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Keeping it Real: Researching Children

05/11/2010
Children in Khorixas, Namibia

"Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings..."*

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…*

When you do research with and around children, you get some very interesting messages if you simply ask the right questions.

But, how do you know which is the right one to ask? And, how do you get to ask it?

If you are thinking of doing a research project which involves young people, you will need to do a research reality check before you start!

There are a number of personal qualities you will need to do this properly – like humility, openness and realism. Without these, you will get neither useful responses nor successful completion.

Humility From beginning to end, you will need humility. Remember: you may be a researcher, but you are not the expert. Not yet, at least.

The experts are the children, their parents and the professionals who work with them.

As you plan your project – and, hopefully, re-assess and adjust it along the way – you will need to gather opinions and responses from teachers, social workers, nursery nurses, carers and, of course, the children themselves.

And, as you plan, think about your work from a child’s point of view and tailor it accordingly. Trial your research instruments (surveys, interviews, focus groups) with them. You will need to use the findings from your pilot study to refine and improve your approach.

Seek out the real experts. Ask their advice. Use it to make your work easier and more relevant.

Openness To be a good researcher – especially with children – you will need to re-open yourself in many ways.

It is said that, to research successfully, you need to make the familiar strange. For some of us, this will require something of a mindshift.

You will need to be open to new ideas and, for example, you will need to be open to the possibility that you are wrong. You will need to be open to what the research process and interim findings are telling you whilst the project is underway.

Working with students, it is remarkable how often they have fixed ideas not only about facts and processes but also about the way that research should work.

It is so important that you as a researcher are in learning and listening mode – not least to the situation’s backtalk, as Donald Schon (1983) put it. You will need to be open to what the study and its participants are telling you because you will need this to refine and improve your work as you go along.

Realism As you start out on your research journey, you must be realistic about the ground you can cover.

Be realistic about what you can achieve with the time and the resources you have you have available.

But you must also be realistic about what the scope of your project can be, how puritan you can be in the approach you adopt or simply what your informants can reliably tell you.

Make a success of this project and other more ambitious ones may follow and glory will be thine. But none of this will happen if you bite off more than you can chew and your project is poor or never finished.

Being realistic means planning your work in manageable bite-size chunks. It also means leaving lots of time before deadlines.

Remember: if you always keep your supervisor happy and never keep them waiting you will be storing-up riches in heaven!

A Final Thought Dreadful things are done to children both accidentally and intentionally by individuals and by institutions. Your research is important because it is part of a collective effort to improve conditions for young people. Get it right and it will change professional practices, organisational systems and everyday reality for children and young people. That is why this matters.

Assistance If you want any further information about researching children and young people, please contact me at Life Research. I am always happy to help in any way I can.

* Psalms 8:2: Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

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