(Note: this post is the first part of a two-part series.)
One of my favorite things about my job is conducting focus groups. I enjoy the opportunity it gives me to interact with people, capturing and learning from their thoughts and feelings about experiences they’ve had. While at CRC I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate a series of focus groups with elementary school students.
Although many of my projects are education-related, I had never done a group with children so young before. The focus groups I’d done in the past involved middle grade students, parents, and school staff, so the thought of conducting focus groups with elementary school students made me a little nervous.
I could just imagine rambunctious 6 to 10 year olds, hopped up on sugar and far too excited to break away from their schools’ typical routines and reigns of control to participate in a focus group. I guess my main concerns in conducting focus groups with such young children were getting them involved, keeping them engaged, and capturing genuine but thoughtful responses.
Because school-aged children are still developing (physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively), the way they think, communicate, and interact with others differs from adults. These developmental differences point to the importance of identifying focus group strategies that are specifically catered to children’s communication competencies, as techniques used in focus groups with adults would not be effective. My overall goals for focus groups with young children are to ensure that the participants understand my questions, have the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences, and as a result can effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings.
Thankfully, I’ve found that by using the right strategies that my young focus group participants’ excitement eventually succumbed to attentiveness as the group format played to their inquisitive natures.
Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve found to work for focus groups with children:
1. Be mindful of group composition. To increase involvement, levels of engagement, and quality of responses, research suggests limiting groups to four to six participants that are no more than two years apart in age or level of development. In my experience, I’ve been able to limit each session to six children; for example, one group was conducted with 1st and 2nd graders, while another only included 3rd and 4th graders. I found that limiting participants was beneficial in fostering engagement, while controlling for large age-discrepancies seemed to help prevent students’ responses from being overly influenced by their peers.
2. Build a trusting atmosphere and relaxed setting. Children are more likely to be engaged by focus groups that foster relaxed settings where they feel comfortable enough to express their thoughts and feelings. To facilitate this type of setting, research suggests that moderators use ice-breaker games, engage in casual (but age appropriate) conversation with participants before the start of the session, portray a friendly and relaxed manner, and encourage the use of first names. In my focus groups with children, participants were invited to do an ice-breaker activity at the beginning of the session, which did build trust between participants and helped them to relax. The students paired up with a partner in order to learn something about each other, and took turns introducing their partner to the rest of the group. The result was a relatively quiet group of children, more comfortable with each other, who then became more talkative in an appropriate way as the session progressed. Fostering a certain atmosphere when doing groups in schools is especially important; I’ve found it most effective for children to view me, as the moderator, in a more informal way than they do their teachers to encourage their honest responses.
3. Establish ground rules. Research suggests establishing ground rules at the start of each focus group, as they help children understand their role in the group, what is expected from them, and what they can expect from the moderator. At the beginning of each session, I’ve asked participants to abide by basic discussion rules (e.g. be respectful, be good listeners) and informed them why I wanted to talk with them. I let them know anything they said in the group would not be shared with anyone else with their names attached, and that they didn’t have to respond to any questions they didn’t want to. Before starting the focus group, children were also given the opportunity to ask any questions they had. Note that challenges have arisen for me in soliciting honest responses; this occurred when children observed peers and wanted to model and/or conform to peers’ responses. However, I was able to resolve these situations by varying my methods (more about this in Part 2).
4. Consider your Interview structure and question formation. Research on focus groups supports that groups with school-aged children should start off with simple questions that can be answered with brief one word responses (e.g., yes or no) and progress to more complex or multipart questions. This eases children into the interview process, making them more comfortable with responding to the moderator. The full focus group guide should primarily consist of open-ended questions, with direct questions only used as a means to clarify or elicit more detail on a response. Close attention should be paid to the wording of questions to ensure age appropriateness and that students understand what they are being asked. In groups I’ve facilitated, children were read statements that probed for feelings about their social lives and interests in math, reading, and science. The focus groups started with a few warm-up questions that asked about their feelings towards vanilla ice cream and rainy days; not only were these questions helpful in getting the children comfortable with the interview process, but they also reassured me as the moderator that the children understood how to correctly respond using tools I provided to support non-verbal responses to augment verbal ones (more on this, also, in Part 2). Responses elicited during a drawing activity, for example, were followed-up with more direct questions in an effort to stimulate additional discussion and gain further insight.
I hope that the above tips give you some food for thought and a starting point for your data collection with this unique population. Stay tuned for Part 2, including how to engage your groups with FUN activities, coming later this month!