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YFE Week: Nick Petten on Children’s Assent to Participate in Research

Hello! My name is Nick Petten, owner of Petten Consulting in Toronto, Canada. I am a practicing program evaluator focused on child and youth programs and a children’s rights advocate. My work with children and young people over the last decade and a half has impressed upon me that they are fully capable of expressing and communicating their lived realities and that those realities are a valued focus of study.

Lessons Learned

When researching childhood, a critical methodological concern is the power dynamics that occur between adults and children. Unequal power can compromise your data and severely distort truth. But more importantly, it can cause harm to your subject.

The new sociology of childhood is a scientific discipline that promotes the process of obtaining assent from children to participate in research. So, how do you seek assent with children?

Hot tip #1: Develop an assent and accountability framework that will help you explain the process of research and its findings in a child-friendly manner and systematically ‘check-in’ with children about their participation in the research.

Hot tip #2: Develop protocols to use when seeking children’s assent that considers as many factors as possible about why they would answer in a particular way.

 Hot tip #3: Dedicate time to building relationships and having conversations with the gatekeepers and remember that such conversations need to strike a balance between providing critical information and too much detail that can lead to confusion.

Hot tip #4: Engage in internal reflection through an explicit and systematic process throughout the research process and think about how the insights gained may influence how you converse with children and their gatekeepers.

Rad resources:

If you are starting to think about how to genuinely involve children’s participation in research, you better be ready to read. By reading some of the great material on research with children you can begin to understand children’s position in research – even in our adult-centric world.

Here is some material to get your started on you reading adventure:

For more information, please go to my website:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Youth Focused Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the YFE AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our YFE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.



1 comment

  • Tammy Jinkerson · August 3, 2017 at 8:53 am

    Hi Nick,

    Your December 23, 2016 blog post has been of great help to me. I am a bit of a newbie in the world of evaluation, but with great blog resources, like yours, I am learning my way to a better process and results. As you mentioned in your blog post the idea of harm to children being a potential result of our evaluation efforts is professionally scary and I want to be sure I do no harm as I attempt to improve our program delivery.

    I am actually taking a course in Program Inquiry and Evaluation through Queen’s, as I progress toward a Professional Master’s in Education. I am currently on sabbatical from Fleming College, where I deliver Employment Ontario programs and services.

    One of the programs I am involved in is a youth employment program for 15-19 year olds. I wonder what your definition of a “child” includes or if there are resources that would better help me with that definition. Any thoughts? What I am finding is that, between helicopter parents and lack of experience beyond the bubble-wrap of supportive adults, these youth are very much children at 15, 16 and 17 years of age. So, with your cautions firmly in mind, I am approaching evaluation assuming that these youth are children and am approaching their assent from this perspective. This includes explaining the evaluation in a child-friendly manner, as you described.

    Your idea of checking in regularly with the youth and the gatekeepers is very good advice. If not, it may be tempting to get the assent from the youth, then charge forward with my own agenda. This reminds me of common slang they use where they say to me “Wait. What?”. I use the “wait” part to signal me that I need to slow down and check in. The “what” part tells me that I need to speak in clear and concise language and give a level of information that is “just right”. Once I start talking about evaluations it can be very difficult to not unpack the complexity and I certainly don’t want to insult the intelligence of their gate-keepers. Is there anything special you do to prepare for these conversations?

    I am very interested in your Hot Tip #2. I find that participating youth are not providing the criticism we need to support program improvement and advocate for change. My hypothesis is that these youth, particularly the 15 year olds, tend to tell me what they think I want to hear. I believe that it has to do with the “unequal power” that you pointed out. I would greatly value any thoughts or advice on how I can get the assent you described, but in a way that sparks more critical thinking.

    I wanted also to thank you for your professional opinion about the Rad Resources that support your work. In fact, I just recently used the Better Evaluations and UNICEF resources in my own reading adventure! It seems an endless journey.

    I know the youth participating in my programs are bright and thoughtful. They hold the key to meaningful program change and I just need to crack the code to retrieving their honest and critical insights!

    Thank you for your work on AEA365. It is helpful and meaningful to me.


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