Issues that arise in research

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It is becoming more common to talk about including children's perspectives in review of children's services and this is particularly the case for young children. The traditional method often required imagination if experiences and views of young children are to be taken into consideration by adults.

Mosaic Approach is a particular framework for listening to very young children, under five years of age. It is an approach, which acknowledges children and adults as co-constructors of meaning. It is an approach, which can combine the visual with the verbal.

The Mosaic is a multi-method which uses children's own photographs, child-led tours and map making. The approach which combines the traditional research tools of observation and interviewing with participatory methods. The method is combined with talking and observing children to gain a deeper understanding of children's perspectives in their early childhood. The approach has the potential to use with older children, especially those with communication difficulties or for whom English is an additional language.

Clark quotes 'there are three main theoretical starting points for this research approach, each based on notions of competency'. (Clark, 2004, pg 142). As children have their own time and activities Clark acknowledges that children have important perspectives to contribute about their own lives. This view of competency is in contrast to other research models which Qvortrup has pointed out, which can often exclude the voices of children. Qvortrup states that, 'children are often denied the right to speak for themselves either because they are held incompetent in making judgements or because they are thought of as unreliable witness about their own lives'. (Qvortrup et al., 1994: 2) Critically, it is important to consider the use of the term research with children rather than on or for children as a way of highlighting child expertise and ability to collaborate. 'In the past, much research was conducted on children but relatively little with them' (Masson, 2004, pg 4). Lahman quotes 'has called for child-centered research and sees children as 'subjects and not objects'. This reveals a discussion of whether research has been on or for children' (Lahman, 2008, pg 295). Lehman also stresses the importance of providing children opportunities to interpret data and reflect on tentative findings, which has been done through follow-up interviews and focus groups where findings and data previously collected are brought to the children to discuss. Similarly, Kay et al. (2003) 'has characterised this as (re)presentation, meaning that child participants are presented with representations of research data in order to gain their input so the researcher may (re)present their data as informed by the children's input'.

The framework consists of a Multi-method, which recognises the different languages or voices of children. The Participatory method treats children as experts and agents in their own lives while the Reflexive method includes children, practitioners and parents in reflecting on meanings and addresses the question of interpretation. The adaptable method can be applied to a variety of early child-hood institutions which can be embedded into practice; this method is a framework for listening which has the potential to be both used as an evaluative tool and to become embedded into early years practice. Finally, the focussed on children's lived experiences method looks at lives rather than knowledge gained or care received.

A major influence in developing this approach has been the methods used in the 'participatory appraisal'. Participatory appraisal is about empowering poorer communities to have a voice for changes within their communities. A range of methodologies are used, which don't rely on written words and assumed as competency. This often led the development of imaginative tools that enabled illiterate adults to speak and the same trigger has spurred the development the Mosaic approach with young children. The aim is to find practical ways to contribute to the development of services that are responsive to the voices of the child and which recognises children's competencies.

Clark states 'The approach developed as a multi-developed model which was important to include o range of methods in order to allow children with different abilities and interests to take part'. (Clark, 2004, pg 144). There is a two stage approach, firstly children and adults gather documentation and practitioners and parents/carers reflect on what they think life is like for the children. The second stage pieces together information for dialogue, reflection and interpretation and practitioners and parents listen to the children's own perspectives. In so far as we should choose those methods based around the ages of our participants, ethical issues will also underpin our choices of method. With interviewing, if you interview a 4 year old, you may exclude the other children. However, Lahman points out 'that using conventional one-on-one interviews would have meant missing most of the kids' ways of expressing themselves'. (Lahman, 2008, pg 294). However, as Clark states 'those who know the personalities of the children need sit alongside the participatory tools in the Mosaic approach in order to build a more detailed understanding of young children's experiences'. (Clark, 2004, pg 146). It is always preferable to be with children in their context, so naturally occurring conversations can occur in the context of the children's lives. However, there are occasions when due to time, money or the topic, formal interviews may be required. When moving to a formal interview, the child/researcher power deferential be inherently emphasised and the researcher risks controlling the interview in a manner that produces what the child believes the adult wishes to hear. Researchers may wish to allow the child to choose where they want the interview to occur and allow the child to hear their voice recording and handle the recording equipment. When conducting focus groups, friendship may be the most important factor for composing groups. Children talking together replicate the small group setting that they are familiar within the classroom where conversations can appear to flow effortlessly. A child could also lead the focus group with adults being present in a listening role. Encouraging children to interview their friends, as research is also a way to minimize the researcher's power. Eliciting and understanding children's views has become increasingly important for a range of reasons including legal, political and academic issues. Critically, new paradigms in social science have encouraged the views of children as social actors, playing an active role in shaping their environment. Research has suggested that children are more competent than previously thought in their ability to comment on their own lives, and be involved in making decisions. Yet, theories of child development are often cited as the reason why young children cannot be consulted and not able to understand the issues or make meaningful contributions. An alternative approach would be to assume that young children might not understand enough to be consulted on particular matters, or on some aspects of them, or indeed that they may be able to understand if they are asked in a different way.

Adhering to participatory research principles requires a coherent and consistent approach to the research design, notably the practical considerations of generating data in appropriate ways. Pieces of the Mosaic, gathered by adults and children, form the basis for Stage Two. Combining the narratives and images of these individual pieces brings a greater level of understanding about young children's priorities. By looking at all pieces gathered in Stage One you can build a picture of what appears important, this is completed by looking at what images or narratives come up more frequently. Thus what themes appear more often are more important to the child or children involved? Another methodology could be photographs (taken by young person) - cameras are a medium, which appeal to young children and provide a form of communication, which is fun. For example, allowing the children to photograph their favourite things. On a positive note, children learn and gain confidence, as they are able to engage in ways they feel comfortable and they learn new skills such as listening, reflecting on their feelings and practical skills such as using cameras. Finally, by being listened to, children may become more active participants and get more involved in activities. Negatively, children must choose to take part, otherwise it can be intrusive to tell them 'we are listening' to you or to observe them for research purposes without first telling them. Knowledge is power - by gaining further insight into the lives of the children you are working with you gain 'power' over them, therefore critical for practitioners to be careful how they respond to what the children say. In line with the approach, the use of cameras produced data in the form of pictures; it also encourages children to think about what they are looking at and make active decisions about what they do and do not want to photograph. However, as Clark states, if there is a mismatch between the task and the ability of the participants to complete the task, the data will be incomplete and some data will be missing. However, a reliance on drawings, photographs or video clips depends on several factors, not least of which is the quality of the image. The skill of the artist, photographer or camera operator can influence the final product, and further, the perspective of the participant is essential to interpreting and extending these data. (Clark, 2004, pp. 142-161). There are equally complicated issues to be negotiated when research is conducted at school, in classrooms, or even at school when children are removed from classes to participate in research. Children could downplay their responses to questions (if answering in public might impact negatively on their status with peers) when a teacher or another authority figure (perceived or imaginary) was present but exaggerate their answers when with peers. The power of the photograph as a data-collection tool appears to make much more sense if the photographic task is aligned with an interview with the photographer.

Lahman suggests allowing children to choose whether they wish to express themselves through an innovative method, 'some of the children we saw were keen to express themselves by drawing while others had no interest in this method of communication'. (Lahman, 2008, pg 294). Other examples of methods successfully utilized with children can include photography, video, communication with toys and art. Clark (2005) 'advocates for combining these methods as appropriate into what she has termed the Mosaic approach. It is of note that many of these methods will not work with our youngest participants such as infants and toddlers, or children who are severally disabled'. For example, Lahman stresses in her journal 'the diary method may not be suitable for people [children] who cannot write nor have difficulty articulating their feelings in writing' (Liamputtong, 2007: 154).

The use of participatory methods with young children has opened more doors to communicating. This however contradicts the myth that researchers need to simplify their approaches with young children. The research has shown that there is a need to be flexible and to think differently. The approach is one attempt to turn this upside down and begin from young children's strengths, their knowledge and attention to detail and visual, as well as verbal communication.

To act ethical is to act the way one acts towards people whom one respects'. Major areas of consensus for ethical consideration with children include informed consent, confidentiality, access and privacy. Excessive oversight by research review boards is also an area of ethical discussion with some feeling that 'vulnerable' groups such as children are at risk for being under researched due to unnecessary restrictions or researchers avoiding children as participants due to governmental red tape. It is assumed that researchers should bring to ethical research with children that acknowledge children's competence. Children are smart, make sense and want to live a good life. Lahman stresses in her journal 'for respecting children's expertise as an ethical and methodological stance throughout the research process. This implies the need to be flexible and reflexive regarding ethical issues over the course of the entire study'. (Thomas and O'Kane (1998)

Critically, we need to look further, however not only with the process of learning but with the framework. Within the learning frame there is a wide range of approaches or pedagogies which view children in different ways. Some researchers see these children as an empty vessel waiting to be filled up with knowledge, while within this frame children are objects into which learning is poured.

This type of participatory research is a 'right thing to do' or at least a helpful thing to do, because it is based on a positive ethical framework, supports the political impetus of children's rights and can generate such valuable data.

Arguably most importantly, researcher must make time in one's research design to simply be with children. With time ethical consideration may be enacted reflexively. When we have multiple episodes upon which to draw, it becomes possible. Innovative methods rest on relationships and are not conducted frivolously, and children can demonstrate their true expertise as collaborators.

Researchers should not stop attempting to form meaningful relationships with the children they research. Indeed, if we reflect overly long on this issue, the danger becomes one may say, 'then why bother'? It is hoped that researchers are drawn to studying children through some sense of desiring to see the world through children's eyes, attempting to improve children lives, and simply experiencing joy when with children.

A multi-method, participatory approach, time consuming though it is, enables children with different skills and personalities to contribute their experiences. This can be applied to older children including those with special needs. The tools you choose to use can be altered according to the children you are working with. The philosophy behind the approach, children as 'experts in their own lives' can apply to children of all ages.

The Government Green paper, 'Every Child Matters' states that the involvement of children and young people is crucial if services are to be improved. Core principles for increasing the involvement of children have been introduced, which all Government departments are expected to follow, and are not bound by a lower age limit of children who should be consulted. However, younger children may be highlighted as one group that face barriers to being involved. Therefore, a proactive approach in crucial towards involving younger children.

However, we caution against the assumption that this approach necessarily produces 'better' research data and, indeed if participants are fully involved in all dissemination there is a risk of portraying rather sanitised research results. We warn that researchers must anticipate ethical and practical implications and maintain a reflexive awareness of how power differences interplay in sometimes surprising ways. To conduct research we must not hide behind bland statements that research was participatory, without including in our analysis the theoretical framework in which the participation sits and how the participation has impacted on the claims made for, and from, the research.

There is no one research tool best suited to gaining children's opinions as researchers deploy a wide range of interconnected methods and ultimately, always seeking better ways to make more understandable the experiences they have studied. However, it is crucial for researchers to avoid getting caught up in a method for 'method sake'. Researchers need to develop interesting methods to engage children, while at the same time avoid a gimmick approach. There are some conventional methods that can be alienating for some vulnerable children and therefore, essential researchers adopt alternative approaches.

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