Education Ethical Research with Young Children
Judith Loveridge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0293


Three sequential phases are commonly identified in the history of researching children, and research from all phases continues to be conducted today. Initial endeavors focused on researching about children were strongly influenced by developmental theories, and used predominantly quantitative methods. In the second phase, following the development of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989 and the emergence of childhood studies in the early 1990s, and informed by feminist and postmodern theories, many researchers turned to engaging children more directly. Researchers focused on researching with children and utilized a wide range of data-generating methods with the aspiration they would ‘give’ children agency and autonomy, and more authentically represent their ‘voice.’ Participatory methods in particular were seen as a way to attenuate the power relations between researchers and children. In the third and current phase, there has been a call to recognize that children live their lives in relationships with adults and peers and conceptions of the child as predominantly agentic, autonomous, and independent have been critiqued. The influence of Indigenous worldviews and posthumanist theories have strengthened the call for research that recognizes that children’s lives take shape through their relational encounters and entanglement with humans (intra- and inter-generationally) and more-than-humans, including animals, plants, material artifacts, and technology. Indigenous research in particular has powerfully shown that children’s lives are mediated by the worldviews and practices of their cultures. These latest developments have led to some arguing it is time to decenter abstract conceptions of the child and childhood; research involving children needs to be conceptualized and conducted in a way that identifies the practices that enact categories of the child and childhood in particular places in time and space. Hence a more encompassing form of ‘researcher reflexivity’ is foregrounded in this third phase: a reflexivity looking to move beyond the positionality of the researcher and bias and interrogate how the embodied researcher—with their emotions, ontological assumptions, cultural values, theoretical frameworks, and research tools—shapes and constrains both the research process and the knowledge that is produced with children as ‘children’s voice.’ Alongside these methodological concerns, researchers continue to refine and critique methods of data generation and analysis, encouraging more transparency, and interrogating the contribution of methods to research integrity. The scholarship reviewed in this article focuses on examples of research and debates from phases two and three.

General Overview

As the field has continued to mature and critical and more expansive understandings of relationality have emerged to include all entities (e.g., Malone, et al. 2020), key tenets such as the participation of singular, agentic children and ‘giving voice to children’s voices’ have been more critically debated. Horgan, et al. 2017 and Ergler 2017 argue for a more dynamic relational model of participation. Malone, et al. 2020 advocates for research that recognizes children’s lives are deeply embedded in more-than-human relations and in a context of a transforming unpredictable unsustainable future. Jenkin, et al. 2020, foregrounding intersectionality, works to find culturally appropriate ways for children with disabilities and living in the Global South to participate in research. Researcher reflexivity has been subject to increasingly critical appraisal; while it continues to have prominence it has not been clear what it looks like in practice. Blaisdell 2015 and Kontovourki and Theodoru 2018 make transparent the way their researcher positioning and the structures and processes of their research contribute to the knowledge produced and how children’s voices are represented. Ethical dimensions of research have also received critical attention. For example, The Ethical Research Involving Children (ERIC) project, an international collaboration aimed at strengthening ethical practices throughout each stage of the research process, has proposed an ethical framework involving ‘Three R’s’: Rights, Relationships and Reflexivity (Truscott, et al. 2019). Furthermore, there is an increasing focus on the way in which institutional ethical guidelines developed from Western thought privilege Western values and principles and ways of interacting, and ignore those of the Global South. Flewitt 2019 argues that institutional ethical review processes and codes are culturally bound and hence not responsive to particular social contexts. Abebe and Bessell 2014 and Jenkin, et al. 2020, researching in the Global South, illustrate ways in which formal ethics and local ethos and ways of being can both be respected and negotiated. In addition to these debates, researchers are deepening critiques of specific methods and their relationship with methodologies. Heydon, et al. 2016 critiques the possibilities and problematics of visual methods, and argues for the need to examine the relationship between the visual methods used and the methodological aspects of research. Flewitt 2019 opens up issues that emerge when researchers engage with online and offline digital tools when researching with young children. These lines of critique argue for the need for research that is critical, reflexive, and built from dialogical relationships between those involved.

  • Abebe, T., and S. Bessell. 2014. Advancing ethical research with children: Critical reflections on ethical guidelines. Children’s Geographies 12.1: 126–133.

    DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2013.856077

    What is needed to advance ethical research with children, particularly in the Global South, where research with children has been limited and debate about the ethics of such research has been on the margins of the dominant research discourse? The authors propose four elements: recognition and articulation of values, ways to bridge formal ethics and local ethos, recognition of broader social relationships and personal connections, and integrity of the research.

  • Blaisdell, C. 2015. Putting reflexivity into practice: Experiences from ethnographic fieldwork. Ethics and Social Welfare 9.1: 83–91.

    DOI: 10.1080/17496535.2015.994977

    Concerned about how assumptions previously accrued during a teaching career might influence interactions with children and shape research processes, the researcher used reflexive writing to negotiate potential issues. Different approaches to reflexivity are reviewed and examples from the fieldwork analyzed, showing how reflexivity was operationalized in practice. By making positioning, personality, epistemology, and emotional entanglements visible, reflexivity stimulated the researcher to more deeply question underlying structures and processes in research.

  • Ergler, C. 2017. Advocating for a more relational and dynamic model of participation for child researchers. Social Inclusion 5.3: 240–250.

    DOI: 10.17645/si.v5i3.966

    The author critically reviews the development of children as researchers since the 1990s and the aspirations held for their engagement across all phases of the research. Ethical complexities that arose in two studies on play with children are discussed. The author argues for a more dynamic relational model of participation that makes space for children to be engaged in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.

  • Flewitt, R. 2019. Ethics and researching young children’s digital literacy practices. In The Routledge handbook of digital literacies in early childhood. Edited by O. Erstad, R. Flewitt, and B. Kümmerling-Meibauer, 64–78. New York: Routledge.

    Flewitt addresses the ethical issues involved in researching young children’s offline and online digital literacy practices. She argues for a situated, reflexive, and dialogic approach, foregrounding and illustrating the in-the-moment reflection and decisions that are required as ethical issues emerge in the situated context of specific projects in the field. Key questions are posed for researchers to reflect on to insure high ethical standards in the digital era.

  • Heydon, R., L. McKee, and L. Phillips. 2016. The affordances and constraints of visual methods in early childhood education research: Talking points from the field. Journal of Childhood Studies 41.3: 5–17.

    DOI: 10.18357/jcs.v41i3.16302

    While recognizing the affordances that visual methods (VM) offer in early childhood research, the authors call for a pause to critically assess the problems and potentialities. Points identified for conversations include: the definition of VM, the potentialities of various VM, children’s rights and participation, authenticity and children’s voices, and methods for interpretation of children’s visual texts and ethics. Critical, dialogic relationships among all involved are advocated and between methods and methodologies.

  • Horgan, D., C. Forde, S. Martin, and A. Parkes. 2017. Children’s participation: Moving from the performative to the social. Children’s Geographies 15.3: 274–288.

    DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2016.1219022

    The authors provide a well-argued critique of the contested notion of “children’s participation” for its failure to recognize the relational and intergenerational nature of children’s everyday lives. They report on research using participatory methods and engaging both children and adults to examine the extent to which children and young people are able to influence and participate in matters affecting them. They stress the importance of everyday forms of participation.

  • Jenkin, E., E. Wilson, R. Campain, and M. Clarke. 2020. The principles and ethics of including children with disability in child research. Children & Society 34:1–16.

    DOI: 10.1111/chso.12356

    A research project, combining child participatory and disability-inclusive research principles with decolonizing approaches relevant to Pacific contexts, was conducted to develop and implement a method that would enable children with diverse disabilities, living in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, to communicate about their life needs and aspirations. The principles and ethical frameworks for disability-inclusive child research that guided the research design and behaviors in the project are discussed.

  • Kontovourki, S., and E. Theodoru. 2018. Performative politics and the interview: Unravelling immigrant children’s narrations and identity performances. In Reimagining childhood studies. Edited by S. Spyrou, R. Rosen, and D. Thomas Cook, 153–168. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350019256

    The concept of children’s agency is critically examined as the researchers conduct multiple readings of data generated in interviews and participatory tasks with immigrant children about their experiences in Greek as an additional language class. In their later reading they reflexively analyze how they as researchers (and performative subjects) co-constituted children’s subjectivation and the process of the research in restrictive ways, thus producing, facilitating, conditioning, and constricting what was possible.

  • Malone, K., M. Tesar, and S. Arndt. 2020. Re-searching with children in the posthuman worlds. In Theorising posthuman childhood studies. By K. Malone, M. Tesar, and S. Arndt, 213–236. Singapore: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-981-15-8175-5_9

    The authors trace the way that posthuman and new materialist philosophical and methodological framings have changed the way that the child and contemporary childhoods are researched. Ideas from posthuman and materialist framings contributing to the latest paradigm shift are illustrated with an example of young children researching their neighborhood, acting within an assemblage of humans and nonhumans and creating a multimodal research project.

  • Truscott, J., A. Graham, and M. A. Powell. 2019. Ethical considerations in participatory research with children. In Participatory research with young children. Edited by A. Eckhoff, 21–38. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-19365-2_2

    The authors introduce theories and scholarship that were drawn on in the Ethical Research Involving Children (ERIC) project to construct the ethical framework of Three Rs: rights, relationships, and reflexivity. A case study exploring children’s nature-based play in early childhood settings is used to illustrate what the framework signals at each stage of the research process. Ethical tensions between protecting children and offering a genuine experience of participation are discussed.

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