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Focus Group Best Practices: Conducting Groups with Children and Young Adults

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If you’re looking for advice on conducting focus groups, you will find no shortage of information, suggestions, and strategies. However, most of the information out there assumes that your focus group participants will be adults. Doing qualitative research with children and young adults is a very different experience. For one thing, your research will typically involve much more careful scrutiny by your IRB or other oversight groups, as you’ll need to make sure that your study topic and questions are safe and appropriate for minors. But even once all the necessary approvals have been received, you will also likely need to use some different moderating techniques than you would with adults. Here are four things that we’ve learned to keep in mind when leading focus groups with kids and young adults.

  1. Be clear about the research and your role. At the beginning of each group, explain very clearly who you are, what organization you are representing, the goal of the research, the confidentiality you can promise, and how the process will work. You may have provided all of this information before the groups, but it is important to reiterate it again at a level appropriate for your age group. Of course, it’s good practice to do this with any participants, but it is especially important with children and young adults who may not have read your written materials before the group, and are likely to have less experience with the research process in general. Your focus group may be the first time your young participants have interacted with a researcher, so make sure they understand that you’re not a teacher and you’re not expecting a “right answer,” but are there to hear what they have to say.
  2. Provide specific ground rules. Kids often haven’t yet learned the conversational norms that most adults understand. For example, most adults will not start talking when someone else is talking, and will naturally take turns speaking. But if your young participants haven’t had experience sharing the floor in a discussion format, they may have no problems talking over each other, right to the point of chaos. Being very specific at the beginning of the group may help, so consider saying things like, “I’m going to need everyone to speak one at a time, just to make sure I get to hear what everyone is saying,” and “You don’t have to raise your hand if you want to say something, but do try to wait until there is a break in conversation and no one else is talking.” Then be prepared to go over this again during the group.
  3. Don't be afraid to call on people individually.When doing groups with adults, remaining silent after asking a question can be a powerful tool for the moderator—someone will generally speak up to fill the silence. Conversely, adults can sometimes get a bit prickly if you call on them, since it makes the interaction seem less like a conversation. Kids, on the other hand, are used to be in classroom settings where remaining silent until called on is the norm. Be prepared to call on participants by name much more often than you might in an adult group.
  4. Be literal. Focus groups sometimes use activities such as laddering or imagery to get people talking and break up the question-answer pattern. Activities are great in groups with kids, but be careful not to make it too abstract. Older teenagers might be able to think in terms of metaphors and associations, but our experience has been that 12- and 13-year-olds can get thrown off by being asked to do things that are too “conceptual,” such as matching images to concepts. Keep your questions and activities very specific and clear, so you participants know what they’re being asked to do.

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