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Gaining Assent from Young Research Participants

Conducting research with young participants is more than fun and games.

by Katherine M. Zinsser and Stacey S. Horn, University of Illinois at Chicago

Researchers collecting data in early education settings are familiar with the challenges of working with a population of sensitive (and somewhat mercurial) subjects. One particular challenge we face is ensuring compliance with ethical regulation pertaining to the study of young children, particularly subpart D of the human subjects’ protection regulations (45 cfr 46), which defines permission as “the agreement of parent(s) or guardian to the participation of their child or ward in research” and assent as “a child’s affirmative agreement to participate in research.” While an institutional review board (IRB) can provide you with instructions for gaining parental permission (or consent), there is often little guidance for researchers on gaining assent, especially from young, preliterate children. 

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In short, just because you have permission from a guardian doesn’t mean the child actually wants to participate. Not only will assessing a reluctant child produce dubious results, but it’s also unethical. Given these challenges, how exactly do you gain assent from a young child? Below, we review ethical considerations and suggest various strategies.

Be a friendly and familiar face – You have a tight data collection schedule, but your research may not be on the agenda for a young child. Try to schedule a “getting-to-know-you” visit to each classroom before working with children one-on-one (especially if your research requires that they leave the classroom with you). A teacher may be willing to introduce you to the class, which can often help ease the concerns of stranger-wary young children. 

Obtain assent in developmentally appropriate ways – Even if a child's parents provide permission for them to participate in research, you should always also give the child a choice as to whether she wants to participate. And, while it is sometimes helpful to talk about research activities in language that young people will understand (such as playing “a game” or doing “a puzzle”), you should also make sure they understand what you are asking them to do. For example, you might say, “I want to tell you some stories and ask about what happens when children tease or bully each other,” and then offer some reasons as to why you are asking them to work with you (i.e. "I care about what you think and I want to help everyone feel safe at school”). You should be careful not to "sell" your research as something that it is not just to get young people to participate.

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to getting assent – Researchers must be attuned to children’s temperamental differences and be ready to adapt. Some children will eagerly leave the room with you on day one. A shy children may require you to sit unobtrusively nearby before he is ready to participate. A persistent child may need you to wait while he finishes an activity he’s working on, and then he’ll go happily. Be creative and try a couple different approaches.

Don’t rush – Given the unpredictable nature of young children, consider offering initially reluctant participants another opportunity to give assent. Reluctant children may be more willing after seeing their more extraverted peers happily coming back to the classroom following an assessment. However, if a child repeatedly declines your invitation, do not continue seeking assent from him—he has made his wishes clear.

Be a good research citizen – A large component of getting assent from a child stems from your behavior in the classroom and your relationship with the child’s teacher. Be considerate of the teacher’s time and the classroom’s schedule. Don’t leave a bad taste in the teacher’s mouth by barging in, disrupting the schedule, etc. If the teacher greets you with a smile and you do the same, children will be more likely to look forward to your visits. 

At all times, remember the Belmont ReportRespect for persons, beneficence and justice.  You need to ensure that you are upholding these three principles at all times. In regards to young people, this means that you need to ensure they know they have a choice to participate in research. As we work to obtain participant assent in ways that are developmentally appropriate, our recruitment mechanisms must never be coercive or deliberately misleading (e.g. using very valuable or desirable incentives, or even using euphemistic language to describe research activities). Additionally, it is important that we make efforts to communicate what we are learning back to young people, their families, and their schools, and that we are not unduly burdening certain types of young people or families for our research purposes.

Kate Zinsser can be contacted at kzinsser@uic.edu

Wade George is the Director of Communications for the American Psychological Association, Division of Educational Psychology.

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