In 1992, renowned child’s rights advocate Roger Hart wrote a seminal essay entitled From Tokenism to Citizenship about child and young person involvement in research. Hart’s essay targeted two groups of people: “people who know that young people have something to say but who would like to reflect further on the process”, and “people who have it in their power to assist children in having a voice, but who, unwittingly or not, trivialise their involvement” (Hart, 1992).
Some three decades on, there is a growing consciousness of the importance of child and young person involvement in matters impacting them, accompanied by the debunking of persistent myths regarding their competence and capability. Yet, evaluators and commissioners alike can still struggle to include the perspectives of children and young people in evaluation. A recent Australian Institute of Family Studies practice guide highlighted this continuing challenge in the child and family services sector (Knight & Kingston, 2021 cited in Goldsworthy, 2023), however our experience tells us this continues across the health and education sectors.
We see three compelling reasons to centre the voices of children and young people in evaluation of benefit to evaluators, commissioners of evaluations and the community as a whole:
- Children and young people are experts in their own lives – they bring their own perspective, not just of services or programs but about themselves. Other stakeholders, such as their parents, can and often do speak for children and young people but cannot provide the same perspective (ACYP, 2019).
- Developmental benefits – participation in research and evaluation can benefit child and young person development, including confidence, agency and even civic participation in some circumstances (Victorian Government, 2022; Goldsworthy, 2023).
- Moral and ethical imperative to enable participation – Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to express their views freely on all matters that affect them (UN, 1989). It’s also important to remember children also have the right not to participate should they choose (ACYP, 2019).
There are barriers evaluators encounter in engaging with children and young people. Some are complex and without straightforward answers, and others which can be overcome with the right knowledge, tools, experience and attitudes. Children and young people also face barriers to engagement, including stigmatising adult attitudes, a lack of adult receptiveness to suggestions or change, and practical considerations such as transport (ACYP, 2015).
We are advocating for greater awareness of negative adult attitudes and perceptions of children and young people, an eroding but pervasive barrier to meaningful engagement. Social work researchers identify the twin concepts of adultism and protectionism, the former being negative adult perceptions of children and young people “tied to the belief that children are not capable of providing accurate and constructive accounts of their lived experiences”, the latter being “associated with the narrative of children being ‘vulnerable, and in need of protection’… resulting in adults prioritising protection over all other rights” (from Stafford et al., 2021). Removing the lens of adultism and protectionism from decision-making can provide insight as to whether a decision to exclude children and young people from research pertaining to them is indeed justified by other risk factors.
Another barrier often deemed complex and without straightforward answers is navigating the ethics of engagement with children and young people. Even the most highly sensitive and traumatic topics concerning children and young people can be mitigated through careful thought and planning (see Morris, 2012 or ERIC, 2019) and creative or innovative engagement methods (see Goldsworthy, 2023). Evaluators who may instinctively consider certain topics ‘off limits’ for children and young people should be encouraged to critically reflect upon this stance.
However, it is important to acknowledge it is not always appropriate to engage children or young people in evaluation. It is a decision necessitating in-depth consideration of the risks of participation against benefits, and will vary widely depending on evaluation context and the participant group involved.