, and dissemination remain rare.
This article seeks to contribute to methodological discussion about the
involvement of young children in research by examining the implications
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of adopting an explicit UNCRC-informed approach to engaging children as
co-researchers. It draws on our experience in a research project that sought
to ascertain young children’s views on after-school programs and discusses
the ways in which a university-based research team worked along with two
groups of co-researchers, each composed of four children aged 4 to 5.
Throughout the research process the team attempted to ensure that
children’s engagement was compliant with Article 12 and informed by an
existing rights-based model to children’s participation (Lundy, 2007). This
model (see Figure 1), which provides a legally sound but user-friendly
approach to Article 12, as understood in relation to other key UNCRC
provisions, identifies four key concepts underpinning successful implemen-
tation of participation rights in the UNCRC: (a) space—children must be
given the opportunity to express a view in a space that is safe and inclusive,
(b) voice—children must be facilitated to express their views, (c) audience
the view must be listened to, and (d) influence—the view must be acted upon
as appropriate.
This article discusses the ways in which we, drawing on the model
in Figure 1, implemented a rights-based approach to the engagement of
children as co-researchers across the research process. It reflects on the
strategies used with the children to build their capacity for engagement from
the outset, the subsequent contribution made by the children to the develop-
ment of the research questions and choice of methods, and the children’s
FIGURE 1 Conceptualizing Article 12. UNCRC ¼United Nations Convention on the Rights
of the Child.
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involvement in the interpretation of the data and dissemination of the
findings to the research funders. It concludes with some critical reflections
about the extent to which young children can be involved meaningfully as
co-researchers and the role of the adult researcher in these situations. It
suggests that although there are limits to what young children can and will
want to do in the context of adult-led research studies, an explicit UNCRC-
informed approach requires the adoption of supportive strategies that can
assist children to engage in a meaningful way, with consequent benefits
for the research findings and outputs.
THE PROJECT
The research team was commissioned by Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, a
leading children’s charity, to undertake a research project as part of their
ongoing strategy to promote educational attainment and positive engage-
ment with school for children from socially disadvantaged areas. The pro-
ject built upon earlier work that was commissioned by Barnardo’s
Northern Ireland to inform the selection of outcomes for a proposed edu-
cational intervention (see Lundy & McEvoy, 2009). As part of the service
design process for their Ready to Learn Programme, the overall purpose
of the current research was to engage directly with Year One primary school
children (aged 4–5 years) to inform the development of an out-of-school
hours program for young children living in disadvantaged communities.
Two primary schools were selected purposively to take part in the study.
These schools were chosen for their location in recognized socially disadvan-
taged areas and the fact that they reflected the two main religious and com-
munity backgrounds in Northern Ireland. Both Barnardo’s and the research
team were committed to working in a manner consistent with international
children’s rights standards, applying a UNCRC-informed approach to the
project. As noted, one implication of this is to engage young children not
just as research participants but also as co-researchers from the outset of
the project.
When an explicit UNCRC-informed approach is applied to research,
involving children as co-researchers, irrespective of age, takes on added sig-
nificance and becomes, at the very least, a matter of principle. Enabling
children to express their views and giving due weight to those views in all
matters affecting them as prescribed by Article 12 of the UNCRC is not
restricted to the act of involving children as research subjects but extends
to the research process. How research is conducted and what methods are
used clearly impact on children who are involved as research participants,
as well as children more generally with respect to research outcomes. As
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co-researchers, young children have a key role to play in identifying
questions, identifying ways in which their peers can participate effectively
in research projects as participants, and helping to give meaning to the
findings. Indeed, the Committee has commented that decision makers
should ‘‘carefully listen to children’s views wherever their perspective can
enhance the quality of solutions’’ (UN, 2009, para. 27).
The research team established two Children’s Research Advisory Groups
(CRAGs; Lundy & McEvoy, 2009), one in each school. Members of the
CRAGs were invited to participate in the project in their capacity as
co-researchers and as a key stakeholder group with particular expertise on
the issues under consideration. The research team had initially intended that
each CRAG would comprise six Year One children. However, given the age
of the children and the fact that six would have constituted a relatively large
proportion of a small class size, it was decided that four would be a more
appropriate CRAG size for this study. Each CRAG therefore comprised
four Year One children (aged 4–5)—two boys and two girls—and included
children from diverse ethnic groups. In contrast to previous research pro-
jects in which the CRAG comprised older children (Lundy & McEvoy,
2009), the children in this study were for the most part unable to read
and write and had very basic numeracy skills. To that end strategies used
with the children had to be primarily visual and=or kinesthetic.
Article 12 of the UNCRC also requires that children be able to express
their views freely. In this context, a key element of this is ensuring that chil-
dren are able to express their views without pressure and can choose whether
to express their views. Article 12 is thus a choice for the child, not an obli-
gation (UN, 2009, para. 16). The research team ensured that all meetings
of the CRAGs were structured in ways that reflected the wishes of indivi-
duals and the group, that all children could engage actively and meaning-
fully with the issues, and that meetings were inclusive and held in a ‘‘safe’’
and appropriate place where children were able to express their views freely
(Lundy, 2007). Conducting research with young children in a familiar
environment is obviously important in terms of their feelings of security
(Langston, Abbott, Lewis, & Kellett, 2004). However, holding research
meetings in their familiar school environment can be problematic because
children may consider the activities to be class work. This can be addressed
in part by keeping the engagement as informal as possible and by using the
least conventional or school-like spaces available (Lundy & McEvoy, 2009).
Therefore, in one school CRAG meetings were held in the school’s Year
One resource area, whereas in the other CRAG meetings were held in the
school library. Both were locations in which the children felt at ease and
with which they were familiar but were distinct from their normal classroom
environment. In line with normal ethical approaches used in conducting
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research with children, the team also emphasized continually to CRAG
members that participation was entirely voluntary and that they could
withdraw from the process at any time (Alderson & Morrow, 2011; Davis,
1998; Hill, 2005).
BUILDING CHILDREN’S CAPACITY FOR ENGAGEMENT
WITH THE ISSUES
A key obstacle to involving young children in research as co-researchers is
the assumption that young children in particular lack the capacity or
maturity to express their views or lack the ability to participate in the
research process in a meaningful way (Christensen & Prout, 2002). How-
ever, in accordance with an explicit UNCRC-informed approach, it is not
for the child to prove his or her capacity to do so but for the researcher
to ‘‘presume that the child has the capacity to form his or her own views’’
(UN, 2009, para. 20). Moreover, Article 12 of the UNCRC necessitates that
children not only be given opportunities to express their views but also be
assisted in forming their views (Lundy, 2007). In so declaring, the Committee
has stated that
it is not necessary that the child has complete knowledge of all aspects of the
matter affecting her or him, but that she or he has sufficient understanding to
be capable of appropriately forming her or his own views on the matter. (UN,
2009, para. 21)
A child’s capacity to form a view is not simply characterized by his or her
biological age but can be influenced by information provided, as well as
experiences, environment, social and cultural expectations, and levels of
support (UN, 2009, para. 29). Article 12 must therefore also be read in light
of Article 13, that is, the right of all children to seek, receive, and impart
information. Indeed, the ‘‘right to information is essential, because it is
the precondition of the child’s clarified decisions’’ (UN, 2009, para. 25).
These key elements provide a clear rationale for capacity building with
children. Although the literature on children’s role as co-researchers has
highlighted the need to develop children’s capacities (albeit largely in the
context of older children; see, e.g., Kellett et al., 2004), this has focused
primarily on the need to build children’s capacities and provide information
with respect to research methodologies and with a view to preparing
children for participation in the data collection process rather than capacity
building on the substantive issues underpinning the research. Given that the
role of the CRAGs in this study was to advise on the research process as
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opposed to collecting data, initial meetings with the CRAGs included a
series of capacity-building activities designed to familiarize the children with
the issues surrounding the project, to develop their views on the issues,
and to assist them in applying their ideas to situations beyond their own
experiences (see Lundy & McEvoy, 2009, in press-b). Activities were
designed to be both creative and engaging, taking into consideration the
range of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication through which very
young children often demonstrate their understanding and views (UN, 2009,
para. 21). Thus, visual and kinesthetic approaches were emphasized,
approaches recognized as preferable for engaging very young children
(Clark, 2010).
The first capacity-building exercise was designed to introduce the chil-
dren to the broader concepts in which the research study was situated: the
nature of education and the purpose of schooling. The CRAGs were asked
to suggest ‘‘reasons why children go school’’; prompt questions such as
‘‘What do children learn in school?’’ and ‘‘Why do children have to go to
school?’’ were also used in the ensuing discussion. To facilitate this and to
support children in forming and expressing their views, the research team
used laminated images as prompts. These laminated images were deliber-
ately chosen to reflect a number of traditional theoretical positions on the
purposes of education: from functionalist perspectives on the role of edu-
cation in socialization and the transmission of societal norms (Durkheim,
1956) to liberal perspectives on education’s role in developing the unique
potential of each individual (Dewey, 1953). As such, the following types
of images were used to stimulate discussion and thinking among the children
on the issues surrounding the project: images of children playing together
and sharing, children learning new skills, a range of jobs children might
do when they grow up, and so on. It was clear that the children had grasped
the key concepts being discussed in that they articulated quite clearly their
perspectives on the purpose of education, commenting that it was ‘‘impor-
tant to go to school’’ so that they could ‘‘learn to share’’ and ‘‘learn new
things’’ such as ‘‘reading, writing, and numbers’’ and that this would help
them ‘‘do other things.’’
Having established the broad conceptual location of the research study,
the research team focused attention on issues relating to the research ques-
tions set by the funders: what helps children settle in to Year One, what chil-
dren like about Year One, and what children find hard about Year One. In
the second capacity-building exercise, the children were again shown images
to discuss examples of the types of things that would help children ‘‘settle in
to Year One.’’ In this case images of key people in children’s lives were used,
including parents=family, teacher, classroom assistant, and friends. The
children were asked to make suggestions of how these people might help
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children settle. These suggestions were recorded by the adult researchers on
colored sticky notes and attached to the image. The images prompted
considerable discussion, with the children identifying a number of important
home-based and school-based factors that contributed to settling in to
school. For example, they suggested that families could help children settle
in school by ‘‘helping you get dressed for school’’ and ‘‘promis[ing] to come
back’’; teachers ‘‘help with writing and drawing’’ and by talking ‘‘in kind
voices’’; classroom assistants help ‘‘with things you cannot do’’; and friends
‘‘stand up for each other’’ and ‘‘help you up if you fall.’’
The third capacity-building activity required the CRAGs to consider
aspects of Year One school life that children might like or find difficult.
To facilitate this, the research team developed a card-sorting exercise, a
method commonly used in participatory research (see, e.g., O’Kane,
2000). Image cards of a range of activities and aspects of school life were
produced and the CRAGs were asked to decide whether each image should
be placed in an ‘‘all children would like’’ pile, an ‘‘all children would find
hard’’ pile, or a ‘‘some children might like and some children might find
hard’’ pile. Each pile was represented by a hoop, with ‘‘some children might
like and some children might find hard’’ represented in the space between
the hoops. This was followed by further discussion in which children ranked
the images and also provided other suggestions of activities children enjoyed
or found difficult in Year One. This activity not only provided the CRAGs
with further insight into the nature of the research study but also, as dis-
cussed later, provided a number of items to be explored with the research
participants.
During this activity, as in the others, the CRAGs were asked to reflect on
the experiences of Year One children in general rather than on individual
experiences, a task that posed particular challenges. It was apparent that
the children were categorizing the image cards on the basis of their own per-
sonal preferences. This is understandable. Children, especially very young
children, can find it difficult to think beyond their own immediate views
and experience, and thus steps need to be taken by adult researchers to assist
child co-researchers to consider the issues under investigation from a more
general perspective (Lundy & McEvoy, 2009). In this particular case a num-
ber of strategies were used to help the children see beyond their own experi-
ence. Prompt questions were framed carefully from the outset to focus
attention on children in general. For example, the CRAGs were asked,
‘‘How do you think families can help children settle in school?’’ rather than
‘‘How did your family help you settle?’’ When it became apparent that the
children were relating their own experiences, further prompt questions were
used: ‘‘Do you think everyone in this group would say that?’’ ‘‘What about
everyone in your class?’’ ‘‘What about children in a different school?’’ This
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form of questioning provided what could be described as a gradient from
subjective experience toward more objective engagement with the issues
and to an extent helped the children to begin to develop the ability to think
outside their own immediate circumstances.
Thus, taken together, these capacity-building activities enabled the chil-
dren to gain a wider perspective not only of the major issues in the project
but also of their role in helping the research team ascertain the views of
different children other than themselves.
ENGAGING CHILDREN IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE
RESEARCH QUESTIONS
During the first meeting, the CRAGs were introduced to the idea of
‘‘research.’’ Understandably, the children were unfamiliar with the word.
However, they all understood the idea of ‘‘a search,’’ and this was used to
explain that we were searching for the answers to two questions: ‘‘What
do Year Ones find hard at school?’’ and ‘‘How could an after-school club
help them with these things they find hard?’’ It was explained that these were
the questions commissioned by Barnardo’s and thus bound the project. In
an ideal children’s rights-based approach, the children would have been
involved in the discussion before the questions were set (Lundy & McEvoy,
in press-a; see also Kellett et al., 2004). However, research questions are
often predetermined for adult researchers as well, particularly when it
involves a project commissioned by an external agency. That said, there
was obviously scope for the research team to develop the sub-questions that
would be used to answer them, and this provided an opening for the
CRAGs to influence the way in which these questions were addressed to
the participants.
As discussed previously, in the initial meeting the CRAGs had been asked
to consider what children liked about school and what they found hard
about school. The most common suggestions were then used to develop a
picture survey containing 12 images of a range of school-related activities
and themes for use with the research participants, who would be asked to
place stickers on those images of aspects of school they enjoyed and to place
an X on the images of those they found difficult. Thus, because the images
used for this activity were selected in light of discussion with the CRAGs,
drawing on examples of things the CRAGs thought children might enjoy
or find hard about school, the CRAGs were having a direct influence on
the questions and focus of the research, thus foregrounding the children’s
views and giving the CRAGs direct input into choosing the main items in
the research instrument.
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ENGAGING CHILDREN IN DECISIONS ABOUT METHODS
Having developed an understanding of the wider issues, the research team
sought to ascertain from the CRAGs the best way(s) of finding out from
Year One children, in this instance their classmates, what they enjoyed
and found difficult about school and what they would like more help with
after school in an after-school program. The adult researchers had experi-
ence working with children of this age in other projects and had a range
of ideas as to the methods that might be appropriate. In addition to the
picture survey described previously, we had planned to draw on approaches
used in the ‘‘mosaic approach’’ to form a ‘‘living picture’’ of children’s lives
in the context of readiness to learn by using a combination of picture
prompts, photography, school tours, and verbal forms of expression (Clark,
2010; Clark & Moss, 2001). The methods we intended to use were explained
to the children, and they were asked to comment on these or to suggest other
ways in which we could encourage their classmates to share their views and
experiences.
One CRAG suggested that circle time—a daily school activity in which
children sit in a circle and take turns to talk (Mosley, 1996; Pascal &
Bertram, 2009)—would be a useful mechanism for exploring other
children’s views. They explained in particular its primary benefit: that it
provided an opportunity for everyone who wanted to speak to do so in
a supportive ‘‘listening’’ environment. The suggestion, which had not been
on the adult researchers’ list of possible methods in advance of the dis-
cussion with the CRAG, had much to recommend it in practice. In parti-
cular, it not only allowed every child who wanted to say something to
speak when they were holding the ‘‘talking object’’ (in the case of these
schools a soft toy) for as long as they liked without interruption from
others, but it also allowed every child who did not want to say something
the chance to pass the toy on without feeling uncomfortable. Thus, the
children’s preferred method counteracted some of the recognized disadvan-
tages of group interviews, such as problems in recording when people speak
at once and the fact that some voices get heard more than others (Greig,
Taylor, & MacKay, 2007).
In particular, the CRAGs were asked to comment on our decision to use
child-friendly digital cameras in exploring what children liked and found
hard about school. Cameras are used widely as a tool through which
children, especially young children, can express their views (Clark, 2004,
2010; Cook & Hess, 2007; O’Kane, 2000; Punch, 2002). The children in
the CRAGs were familiar with the type of cameras we had chosen and were
very enthusiastic about their use as a mechanism for investigating children’s
perspectives on their experience of Year One. Consulting the CRAGs about
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this served to confirm that this was an appropriate method with which to
engage the children who would be the research participants. Moreover,
the CRAGs were able to demonstrate to their classmates how to use the
cameras, including tasks such as focusing and deleting unwanted images,
when the data collection stage of the research commenced.
An interesting issue arose in relation to who participated in the
camera-based activity. The CRAGs were keen not to be left out of what
seemed to them to be a fun activity on the day the research was carried
out. They also wondered about the children who were not taking part in
the research because their parents had not returned the consent forms.
We decided to allow all children to participate in this activity but explained
to the CRAG children that we could not use their pictures as data (as they
were part of the research team), nor could we use the pictures taken by the
small number of children whose parents had not allowed them to partici-
pate. In discussion with the CRAGs, we devised a way of differentiating
the cameras into three groups by the use of a removable and reversible
design panel supplied for decorating the front of the camera. Thus, one
design was used for the CRAGs, another design was used for the parti-
cipants, and the children who did not have permission to take part had
no design plate at all. Images from the latter cameras were deleted without
inspection when the activity was over. In this way and following up on the
CRAGs’ concerns about some children (including themselves) feeling ‘‘left
out,’’ we were able to adapt the activity to ensure that everyone had an
opportunity to engage in the activity but that the participants’ data were
able to be distinguished for analysis.
Christensen and James (2000) have suggested that researchers need to
adopt practices that are not different from adult methods per se but that res-
onate with children’s own concerns and routines. The best way of ascertain-
ing what the latter are is undoubtedly to ask children themselves. On the
advice of the CRAGs, we were able to work in ways that the children under-
stood, were comfortable with, and enjoyed and to do so in a manner that
facilitated children who wanted to opt out of the research in doing so and
yet ensured that no child in the class felt excluded. Although adult research-
ers will have significant experience in ensuring all of these issues, working
with children as co-researchers in situ helps to ensure that these issues are
addressed appropriately from children’s perspectives.
ENGAGING CHILDREN IN INTERPRETATION
Directly involving children in the process of data interpretation as
co-researchers is crucial to ensuring that findings are grounded in the
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perspectives and experiences of children themselves as opposed to reflecting
adult interpretations of children’s perspectives (Dockett et al., 2009). This
not only adds to the credibility of the research findings (Fraser, 2004) but
can also produce more nuanced understandings of the issues under investi-
gation (Lundy & McEvoy, 2009). Moreover, it is apparent that, from a rights
perspective, this crucial stage during which the findings are attributed mean-
ing by the research team is a key matter affecting children and therefore one
on which they are entitled to have their views given due weight under Article
12. In spite of this, examples of children being involved in analyzing or inter-
preting research data continue to be scarce (see Coad & Evans, 2008), and
scarcer still where the children are younger than age 8. The lack of engage-
ment with young children in this context obviously stems from assumptions
made about their capacity to cope with the process of analysis and interpret-
ation. We would suggest that researchers’ assumptions may be right but that
what needs to change may be the process itself and, in particular, the way in
which information is presented to children.
In this project, the children in the CRAGs were first asked to consider the
results of the picture survey. Because the children would not have been able
to comprehend data presented numerically, the findings were presented
visually. Cards representing the actual number of research participants were
used to indicate how they had responded to particular activities or aspects of
school life: numbers who liked the activity or found it hard. These cards were
coded for gender using images of either a boy or girl, which enabled the chil-
dren to see responses according to gender. This enabled the children to easily
identify how the participants had responded in general and also any gender
differences. For example, Figure 2 shows how the data were presented for
FIGURE 2 Demonstrating the results of the picture survey to the Children’s Research Advis-
ory Groups: The example used here is school bags. (Color figure available online.)
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interpretation in relation to the children’s responses to the issue of ‘‘school
bags’’ in the picture survey: Five children (3 girls and 2 boys) identified
school bags as one of the hard things about starting school, and 14 children
(7 boys and 7 girls) found school bags something they liked. The CRAG chil-
dren discussed the findings and provided insight into why other children
might have responded in this way. Some members of the CRAGs suggested
that children found school bags hard because they found it hard to pack their
bags and in particular to remember to bring everything they needed. It was
also suggested that school bags were heavy to carry. Furthermore, they
explained the finding that most children like having a school bag in terms
of how school bags provided children with an opportunity to express their
own individuality: ‘‘you get to choose your favorite character’’ on a school
bag. In sum, although the picture survey highlighted what children liked or
found difficult, it did not always tell us why this was the case. The CRAGs
were able to provide expert perspectives that enabled us to gain insight
and understanding into the reasons underlying the responses.
Next the CRAGs were asked to interpret findings from the camera
activity. They were provided with examples of the images recorded by the
children from each broad category (what they liked and found hard about
school). The discussion focused primarily on commonly identified issues
and, in particular, on why children might find certain activities or experi-
ences difficult in school. For example, many children had identified ‘‘letters
and sounds’’ as a difficult activity. The CRAGs suggested that this might be
‘‘because they think it’s boring or hard.’’ Images of ‘‘outside areas’’ had also
been taken by a number of children. The CRAGs discussed how outside
might be hard for other children because it was somewhere ‘‘they might fall
FIGURE 3 Child’s image of fruit and a milk carton in the rubbish bin—‘‘like’’ category.
(Color figure available online.)
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and hurt themselves’’ and that ‘‘people might push you, like Year 6 s, Year
7 s, and even Year 3 s.’’ Some children had indicated that they found the
dinner hall hard. The CRAGs suggested this might be because ‘‘maybe their
dinner hall is really noisy and it hurts their ears.’’ Similarly, some children
had taken photographs of a ‘‘no running’’ sign. The CRAGs suggested that
they might find this hard because they wanted to run or it might be because
‘‘it’s hard to remember the rules sometimes.’’
Although efforts were made to record the child participants’ reasons for
taking particular photographs during the camera activity, the enthusiasm of
the Year One children for taking photographs meant that some of the
reasons were not recorded. When it was not clear why a particular image
had been recorded, the research team asked the CRAGs for clarification.
For example, one child had taken a photograph of a rubbish bin as something
she liked about school (see Figure 3). However, the CRAGs were able to clar-
ify that the focal pointof the picture was the milk carton andfruit from ‘‘snack
time’’ in the bin. Another child had taken a picture of what, to the researchers,
appeared to be green dots, but it emerged that this was in fact a picture of a
caterpillar used in the classroom to assist children with syllables (see Figure 4).
As anticipated, discussing the findings with the CRAGs provided the
research team with a more nuanced understanding of why children liked
particular activities or found others hard than would otherwise have been
the case, and in other instances it provided invaluable clarification of why
children had chosen to record particular images.
ENGAGING CHILDREN IN DISSEMINATION
As Jones (2004, p. 128) noted, ‘‘The findings of all studies raise implications
for a range of audiences and methods for dissemination should be tailored
FIGURE 4 Child’s image of the ‘‘green dots’’ caterpillar—‘‘like’’ category. (Color figure
available online.)
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accordingly.’’ In this study, the primary output for dissemination was a
written report requested by Barnardo’s as part of the original commission.
This was clearly the responsibility of the adult researchers. However, in line
with the UNCRC-informed approach adopted throughout the research, we
discussed ways in which the children involved in the study could contribute
directly to this report and further dissemination of the findings. Given that
most children in Year One are not able to write and that some may not be
comfortable or able to express their views through drawing (Coates, 2004;
Greig et al., 2007), the research team, in consultation with the CRAGs,
employed the services of a professional artist to enable all of the children,
including but not restricted to those in the CRAGs, to express their final
recommendations about what they would like to see in an after-school club.
The focus of this activity was therefore on what an ‘‘ideal’’ after-school
program would look like. The artist worked with the children in each school
to produce a large collage reflecting the children’s ideas about the ideal
after-school service, including who should be at such a service, what activi-
ties should take place, and what the environment would be like on the out-
side and inside. Figures 5 and 6 show examples of the work that was carried
out in one school.
The children offered their ideas and the artist drew them, adapting the
images as the children developed their suggestions. The children were also
FIGURE 5 Artwork activity—the type of person who should work in an after-school club:
someone like a ‘‘granny’’ with a ‘‘nice smile and nice eyes’’ and who is ‘‘good at art’’ and ‘‘danc-
ing’’ and ‘‘can cut hair.’’ (Color figure available online.)
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able to draw pictures anywhere on the canvas, if they chose to do so,
which many did. Others chose to color in some of the artist’s images, thus
emphasizing one of the key findings in the study—that children wanted the
after-school environment to be bright and colorful. Boxes containing sam-
ples of the children’s photographs from the camera activity were also avail-
able, and children were invited to stick images of activities that they
thought would be useful to do in an after-school program along the per-
imeter of the canvas. The end result was a collage of recommendations
that were scanned and integrated into the written findings in the final
report to Barnardo’s. A final composite piece of artwork was produced
from the digital scans, which notably comprised the artist’s images reduced
in size as a background to the children’s own contributions, which were
emphasized through digital magnification. In this way, the CRAGs, as well
as all the child participants, had direct input into the final report to
Barnardo’s, and their perspectives were placed at the fore in the dissemi-
nation process.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
The major challenge of any UNCRC-informed approach to children’s
participation is ensuring that children’s views are taken seriously, a diffi-
culty that has been identified as the ‘‘holy grail’’ of children’s participation
more generally (Sinclair, 2004). We would suggest that this challenge is
accentuated when the attempt to ensure meaningful participation is taking
FIGURE 6 Artwork—the types of activities children wanted to do in an after-school club.
(Color figure available online.)
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place in the context of adult-driven research processes (which usually
involve a significant degree of professional, technical skills) and when the
children involved are very young (as they will be in the context of early
childhood research). In such instances, the imbalance in the experience
and skills of the child and the adult researchers is undoubtedly stark. It
would be naive to suggest that this is a relationship either characterized
by or with the potential for equality in terms of resources, knowledge, skill,
and power. That said, the obligation under the UNCRC remains the same:
to enable the child the opportunity to express his or her views freely and
then to give the child’s views ‘‘due weight.’’
As discussed, enabling children to express their views freely can be
achieved when deliberate attempts are made to support children in the
formation and expression of their views so that they can participate confi-
dently. When this is achieved, young children can contribute very effectively
to many aspects of research processes, including the focus of research ques-
tions, choice of methods, interpretation of data, and outputs. However, in
our experience, what it is possible to do with young researchers between 4
and 5 years of age is not the same as what can be achieved with older chil-
dren or adults. The reality remains that young children’s level of engagement
with and contribution to research processes is impacted inevitably by their
limited literacy and numeracy skills as well as the fact that many children
of that age find it difficult to think beyond their own immediate experience.
Moreover, sometimes young children find it difficult to focus on the issue,
and their contributions can be inappropriate or lack relevance. When that
happens, the onus is on adult researchers to listen respectfully and acknowl-
edge the view expressed in line with the first part of the obligation in Article
12 of the UNCRC but to give those views due weight in line with the second.
We would suggest that this approach is in itself respectful of children’s
rights: Article 12 acknowledges that the child’s right to have his or her views
given due weight is contingent upon ‘‘age and maturity,’’ a contentious but
arguably pragmatic qualification on the right that stems from the recog-
nition that not all children will have sufficient understanding and experience
to have their views taken into account in all situations affecting them. The
younger the child and the more complex the issue, the more likely this is to
be the case. Moreover, Article 12 is only one provision in the UNCRC and
must be balanced against others, including the child’s right in Article 3 to
have his or her best interests taken into account as a primary consideration
in all decisions affecting him or her. So, for instance, it can be argued that it
is not in any child’s best interests to have a suggestion for a research ques-
tion or method or interpretation accepted if the effect of that is to under-
mine the validity or reliability of the data and thus jeopardize the
credibility of the research. Finally, the right in Article 12 is operationalized
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in accordance with the adult’s obligation in Article 5 to give children
support and guidance in the exercise of their other rights. In the light of this,
the Committee has observed that ‘‘the child has a right to direction and
guidance, which have to compensate for the lack of knowledge, experience
and understanding of the child and are restricted by his or her evolving
capacities’’ (UN, 2009, para. 84).
In the context of children’s engagement in research processes, a
UNCRC-informed approach requires the researcher to listen to the child’s
views with respect always but to give them due weight arguably only when
the outcome of that will ultimately improve ‘‘the quality of solutions’’ (UN,
2009, para. 27). To do otherwise is not the child’s unqualified right, nor is it
in the child’s best interests, and this should be explained to the child in the
context of the ongoing dialogue between the adult and child researchers.
The fact that children’s views—whatever their age or maturity—are to be
treated seriously but are not necessarily to prevail on every issue is clear from
the Committee’s General Comment No. 12, which looks specifically at the
ways in which Article 12 should be implemented. It is somewhat unfortunate
that the limits that might be placed on children’s views in the process of giv-
ing them due weight are less clear in its General Comment on children in the
early years. It could be argued that in General Comment No. 7 the Commit-
tee has a tendency to overemphasize children’s potential contributions to the
decisions affecting them at the expense of acknowledging the limitations.
Although it is understandable why the Committee would feel the need to
emphasize capacity, agency, and competence in its guidance on the early
years, because recognition of competence and ensuing autonomy rights are
more likely to be denied to this particular group of children than others, there
is limited recognition of the fact that children will not always be able to
express a reasonable, informed view on every issue that affects them. Young
children are neither incompetent nor fully competent in many situations,
including research studies, and they will benefit from (and in fact are entitled
to) adult guidance. In contrast, in its General Comment on Article 12, the
Committee pays more heed to the limitations on the actual operation of par-
ticipation rights in the UNCRC. So, for example, maturity is defined as the
capacity of the child to express his or her views in a ‘‘reasonable and inde-
pendent manner’’ (UN, 2009, para. 30). These are qualities that many young
children will have in relation to particular aspects of research processes, but
in our experience it will not always be the case that children, especially young
children, will be able to do this in every aspect of a research study. The role of
the researcher in such instances is to deploy his or her own professional judg-
ment and give those views due weight.
Much of the literature on research with children discusses the potential
power imbalance between adults and children in research processes
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(Alderson, 2008; Kirby, 2002). Adopting a rights-based approach provides a
means of addressing this power differential, as an immediate consequence of
the recognition of the child as a rights holder is that taking his or her views
seriously becomes the entitlement of the child rather than the gift of the
adult (Lundy, 2007). Nonetheless, if children’s best interests are to be
served, there must be appropriate recognition of the experience and expert-
ise of those who are professionally trained. As in other cases in which deci-
sions are made with and for children (e.g., by teachers, doctors, or social
workers), the obligation is to ensure that the decisions that are made respect
the children’s views but do so in a way that does not undermine their other
rights (i.e., to education, health, care). So too in research projects, children’s
views must be treated with respect and their views must influence the deci-
sions that are made but only when the ultimate effect of that is to further
understanding and knowledge of the issues affecting them.
The key to involving children as co-researchers in a way that is respecting
of their rights is ultimately dependent on how the children are perceived by
the adult researchers. If the children are seen as rights holders (which entails
recognition of their competence, agency, and entitlement to influence deci-
sions affecting them), then it follows that their view will be treated seriously
and acted upon wherever possible. In particular, children’s perspectives that
depart from the orthodoxy and challenge the adult researchers’ perspectives
should be welcomed, discussed, and incorporated at every given opport-
unity. What should not happen is that the child’s views be substituted by
the adults each time they vary from the adult norm, as this amounts to toke-
nistic window dressing, exploiting the pretense of children’s participation for
a veneer of innovation or academic credibility. In instances when it is not
possible, feasible, or sensible to follow up on children’s suggestions on an
aspect of research questions, method, or interpretation, then the reasons
for this should be explained to the children in a way that they can under-
stand. Feedback can provide an incentive for adults to take children’s views
seriously because it makes it more difficult for adults to solicit children’s
views and then ignore them (Lundy, 2007).
Alderson (2008) has suggested that a major obstacle to conducting
research with children concerns infantilizing them, perceiving and treating
them as immature and in doing so producing evidence to reinforce notions
of their incompetence. In a similar vein, it has been suggested that research-
ers need to take care to ensure that the fun, participatory activities that are
often used in research with young children are not labeled as ‘‘childish’’
techniques (O’Kane, 2000). These concerns are even more pertinent when
the work is being carried out with young children as co-researchers.
Although the work that is carried out with the children can and indeed
should be fun and engaging, the findings and outputs must be serious. In
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particular, we would suggest that adult researchers refrain from presenting
participating children’s views that they have disregarded for their lack of rel-
evance or common sense to external audiences for color or entertainment, as
to do this trivializes and potentially vitiates the other relevant, practical
inputs of the children involved. No adult member of the team would have
his or her ideas the pilloried publicly in this way, and children are entitled
to at least the same degree of respect.
In conclusion, if the process of working with young co-researchers is
guided by the UNCRC, the relationship will be characterized by respect,
transparency, and dialogue. If young children’s views are incorporated into
the decisions that are made throughout the research process, much will be
gained in the quest for high-quality, relevant data on children’s lives.
Although involving children as co-researchers can be individually and
collectively empowering, it is also key in enhancing the ‘‘reliability and ethi-
cal acceptability’’ of research with children (Thomas & O’Kane, 1998,
pp. 336–337) and in challenging imbalances of power in the research process
(Kirby, 2002), ultimately leading to better quality research outcomes. How-
ever, it must be recognized that engaging young children as co-researchers in
a way that is respectful of their rights is ‘‘not a momentary act but an intense
exchange between children and adults’’ (UN, 2009, para. 13). This exchange
works two ways: increasing the opportunities for both children and adults to
increase their skills and knowledge (Alderson, 2008). As in all truly rights-
based activity, not only are children’s rights respected but the capacity of
the duty bearers to fulfill their obligations to children is also enhanced.
Working alongside children in order to research and gain understanding
of the views and experiences of their peers is in itself a means of realizing
children’s rights.
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... As mentioned in the General Comment 12 (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2009) a child's capacity to form his/her views cannot be bound to his/her biological age, but is closely related with information, experiences, social and cultural expectations and levels of support. In line with this, Lundy et al. (2011) proposes a rationale for capacity building with children for engaging in research as co-researchers. Our main intention in working with children from the three specific institutions was based on a similar perspective: To make sure that the children who could guide us in the process would have information, experience and awareness about their pioneer role in child rights advocacy and to engage in capacity building with the help of those children. ...
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This study focuses on an adult‐initiated and child‐led research journey that aimed to explore the path to empower children towards exercising their participation rights in different environments of their lives. To this end, a series of multi‐stage participation empowerment activities were carried out with 60 children in Istanbul, as guided by the child participation model and ecological systems theory. Findings are narrated through children's voices and illustrate their multifaceted opinions, challenges and demands with respect to how they participate in life. Children's experiences in this research journey suggest that grassroots of a child‐to‐child participation network is possible via empowerment and capacity building activities.
... The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) recognizes that children have the right to express their views on their rights in everyday life including through research and consultation [1,2]. In the context of research, the involvement of children as a researcher or partners in the research includes the process of defining research questions [3], collecting data [4], analyzing and reporting [5] as well as disseminating the results of the research [6]. According to Helen Hedges, "Children's work theory, testing and exploring ideas is an activity that builds new knowledge for children" [7]. ...
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... Since the early 2000s, the inclusion of children or young people themselves as coresearchers to better understand their perspective has been the subject of much deliberation, both about the benefits of these new approaches and about their limitations (Bradbury- Jones and Taylor 2015;Camponovo et al. 2021;Lundy et al. 2011;Smith et al. 2002). For young people, participating in a project as co-researchers, thus being involved in the elaboration of a research question, the collection of data and its analysis can contribute to building their self-confidence, improving their critical thinking, autonomy, engagement, and sense of competence (Kellett 2010;Suleiman 2021). ...
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... Research participants received a project information sheet in advance, outlining the purpose of the research, their rights and how their data would be used, with one version tailored for child participants. Parents provided written informed consent and for younger interviewees parents provided written consent on behalf of their child, with interviewed children of all ages additionally providing either written consent or verbal informed assent (Lundy et al., 2011). After interview, each parental interviewee completed a demographic survey. ...
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