Learning & Development: Consulting with children - A matter of opinion

Dr Neil de Reybekill and Lynn Beckett
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Consulting children requires clear objectives and considerations of practical issues. Dr Neil de Reybekill and Lynn Beckett show how.

Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, recently launched the new Children's Plan, setting out the duty for local authorities and service providers to consult with children.

Apart from the legal duty to consult children and young people, there are good reasons to encourage participation, and where there is a commitment to lasting engagement with children and young people, it is surely to be welcomed.

After all, this is a means of communication with our target market - a form of research that is essential if we are to reach world-class standards of provision.

Why we should consult

The key benefits of consulting with children and young people include:

Citizenship: Being involved helps young people learn about themselves and social responsibility. It demonstrates to them that they are valued and fosters citizenship.

Inclusion: Taking part improves access to democratic processes for the vulnerable and those with special needs, involving those who would otherwise be potentially socially excluded.

Learning: This is a two-fold benefit - children and young people have the opportunity to learn new skills and increase their knowledge of how society works, while providers gain user information for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of services, which in turn enables more effective targeting of services to meet their needs.

Service improvement: If children are allowed to contribute their opinions about resources, staffing, activities, policies and procedures that provide the framework for service provision, then the quality of that service will be enhanced.

Planning a childcare consultation

Are the children you will be talking to from the same background, age or stage of development? Do you know the best medium for them to express themselves? Do you know their preferred learning style?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'No', you can begin to see that consultation with children is much more than just 'talking to children'.

Listening, for a start. Listening has been described as a six-spoke wheel, running from listening, observing, documenting, reflecting, taking action and then feeding back. It is important that the emphasis is laid upon the first part - this is about giving children and young people a voice and listening to what they say.

Ages and stages

Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for non-specialists to understand is the complexity in designing participative work with children, which not only takes account of their age, but also their developmental stages, preferred learning styles and special educational needs.

Our understanding of the stages and phases of child development is based on the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Of particular interest is the notion of broadly discrete stages in the development of a child's cognitive functioning. This is important in designing consultations, because if you don't pitch it at the right level, your work is likely to be wasted.

Between about two and seven years of age, children are usually in the Pre-operational stage. During this period, they are acquiring motor skills, and are learning to use language and to represent objects by images and words. Their attention span is short. Pre-operational children's thinking is still egocentric and although they are beginning to classify other groups of things, they will have difficulty taking the viewpoint of others.

Children broadly aged between seven and 11 are said to be in the Concrete Operational stage. They will start to think logically about concrete objects and events, and be able to work with numbers, mass, weight and classify objects according to several features and order them in size.

Formal Operational thinkers, aged approximately 11 to 15, can be expected to develop abstract reasoning and think logically about abstract hypotheses and become concerned with hypothetical, future, and ideological problems.

The pros and cons of photographs

Digital photographs are a great way of inspiring and documenting consultation, but it is worth remembering the limitations of this medium and the need for triangulating (verifying from more than one source or medium) results.

In a recent study, children had all been given disposable cameras to take pictures of what was good or bad about their childcare setting. One seven-year-old's photos were all of glittery greetings cards. What did they mean? Were these very special to her? Did she like making cards? No, she said - she took the pictures because she liked sparkly things.

Some children will take better photos than others. Some children's photos will be unusable. Some will misunderstand and only take pictures of their friends. Without cross-checking, you are likely to draw the wrong conclusions.

It is important that all photos, recordings and posters are treated analytically, as research evidence, or they will end up being used as 'delightful local colour' to illustrate how they have satisfied their duty to consult.

Legal, ethical and practical considerations

When consulting with young service users, there are a number of essential legal, ethical and practical issues to consider.

Legal The law requires local authorities and agencies to consult with children as a condition of grant aid, sometimes with clear guidance as to what to do.

Furthermore, anyone conducting face-to-face work with children, young people or vulnerable adults will need to be checked through the Criminal Records Bureau.

Those engaged in running consultations need to do so in a professional manner, paying due regard to risk and obtaining appropriate permission and authority.

Ethical While legal restrictions are not the same as ethical ones, disregard for the latter has had a negative bearing in court judgements. Professional associations for researchers, such as the Social Research Association and the Market Research Association, have a Code of Ethics their members follow.

Consent and confidentiality Gaining informed consent does not mean just sending a letter home - it means giving the children themselves sufficient information and an opportunity to refuse to take part. To ensure confidential treatment, children should have the opportunity to be consulted in private, away from a large group, and the right to absolute anonymity in reporting.

Staffing and scheduling Consultation requires careful planning and commitment in terms of personnel and funding. You will want to ensure that participants can choose from a variety of media in which to give feedback - especially where some may have special educational or communication needs.

There will be organisational issues concerned with allowing sufficient time for children to settle into groups and take on board what is going on and why. You will need to make sure that those conducting this work have age-appropriate professional experience, and that consultation materials and media are appropriate to levels of understanding of the group.

Conclusions

The wider implications for consultation are that services can be better managed, resourced and situated where they are most needed. The journey from consulting with individual children within current provision, to reviewing service delivery, allocating budgets and commissioning services needs to be considered when deciding to carry out consultation. Otherwise, it may become a tick-box exercise that has little effect on service provision and loses credibility with those we may wish to consult with in the future.

Dr Neil de Reybekill is principal consultant in health policy at M.E.L Research. Lynn Beckett is the head of early years and childcare at Sandwell MBC. The work at Sandwell was carried out by Anne Barton and Kelly Hunt of the health and social care team at M.E.L Research

CASE STUDY: SANDWELL

M.E.L Research was commissioned to work with Sandwell Early Years and Childcare Unit to engage and consult with children across the borough. The purpose of the consultation was to identify their views and experiences of the childcare and play settings they attend, in order to inform Sandwell's Childcare Sufficiency Assessment. The intention was for this exercise to align wherever possible with the five Every Child Matters outcomes:

- Be healthy

- Stay safe

- Enjoy and achieve

- Make a positive contribution

- Achieve economic well-being.

Consultation with children aged four to 13 years took place in six settings across Sandwell. Three of the six sites studied were in disadvantaged areas and three were in non-disadvantaged areas. All three disadvantaged settings were run by a charitable organisation called Sandwell Adventure Play Association. The others were a church-based after school club, and two school-based after-school clubs run by a private provider.

The consultation methods used were designed to be age-appropriate, and participants were assigned to their groups by researchers and setting staff.

Ages 3-5: A brief introductory activity explored the ideas of happy and sad, using the nursery rhyme 'Incy Wincy Spider'. Children were then asked to go to either a happy or sad corner when asked about their childcare setting. They were always asked why they went to their chosen corner. The children finished with a story from Mr Happy as a wind-down activity.

Ages 5-7: Using a Smiley Faces questionnaire, children were asked to use sticky stars to show how much they liked aspects of their childcare setting. Discussion explored their answers and the children used disposable cameras to show what they liked or disliked. Again, they were, wherever possible, asked why they had chosen to take their photographs.

Ages 10-11: A questionnaire was also used, detailing their experiences and exploring the reasons behind these views. The children were given cameras to record likes and dislikes and asked to explain their choices.

As well as the direct consultation with children, a simple observation check-sheet was designed for the researchers to capture data about the sessions.

The data from the consultation was used as the basis for discussions with staff and children within the settings in order to identify areas of good practice and areas for improvement. The full report was shared with practitioners and parents as part of the Sufficiency Assessment.

The consultation took place in the cold, dark evenings of mid-December, so the main finding across the settings was that although the children felt safe and happy, they wanted to be able to play outside more. In more than one setting, there was a desire among the children for more healthy food, but also complaints about broken toys and dirty toilets.

Two noticeable changes have already been made. The quality of snacks has now been improved, and the toilets are monitored by the children to keep them tidy and make the children more responsible for their environment.

Following the consultation, the photographs the children had taken were made into albums and returned to the groups. Staff and children were interested to see what was most liked or disliked about the setting. The staff had already used the consultation as a starting point to discuss rules, behaviour, resources and activities. An additional set of photographs was used for a wall display, with children adding the captions as to why they liked or disliked the things they had photographed.

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