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Ethical Research Involving Children

any advice would be appreciated

I had a few more questions that I was hoping you could help me answer.

1. Is it ok to conduct research on a student/ person without their knowledge? For instance, can it be observations? Can you create a fake claim for the purpose of the research, and then later reveal the true purpose?

2. All research needs parental permissions. Is that only if the research is going to be presented or published? What about when a school collects data from multiple classrooms and presents the findings. Is that considered research? Must they have parental consent?

3. Can you conduct research if the child without the consent of the child? If a child said they do not want to participate in the research, but their parent says yes, is it ethical to continue with the research?

Thank you for any answers you can provide.


  • Maryann

    August 20, 2014

    Interesting questions! I know there are different opinions on consent and I’ve not been involved in research that is purely observational. For me though, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing research with a child (or anyone) without first getting their consent. Likewise, I would not be comfortable continuing without the child’s consent. Although, that can be tricky too. I was in a situation once where the parent and child both consented, including agreeing to the child being interviewed on their own. But when it came to the interview time the parent remained in the room and the child looked very uncomfortable. I reminded the parent about the confidentiality aspect but they were clear that they were going to be present during it. I had the impression that the child did not feel able to pull out of the interview but didn’t really want to continue with the parent there. So consent had been given, but it looked like the child would like to retract it. I went ahead with a diluted version of the interview, adapting it to leave out questions that I thought might increase the child’s discomfort. It was a compromise, not much useful data was collected but the child got to participate without being too exposed. It didn’t feel great, but I didn’t know how else to handle it. That’s a bit of a tangent, but same underlying issue of respecting children’s consent or dissent.

  • eric

    August 20, 2014

    Hi Mandy, thanks for raising such important questions about consent. There are some resources here on the ERIC website that you might want to check out if you haven’t done so already.
    1. The Ethical Guidance section has a PDF you can download focusing on Informed Consent, which draws on evidence-informed literature and consultation with researchers.
    2. In the Library section there are abstracts from a number of journal articles that may be relevant. You could try using search terms like consent, parental consent or school.
    3. The Getting Started section has a downloadable PDF providing structured questions which might be helpful in thinking your way through some of the issues involved.
    4. It’s also worth mentioning that one of the key commitments in the Charter is specifically related to consent.
    We hope these resources might be of some help. We also invite other researchers to add their thoughts, comments and experiences to the Forum in response to your questions. If anyone has any useful resources in relation to this topic we would love to hear about them.

  • Sally

    September 4, 2014

    Hi Mandy;
    Thanks for posting your questions. I do lots of observational work with young children and have come across these questions. I’m also one of the only childhood people on our institutional irb and feel like I spent a lot of time talking about the unique conditions and affordances of childhood work! I echo what folks say about downloading the Ethical guidelines info– I think that will go a long way. However, here are some of my thoughts:
    1. I think it’s okay as long as the behavior your are looking at is in a public place– for example, if people are in public without a reasonable expectation of privacy (say, at a park or in the shopping centre) then observing what they do as part of your research is fine. That said, your research design would be hard pressesd to include data only on public observations; As for fake claims, I think that there are conditions were deception is important to design– but these are few and far between and require special scrutiny. I’d get somebody at your IRB or another institution to look over what you’re doing.
    2. Yes, all research needs consent– even if it isn’t going to be published or presented (remember, the research is happening, e.g., the participant is being subjected to the research anyway– AND you might change your mind about publishing or presenting!!!)
    3. I would say that if the child says they don’t want to do the research, they should not be compelled to do so. Read up on Vulnerable Populations– there’s a lot there to help you think your way through the idea of childhood and consent.

    Good luck!

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