What’s The Point of Doing Research with Children and Young People?

Professor Janice McLaughlin

Professor Janice McLaughlin

Professor Janice McLaughlin is a sociologist in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology and until recently Director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre. Her work explores how childhood disability or illness is framed from within the worlds of medicine, community and family. She has looked at themes such as the diagnosis of genetic syndromes in children, the role of medical intervention in the lives and identities of young people with cerebral palsy and the ways in which family lives can be changed, including positively, by the presence of a disabled child. More recently this work has increasingly become focused on questions about citizenship and young people – a shift that has come from working with young people and hearing their concerns about their position in society and their futures.

Working with young people from different backgrounds can be frustrating, challenging and a lot of work. Below I suggest why all of those difficulties are worth it if we are to create spaces where young people have a voice and how we can at least try to do it in ways that work for them. Most of the problems come from the institutional dynamics around children and young people and in themselves present insight into the ways in which society and the state carefully monitor children and their presence in the public realm. While many of these structures have emerged out of previous harms done to children, in themselves they risk producing the social fact that young people are vulnerable rather than being also seen as having the potential and capacity for agency and creativity. Young people can also be very busy, particularly with the demands of schooling (again highlighting the pressures on them from an early age). We have learned the need to be very adaptive to both their timetable and their interests. When a young person’s free time is limited (particularly for disabled young people who are often having to also fit in hospital appointments, surgery, physiotherapy, dealing with welfare agencies, alongside their school life) you need to ensure that if you ask them to give their time that it a) has a point and b) will be interesting to them.

Within a project examining embodiment and disability we explored the use of creative techniques – in particular making things, taking photographs and producing journals – as a way to make things more interesting and relevant to the young people.

Photograph taken by a research participant’s dad to show how he gets downstairs
Photograph taken by a research participant’s dad to show how he gets downstairs

Piece of jewellery made by a research participant to symbolise the importance of relationships to her
Piece of jewellery made by a research participant to symbolise the importance of relationships to her

For the young people who participated in that aspect of the project their feedback was that it was very enjoyable and did allow them to express issues around their lives and disability that was meaningful. Mark (none of the names given are people’s real names) represented his pride in his physical strength and ability to find ways to move through space through the picture he had taken of him moving down the stairs. Kim, used the bracelet to symbolise how the relationships around her of friends and family were of vital importance to her and a source of strength to her. So the creative techniques did add something to the project and worked well for those who participated, but here also is the snag, the number of participants who wanted to do these activities in comparison to the usual one to one interview was much less. So while methods papers may suggest that when working with children and young people that we should think about ways to make it more interesting and diverse than a research interview, it is worth checking if that is what young people actually want!

One benefit of the visual material the young people made is it did produce material that was very rich and also very appropriate for taking the findings out to non-academic communities. We worked with a graphic artist, web designer and a group of disabled young people to design a website and booklet that young people could use to explore themes about difference and how society treats children who have something different about them, in this case their bodies. The words and images the young people produced were central to that and the site could not have been developed without their input. The website is now being used by schools, third sector organisations and in teacher training (in New Zealand!).

Screenshot of the website
Screenshot of the website

So to sum up, yes it is worth working with children and young people, it’s obvious really, they have lots to say. But we need to keep thinking through and checking (with them as much as anyone) what the point of doing so is.

Other information:

Open access publications from the project:

McLaughlin, J. and Coleman-Fountain, E. (2014) The unfinished body: The medical and social reshaping of disabled young bodies. Social Science and Medicine. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.09.012

Coleman-Fountain, E. and McLaughlin, J. (2013) The Interactions of Disability and Impairment, Social Theory and Health, 11(2): 133–150, doi:10.1057/sth.2012.21

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and ongoing work we are doing with young people on citizenship is supported by the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal.

Other work and resources we have produced on disabled young people’s views on and participation in sport is also available.

Getting ready for the 2015 General Election

James Law

Professor James Law & Mr Tom King

James Law is Professor of Speech & Language Sciences, and Tom King is Statistician, both based in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. This blog article highlights how Save the Children commissioned James and Tom to do some analyses of the Millennium Cohort Study. The paper they produced now features extensively in a new report published earlier this month, entitled: Read On. Get On: How Reading Can Help Children Escape Poverty (PDF: 1.46MB), which has been extensively reported in UK media stories.

In the run up to the General Election lobby groups press hard to have their interests represented in the party manifestoes. With the 2015 General Election looming now is the time to line up the arguments and write the documents that will inform this process.

Save the Children, together with a number of different charities, are writing a document entitled “Reading for a Fairer Future: A National Mission to Ensure All Children are Reading Well by 11 by 2025: delivering the Read On. Get On. campaign”. This draws together data from a variety of sources to make the case that parties need to be focusing on the attainment (and specifically oral language and literacy) of very young children in the early years if they are to get a grip on key policy issues flagged up by the UK’s performance in the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) and other international league tables. Reading attainment amongst 10 year olds is more unequal in England than in all other countries in Europe, with the single exception of Romania. In part this an issue about the achievement of all children but Save the Children were particularly interested in the differences between children who are relatively socially advantaged and those that are not. As part of this process Save the Children commissioned Professor James Law together with SLS statistician Tom King to carry out some analyses of the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study of 18,000 children born in 2000 and assessed at regular intervals since then.

What happens beyond the school gates and in homes is critical.  Our work for this report shows that reading to and with children matters for both mothers and fathers, but the impact of father’s reading – particularly to children after they have started school – appears even greater.  Children whose fathers read with them less than once a week at the age of five had, by the time they were seven, a reading level half a year behind those who had been read to daily.

There is also a wide ‘book gap’ in England: almost a quarter of 11 year olds in the poorest families had fewer than 10 books in the home, which contrasts with under 4 per cent of those in the richest families. This is likely to reflect a wider attitude and approach to reading in the home: children in homes with more than 500 books are on average more than two years ahead of those growing up in households with fewer than ten books.

The ‘Read On. Get On’ report concludes “Achieving this goal would mean that every single child born this year would be able to read well by the time they finish primary school in 11 years’ time.  In order to ensure we are making progress, we are also setting two interim goals.  Because the early years of a child’s life are so critical and because early language development is the building block on which later reading develops, we are setting the 2020 goal of: all children achieving good early language development by the age of five by 2020.  And because we need to ensure that we are on track for achieving the ultimate 2025 goal, our second interim goal will be: to be at least halfway to achieving the 2025 goal for 11-year olds by 2020” (page vii). Ambitious goals indeed, but we will only know whether they have been met if we have access to good quality national data. The next step will be the manifestoes and the response from the different political parties.

Please note:
The paper based on Newcastle University’s research is cited on pages vii,6,33-35,40, 42-43 and the whole of Chapter 2 of the Read On. Get On. Report (PDF: 1.46MB). See also Newcastle University’s press release.

The Read On. Get On. report  and/or the Newcastle University research is referred to in media stories in: The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Sun, The Times Online, ITV, to name just a few.

For more information about the Read On. Get On. campaign, see their website.