19.0 Children and young people

19.1 Introduction

In general you should only involve children and young people (under the age of 18) in research which

  • is of benefit to them individually, or
  • is of benefit to young people in general, or
  • requires the inclusion of young people's perspectives, AND
  • is not contrary to the health and well being of the children or young people.

Participation of children and young people in research raises additional ethical issues, particularly in relation to issues of consent, imbalances of power between children and adults, and types of research where young people may be considered vulnerable because of their immaturity. The National Statement 4.2 deals specifically with these issues.

Dr Merle Spriggs of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute has produced or made available excellent resources for the 'Understanding consent in research involving children' project.

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19.2 Levels of understanding

The National Statement (Section 4.2(a)) recognises four levels of development in children and young people.

  1. Infants who are unable to take part in discussion about the research and its effects;
  2. Young children, who are able to understand some relevant information and take part in limited discussion about the research, but whose consent is not required;
  3. Young people of developing maturity, who are able to understand the relevant information but whose relative immaturity means that they remain vulnerable. The consent of these young people is required, but is not sufficient to authorise research; and
  4. Young people who are mature enough to understand and consent, and are not vulnerable through immaturity in ways that warrant additional consent from a parent or guardian.

The National Statement recognises that under some circumstances a young person will be able to give their own consent to a project, but in the majority of cases parental consent will be required.

You must explain your reasoning in your ethics application as issues of consent and understanding are complex and will vary depending on the age and maturity of the children or young people and the nature of the project.

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19.3 Participation of young people in research

Children or young people who are sufficiently mature to consent to their own participation in research may be involved in projects in the same way as any other participant, and they should not be excluded on the basis of their age.

First, you must establish that the young people involved in the research do possess this level of maturity in relation to the particular research proposed: eg. a researcher might argue that young people who are university students, even if they are not yet 18 years old, should be regarded as able to consent for low risk research.

If your research will involve children or young people who are not sufficiently mature to give their own consent, it must meet all of the following criteria:

  • the research is not contrary to the health and well-being of children or young people (NS 4.2.13);
  • the project is likely to advance knowledge about the health or welfare of, or other matters relevant to children or young people; or
    children's or young people's participation is indispensable to the research (NS 4.2.4);
  • the study method is appropriate for children or young people (NS 4.2.1); and
  • the circumstances in which the research is conducted provide for the young person's safety, emotional and psychological security, and wellbeing. (NS 4.2.5)

Where your potential participant pool coincidentally includes children or young people (eg you will recruit through a club which may have young people as members):

  • it may be possible to include them with an appropriate consent process, or
  • it may be more appropriate to exclude them from the project, particularly if the research involves risk of harm.

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19.4 When can a young person consent to research?

Unless you can give evidence that the young people involved in your project will have sufficient maturity to consent on their own behalf, Deakin will require parental or guardian consent.

The National Statement allows the young person approval in two circumstances.

  1. The young person is sufficiently mature: (NS 4.2.8)
    Deakin HREC must be satisfied that the young person is sufficiently mature to understand and consent, and is not vulnerable in ways that warrant additional consent from a parent or guardian.
  2. There are reasons why parental/guardian consent is not available or not appropriate: (NS 4.2.9)
    If the young person is considered vulnerable in some respects but is estranged from their parent or guardian, or it would be contrary to the young person's interest to seek consent from a parent or guardian, they may still be able to consent on their own if:
    • the research is low risk,
    • the research aims to benefit the category of children or young people to whom the young person belongs, and
    • provision is made to protect the safety, security and well-being of the young person.
You will need to make a case for this in your ethics application. You should consider the circumstances, risk level and type of the research, and determine whether the young people will be vulnerable in ways that relate to the research. The higher the risk level of the project, the more likely it is that Deakin HREC will consider the young people vulnerable and will require parental consent.

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19.5 Consent or assent from the young person

Whether (or not) a young person is capable of legal consent for their participation in a research project,
their decision for or against participation should be respected if they have the capacity to understand their involvement and make a decision about it.

Under National Statement 4.2.14 'Where a child or young person lacks this capacity, his or her refusal may be overridden by the parents' judgement as to what is in the child's best interest.' The decision of a child or young person against research should be respected unless there are good reasons to believe that the child is not capable of making that decision.

Assent (and dissent) is sometimes used to indicate the agreement (or not) of a person who lacks the capacity to consent legally to research. Both consent and assent can be sought in a number of ways, these may be non-verbal or expressed in ways that do not address the issue directly.

In very young children there are verbal and behavioural cues which may indicate unwillingness to participate, such as constantly looking to the door, claiming to feel sick, requests to go to the toilet, etc. These are discussed by Merle Spriggs et al in Understanding Consent in Research Involving Children: The Ethical Issues, Section 4.

There are a number of formats and ways in which consent can be sought, including:

  1. Written consent from the parent/s only,
  2. A single informed consent mechanism, signed by both parent and young person,
  3. Separate consent documents providing simplified information to the young person,
  4. Verbal assent, following after written consent from a parent or guardian

Which consent format you choose will depend on the type of project and the age and status of the participants.

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19.6 Parental consent

Deakin's default position is that consent for involvement of children or young people in research will be sought in writing from their parent or guardian.

Consent from one parent or guardian will normally be sufficient to allow the child's or young person's involvement in the research project (NS 4.2.7 (b)). However in situations of higher risk research consent may be required from both parents.

  • Where the parents are separated and there are joint custody arrangements in place, or where custody arrangements are unclear, you may need to obtain consent from both parents. This safeguards both the welfare of the child/young person and you, the researcher.
  • As the custodial status of the child may not be obvious, consider adding a statement on the Plain Language Statement to the young person and their parents, asking that the parent or young person discuss the situation with you if there is any doubt regarding custody issues.

19.6.1 Opt-in and opt-out consent

Deakin usually requires consent for research involving children to be positive (opt-in) consent.

Negative (opt-out consent), eg. 'please let us know if you do not wish to participate' is very unlikely to be approved by Deakin.

19.6.2 Standing parental consent

The National Statement also allows for schools to establish 'Standing parental consent' (NS, Section 4.2.10) under which parents agree to their children participating in all research approved by the school. This is a matter for the individual schools to arrange, and has yet to be tested in practice. If your project involves consent of this kind, you should contact an Ethics Advisor to discuss the matter.

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19.7 Research in schools and early childhood settings

19.7.1 Approval from educational authorities

You will usually require the prior approval of the governing education authority, and the school, before you can begin research in a school. Research in government schools and early childhood settings

Research in government schools must be approved by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD). This is not ethics approval, the DEECD reviews the project from the perspective of the department's priorities, resourcing and interest in the type of research.

The DEECD website has information about getting to permission to conduct a project, and about the department's research priority areas of interest.

You are welcome to contact the department before lodging your application, to discuss your research. Research in Catholic schools

Research in Catholic Schools must be approved by the Catholic Education Office in the diocese in which your research will take place. The Melbourne Catholic diocese website has information on policy and requirements for research approval and a list of other Catholic Education Offices in Victoria. Research in Independent Schools

In most cases approval for research in independent schools should be sought directly from the Principal. If there is a requirement for another level of approval, eg from the school board, the principal will let you know. Approaching particular schools

In addition to any approval required from DEECD or the CEO, you will also need the Principal's approval for you to conduct your research at the school. You must get the Principal's approval before approaching parents or children for consent.

  • While you cannot approach individual participants ahead of ethics approval for the project, in some circumstances it is wise to approach schools informally to gauge their interest in the project before you start.
  • If your project involves a particular school or set of schools, (eg as a case study) you may wish to obtain 'in principle' agreement ahead of your application.

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19.7.2 Which approval first? 

In some cases an educational authority will require approval from Deakin HREC before final approval can be given.

Work out - ahead of time - which approval processes apply to your research and try to undertake them simultaneously if possible. If you are having difficulties in relation to obtaining approval you should contact an Ethics Advisor to discuss the issue.

Sometimes, you have ethics approval from Deakin before you obtain a required approval from an education authority. Your ethics approval requires you to finalise all necessary approvals before the research is commenced.

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19.7.3 Ethical issues Separating school and research activities

Most potential complaints about the conduct of a research project at a school arise out of confusion between school activities and research activities. Research at a school can include:

  • Involvement in or observation of a 'regular' school activity
  • Any specialised activity conducted specifically for the research which is still part of the standard school routine
  • An unrelated activity that takes place in a school setting
  • Individual children leaving the classroom to take part in testing or other non-standard activities.
Your application for ethical clearance and your informed consent materials must clearly distinguish between school and research activities.

A young person, and/or their parent/guardian may not be able to withhold consent for a school activity, but informed consent must be obtained for any research activity, including collection of data about a school activity. An entire class might participate in an activity that is of interest to you, but you can collect data from only those participants whose informed consent is in place. Alternate activities

Where only some or most of the students consent to participate in the project you will need to decide how to

  • exclude those students from the data collection (if the activity is a school activity), and
  • enable them to still participate in the school activity.

This can be a challenge in group activities and where some form of audio visual recording will be made. Sometimes, a student - or a minority of students - must be excluded

  • from a school activity because of a data collection issue, or 
  • from a research activity conducted in 'normal class time'.
When this is unavoidable, always provide an alternative activity that is of equal interest to the student/s.

Without such a provision, you and/or the school may be accused of creating a coercive climate, which makes participation more desirable. This is likely to be an area of potential concern to the parents/guardians of students, and you should explain how you will manage such situations in both your ethics application and your consent materials.

back to top Peer pressure on potential student participants

Research in schools often has potential for significant peer pressure. Students should be given time and space to consider their participation.

  • Avoid, where possible, asking students to express consent when they are in a group or in front of any other student.
  • Peer pressure can coerce participation, which would be unethical.
  • Peer pressure can also coerce non-participation, which could undermine your recruitment and bias your results.
  • Peer pressure may impact upon the personal relationships of participants, eg inclusion in a study on obesity or reading difficulty could lead to stigmatisation.
You should identify and consider these issues under risk factors in your ethics application, and explain the measures you will to address them. Teachers as researchers

If you, the researcher, are also the teacher of some or all of the student participants, this is a significant unequal relationship between the potential participants and the researcher.

You may still do research where you have such a significant unequal relationship, but it raises ethical issues which must be addressed before ethics approval can be granted. The participation of teachers in research

The students may not be the only participants. If any input is sought from teachers, they are also participants in the research and their consent must be sought.
  • This can raise issues of pressure, eg if the Principal has agreed to the research, but a teacher whose input is required does not wish to participate.
  • It can also raise issues of professional standing, eg if the findings could reflect on the teacher's performance.

These issues must be addressed in the risk and consent sections of your application.

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19.8 Police checks and 'working with children checks'

19.8.1 Which check applies to you?

Teachers with current registration with the Victorian Institute of Teaching are exempt from needing either a Police Check or WWC Check for any 'child-related work' as they are already checked by a similar scheme.

If you do not have a current Victorian Institute of Teaching registration, you will need to have either a police check or a WWC check if :

  • during data collection, you will be alone with a minor/s, without a parent, guardian, carer or teacher being present; or
  • during data collection, you will be alone with vulnerable research participants, e.g. individuals with a reduced capacity to provide fully informed consent.

The WWC Check is being phased in gradually in Victoria. It is the best option if you will have regular unsupervised contact with children or vulnerable research participants.

If your research will involve once-only unsupervised contact with children or vulnerable research participants, the Police Check will be sufficient.

19.8.2 Researchers' responsibilities:

Staff and student researchers are responsible for applying for their own police/WWC check. Each researcher needs to retain his/her own National Police Certificate or WWC Certificate.

It is the Principal Researcher/Supervisor's responsibility to ensure that all relevant researchers have undertaken a police check. The Principal Researcher/Supervisor must inform the Human Ethics Office in writing that the police checks have been undertaken and that there are no concerns. This communication will be kept on file.

Include a statement in your Plain Language Statement (where monitoring is discussed) that a police check has been undertaken in accordance with requirements of the Deakin University HREC.

19.8.3 Police Check

A police check determines whether you have any prior convictions. The Victoria Police will issue a National Police Certificate detailing the outcome of the police check. Only Australian citizens can apply for this check, if you are not an Australian national, you will need to apply to the Federal police. A fee applies for the issue of a National Police Certificate. Fees change annually in 1st July.

  • Where you are asked what is the nature of your contact with children (Section E) - check the "other" box and specify that you are a "Researcher".
  • Police checks cannot be sent to a third party, they must be returned to you, the requester. The Deakin University Human Ethics Office is not your address.

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19.8.4 Working With Children (WWC) Check

  1. The WWC Check only applies to individuals who have regular direct contact with a child who is not accompanied by a parent, guardian, carer or teacher.
  2. The Working With Children (WWC) Check is being phased in over the next five years.
  3. The WWC Check is valid for five years and can be transferred between jobs and organisations.
  4. A list of individuals/organisations requiring the WWC Check has been issued by the Department of Justice.

Even if the WWC Check is not required, it may be advisable. If your research requires ongoing contact with child subjects, contact the Human Ethics Office for advice.

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19.9 Research in post-compulsory school settings

Your research in a post-compulsory education setting will require the agreement of the institution and, depending on the organisation, may also need additional ethics approval or registration of approval.

Many of the issues discussed under research in schools apply equally to the conduct of research in post-compulsory education settings.

19.9.1 Students: age, exclusion and consent

Some cohorts of potential participants can include students aged under 18 (eg first year university students). The decision of whether or not to seek parental consent will depend upon:

  • the age and maturity of the students;
  • the presence of significant burdens, ethical issues or risks,
  • the degree to which there are legal issues which make seeking the consent of the parent/guardian advisable.

Deakin HREC is likely to accept the position that it parental/guardian consent is unnecessary if:

  • the students are older adolescents,
  • the research procedures do not include significant burdens, ethical issues or risks, and
  • the research is conducted on campus.

In any other situation, you will need to present a justification for not seeking consent from the parent/guardian of participants aged under 18.

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19.10 NEAF Questions

This table lists some of the question on the NEAF especially relevant to research involving children and young people.

NEAF No. NEAF Question Are any of the participants children or young people? Explain how will the children or young people's vulnerability and capacity to consent be judged. Are there any children not of sufficient maturity to consent to participation? Is the research likely to advance knowledge about the health or welfare or other matters relevant to children or young people? Explain how this research is intended to advance knowledge. Is the participation of children indispensable? Explain why the participation of children is indispensable. Will standing parental consent be relied upon for the participation of the children or young people? Child or young person participant Describe the consent process, i.e. how those who are consenting for the children or young people will be informed about and choose whether or not to participate in the research, Will the results of the research have significance for the welfare of participants?
7.2.1 Why is participation of children or young people indispensable to this research? How has this study been designed to be appropriate for children or young people?
7.2.2 Explain why there is no reason to believe that the research participation is not contrary to the best interests of the children or young people. Explain why the consent of the child/young person will not be sought. Explain why the consent of the parent/guardian will not be sought.
7.4.1 Describe the dependent relationship between the participants and the researcher/investigator, members of the research team, and/or any person involved in the recruitment/consent process.
7.4.2 How will the process of obtaining consent enable persons in dependent relationships to give voluntary consent?
7.4.3 Will there be any specific risks to participants in this research project as a result of the dependent relationship? Describe these risks. What arrangements have been made to minimise these risks?
7.4.4 If a participant chooses to withdraw from the research, how will the ongoing dependant relationship with the participant be maintained?

This table lists some of the questions on the NEAF relevant when members of the research team and/or those involved in recruitment are teachers, sports coaches, doctors or others with whom the participants may have a dependent relationship.

NEAF No. NEAF Question
7.4.1 Describe the dependent relationship between the participants and the researcher/investigator, members of the research team, and/or any person involved in the recruitment/consent process.
7.4.2 How will the process of obtaining consent enable persons in dependent relationships to give voluntary consent?
7.4.3 Will there be any specific risks to participants in this research project as a result of the dependent relationship? Describe these risks. What arrangements have been made to minimise these risks?
7.4.4 If a participant chooses to withdraw from the research, how will the ongoing dependant relationship with the participant be maintained?

These guidelines were produced by Deakin Research Integrity in consultation with the Deakin University Human Research Ethics Committee and Human Ethics Advisory Groups

© Deakin University 2010. This material incorporates or is based upon part or all of Griffith University's research ethics arrangements.

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