Designing surveys for children

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Quantitative surveys can be used with children aged 7 and above but extra care needs to be taken to ensure that questions are understandable and answerable. The golden rule of considering respondents when constructing questions is even more pertinent for children’s surveys. There is an obvious difference in cognitive ability between adults designing the surveys and children completing them; a gap that needs to be bridged.

Below the age of 7 children generally don’t have the cognitive skills required to complete surveys. Approaches where parents are present to help can be used with younger children but only for very short, simple questionnaires.

There are a number of considerations that need to be taken into account when creating surveys for children aged 7+:

Keep questions as short as possible – long-winded questions are unlikely to be understood.

Reduce the number of response options (considerably) – children find it difficult to process a range of choices. Use only 2 or 3 responses for younger children.

Avoid ambiguity – children have a low ambiguity and vagueness threshold (even lower than adults).

Use vocabulary that is relevant to the age group – where you are surveying a range of ages this means designing different versions of your questionnaire for different age groups. The words a 7 year old uses aren't the same as those a 15 year old does.

Avoid information, focus on feelings – ask questions such as “What do you like”, “What makes you happy?” Children have difficulty remembering past behaviour so try to avoid questions where they have to recall the past. Consider asking parents about their behaviours instead.

Questions should be very literal – children interpret language very literally. Avoid de-personalised, indirect questions. Make the survey about them.

Avoid negatively phrased statements – disagreeing with a negatively phrased statement is a cognitively complex task.

Avoid mid-points on scales – children find them confusing and difficult to process.

Use images, video and audio to make the survey engaging for kids - holding children’s attention, especially the younger ones, is a challenge so do all you can to make the survey engaging.

Self-completion can be fun – kids generally like using computers, tablets and other devices, interacting with a survey rather than just being asked questions.

Create an environment where children can be themselves – kids are very suggestible and often reluctant to express their own thoughts and feelings. They are afraid to get things wrong and are keen to please. Use introductions that reassure them that there are no right or wrong answers e.g. “some children agree with this and others don’t”. Give them space to complete surveys on their own where their responses won’t be affected by watching adults or peers.

Test your survey – there’s only one way to know if you’ve got your survey right and that’s to test it with children. The need to test and refine is even greater than for an adult survey as children are less able to recognise mistakes and make allowances for them.

And finally…

Adhere to MRS/ESOMAR guidelines on conducting research with children - special care needs to be taken with children's research to ensure its ethically sound.

Further reading:

Prof. Dr. Edith D. de Leeuw: Improving Data Quality when Surveying Children and Adolescents: Cognitive and Social Development and its Role in Questionnaire Construction and Pretesting (2011)

MRS Guidelines for Research with Children and Young People (2012)

Esomar World Research Codes and Guidelines: Interviewing Children and Young People (2009)

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