Research with children

Child subjects are different than adult subjects in a number of important ways, so special considerations must be made when conducting research with children. Here, we consider the most important aspects of conducting research with children - making them feel comfortable with the lab space, you, and the research study - and discuss some common issues that come up when conducting experiments with children and how to address them.

Before reading on, make sure you understand how to conduct ethical research with children and how to protect the rights of child subjects by reviewing this section:

Help children feel comfortable

The number one absolute very most important thing you can do as an experimenter is to help the child to feel comfortable with you, with the research study, and with the lab space before you begin the experiment. This one thing is so important that it will determine whether the child will want to spend time with you and participate in the study or whether they will not.

Comfortable with the space

Your first job as the experimenter is to make sure that the child is comfortable with the lab space. Our lab is a new space for the child and - even though we have a playroom - feels very unfamiliar and adult to them. The space is itself a reminder of the power imbalance the child feels in this situation. You, the adult, are highly familiar with this very adult space and you control everything about it: where the child will go, what the child will do there, and when and whether the child will be allowed to leave. This can make the child feel very uncomfortable and uneasy. Help the child feel at-ease with the space and to visualize exactly what goes on there by showing them all around the lab. Don't leave anything up to the child's imagination - show them exactly what things look like and what they are for so the child can visualize it when you describe the study later.

It is especially important to take the child around the lab (obviously invite their parent or carer along, but realize they are not the target of your information) and to be sure to point things out to the child, not the parent. The parent will get the information by listening to you explain things to the child. Start by letting them know you'll be showing them around:

Is this your first time visiting our lab? Oh, great! Well, let me show you around." (If the child has visited before, take them on a tour anyway and ask them if they remember what the space is for).

The playroom

Point out the playroom and tell them that this is where kids can play, but also make sure you mention that it is where their parent or carer will be waiting for them while they are in the study. The more specifically you describe this, the better. For example:

This is our playroom. We have lots of toys and books that you can play with if you want to. And if you decide you want to be in my research study, your parent or carer will wait right here on this couch for you. We'll come back here to play after I show you around."

Our office and the other people around

Point out our office and let the child know what the other people around are doing and what their role is. For example:

This room is where the researchers work. They mostly work on computers looking at data or designing computer games for our research studies. Sometimes they also call parents and children to ask if they want to be in our research studies".

The experiment room

This one is extremely important: show the child around the experiment room itself. Point out the computer they'll use, the headphones, and anything else you'll use for data collection. Also point out the camera, and let them know that there parent will be able to see them the entire time on the iPad. I like to ask the kid to test the camera with me, so we go back and forth between the playroom and the experiment room playing the "can you see me now" game. Let the child have a turn holding the iPad while you're in the room so they can experience this for themselves.

This room is where we will do the research study. See, there is the computer that you'll play the game on. You'll wear those headphones so you can hear the language and I'll sit next to you so I can write down some of the things that happen in the game. This way I can be sure I'll remember them later, after you leave. Here is the camera. You're mom will be able to watch everything we are doing through this camera. Should we test it out to make sure it is working? Here, you hold the iPad and see if you can see me... (etc.)"

Proximity to parent

Also make sure the child knows where they are in relation to their parent, so they know exactly how to find their parent if they want or need to. Feeling tethered to a parent or other trusted adults is extremely important to children and will go a long way to make them feel comfortable. I like to have them try to find the playroom from the experiment room, so they know exactly how to return to their parent if they want to.

Do you know how to find the playroom from here? See if you can do it without my help. Awesome! Remember, if you decide you want to do the study this is where your parent will be watching on the iPad.

The exit

Nobody likes to feel trapped somewhere or to feel like they don't know how to leave a situation if they want to. Point out the exit to the child and let them know the plan for getting them back safely to their car.

Do you remember how we came in? This is the door right here. When you are ready to leave, your parent or carer will walk you back to the car. And just in case you don't remember how to get there, I'll walk you out.

The bathroom

Similarly, children sometimes realize they need to use the bathroom, but might not feel comfortable telling you that or asking you where the bathroom. This can be a source of discomfort for them.

"If you have to use the bathroom while you are here, there is one right over there. If you'd like to use it, you can just tell me and we can pause for a little while."

Comfortable with you

The next most important thing to do is to make the child feel comfortable with you, the experimenter. Helping the child feel comfortable with the space is a great starting point, but there are additional things you can do that will help the child feel comfortable being around you.

Take some time to get to know them through play and conversation

Let the child get acclimated to the space by playing for a little while. While they are playing, join them! Get on the floor and play, too. This makes it clear to the child that you interested in them and that you are a friendly, nice person. Ask questions to learn more about the child: what do they like?, what do they usually do on Wednesdays?, are they in school?, do they have any pets? etc. This will usually open them up enough to ask some questions about you as well. You can even ask them if they want to ask about you explicitly:

"Do you want to ask any questions about me? Some kids ask me what my favorite food is or if I have a pet. Other kids ask me what kind of research I do or about my research study... (etc)"

Build trust between you and the child by being honest

A common misconception is that we need to "get the kid to do the task" by telling them it is a "super-fun computer game" or something similar. This is wrong for two important reasons: (1) it's kind of coercive (see the section on protecting child subjects) and (2) it makes them feel wary of you and uncomfortable with you. They feel uncomfortable because you told them the game would be super fun, then they started playing the game and realized it isn't very fun. In other words, you lied. Now, they either think you (1) don't understand kids (and/or fun) or (2) that you were trying to trick them into doing the study. Either way, this isn't good. They see you as untrustworthy and they are generally uneasy around untrustworthy people.

Instead, be honest with them about what will happen. Being honest is a way of respecting children and building trust, which is the best way to make the child feel comfortable with you. It is perfectly fine to describe the study as a computer game - it is that; but there is no need to talk about how fun it is one way or another. If a child asks you about how fun the game is (I've gotten: "what kind of game is it? is it like minecraft?"), be honest about how fun it is:

"Well, it probably isn't as fun as minecraft. But if you get a little bored, we will take some breaks to rest and pick out a sticker. That's my way of saying thanks for doing my research study."

Reduce power-imbalance by allowing the child as much autonomy as possible

As I mentioned before, there is a power imbalance between you and the child, where you have significantly more power over the situation than they do. One way to reduce this power imbalance and make children much more comfortable is to give the child as much autonomy as possible through choices:

  • ask them where they'd like to sit - this chair or that one; in certain cases the floor can be a good choice for equating power between children and adults. I've offered sitting on the floor (instead of the table) as a choice if the child seems uncomfortable at the beginning of the experiment.

  • allow them to put the headphones on by themselves

  • allow them to advance the game whenever possible (whenever permitted by the study protocol)

  • allow them to choose their own sticker and allow them to take their time. Sticker breaks are for taking a rest and helping the child to relax; there is no need to rush them back to the task. If they are trying to converse with you at this point, engage them!

  • Before the study, allow them to hold the iPad to test out the video feed and make sure their parent can see them

Continue to create opportunities for the child to ask you questions

Throughout the study, stay receptive to the child's comfort level. If the child seems at all uncomfortable - avoiding eye-contact, looking away or at the ground, low and quiet voice, speaking with hesitation, etc. - try to understand why and to figure out how you can make the child more comfortable again. Ask the child "are you comfortable?" and if they say "no", ask them "what is making you feel uncomfortable?" or "how can I help you feel more comfortable?" If they can't explain or continue to be very quiet, offer suggestions and possible solutions:

"Some children feel a little uncomfortable because they want take an extra break during the study. Would you like to take an extra break? Some children feel a little uncomfortable because their parent is far away. Are you feeling like that? Would you feel more comfortable if we had your mom or dad come sit just outside (or inside) the room?"

Also remember that the child might be uncomfortable and not want to do the study anymore. If they verbally ask to stop doing the study, or if their nonverbal signs are telling you they are very uncomfortable and don't want to be there, it is a good idea to explicitly ask them this:

"Some children say they want to do the study, but then change their mind later. Did you change your mind? It's ok if you don't want to do the study anymore. It is your choice whether you want to do it and I really appreciate you giving it a try!"

Make sure you offer the child the thank you gift, even if they withdraw from the study. If they've assented to participate, they get a thank you gift, no matter how far they make it through the study.

Be confident, natural, and engaging

Your nonverbal behavior will also impact how comfortable the child fields. Act naturally, confidently, and be engaging. Explain things in a way a child can understand and make eye contact with the child when you are explaining. Make sure the child is looking at you or at the computer screen. Attending to you or to the screen indicates they are paying attention and are engaged in the experiment.

Children are extremely good at reading nonverbal cues. If they feel you are behaving strangely or are yourself uncomfortable, this will make them feel uncomfortable in response.

Comfortable with the study

Finally, take some steps to ensure the child is comfortable with the research study. This means that they understand the study, know what to expect during it, and are agreeing to participate voluntarily.

  • Make sure they are comfortable with the experiment space and that they can picture it when you describe it to them.

  • Don't rush through the assent process; take as much time as you need to be sure the child understands what they will be doing and that it is their choice to do it

  • Make sure the child has a real opportunity to ask questions; this means slowing down a bit and sometimes offering up some questions for them to facilitate their understanding (e.g. "Some children want to know how long the study will take.")

  • Make sure you protect the child's right to choose whether or not they will participate. Sometimes parents or teachers will tell the child that they "have to do it". This isn't true, and it is important that you clarify this to both the child and the parent or teacher.

  • Emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers in the research study. Children will enter the experiment with assumptions about the space and you - they might feel like they are in school, that you are like a teacher, and that the questions they are being asked are a test. You can help them by explaining that your research study isn't like a test at school; that you are just interested in how kids learn language, so there are no right or wrong answers to your questions; "It's whatever you think!"

Common scenarios

Child wants a break

If a child wanted to take a rest, I'd say "of course we can take a rest!" I'd wait a while, talk with them about something unrelated. When I felt the child was ready I'd ask: "OK, are you ready to keep going? There are only 3 more stickers to get!"

Child seems uncomfortable

If a child seemed visibly uncomfortable, I'd ask them directly if they were feeling uncomfortable; remember your job is to make sure they are comfortable.