6. Interviews as a research method with children with disabilities

A wealth of information can be gathered from children with disability when an interview involves a range of activities that utilise different forms of conveying information, for example arts based and play based activities. However, interviews themselves can also be an effective form of eliciting children’s views if done sensitively and appropriately. They must also be tailored to each individual child and their particular impairment.

Rapport building was identified by Underwood (2015) as a significant component of interviewing young children. This consisted of giving the child the ability to understand and be a part of the research process, thus allowing the researcher to follow the child’s lead and build on their particular interests. Rapport building was made possible by the use of two separate interviews with the same researcher. Underwood also commented on the need to focus on verbal and non-verbal communication in an interview and in order to do this the interviews were recorded. However, in this study only four children were included, excluding a wider range of children with different disabilities. Morris also discusses the need to watch for non-verbal forms of communication such as the child’s expressions and hand gestures as these can reveal whether the child wants to say more, has finished, and whether they feel positively or negatively about the question (Morris, 2003).

In her 2003 Gulliford Lecture, Lewis (2004) identified a number of points to consider when interviewing children with learning disabilities. These points were based on her extensive research experience. Amongst her key points Lewis suggested allowing ‘don’t know’ responses and requests for the rephrasing of a question. The interviewer should make it clear that they do not know the views of the child because children tend to assume that if the questioner is an adult they will know the answer. One possible answer to this is using a soft toy to ask the questions. Interestingly, Lewis found that there is almost no evidence that children with learning difficulties are more likely to be suggestible and they are actually less shaken by negative comments than were non-disabled counterparts. Using statements rather than questions has been shown to draw more complex answers from children and, if asking questions, making questions more general (rather than specific) has been shown to be better for children with learning difficulties. Avoid repeating questions as this may send a signal to the child that their answer was incorrect. Similarly, avoid yes/no questions as children have an “affirmative bias” (p. 5) and tend to answer “yes” and this applies also when giving a limited set of alternatives as the child will often choose the later alternative given.  Interestingly, and supporting research mentioned above, Lewis found that this does not happen when pictorial approaches are used thus talking mats and cameras have a lot of potential in the interviewing process. She also suggests that successive prompts are not used, as children tend to fill in gaps in memory with made up details. Sequential questioning can lead to imagined detail that then becomes fixed as a “memory” (this is a particular issue for children with learning difficulties). Some fine-grained issues to do with interviewing children with learning difficulty are the use of referents, pronouns, and modifying terms. Modifiers are adjectives or adverbs and children may understand modifiers that are limitless such as fast but may find it more difficult to grasp the concept of a limited modifier such as “slow.” Children (and especially children with learning difficulties) can often misunderstand referents such as “they,” “those,” and “there.” One way to gain an “uninterrupted narrative” (p. 6) and avoid constantly having to prompt the child is to use cue cards without comments (Lewis, 2004).

Morris (2003) draws on her research experience with children with disabilities when making suggestions for interviewing those with communication impairments. Recognising that the interview situation might be challenging for novice interviewers comes the recommendation not to counteract feelings of uncertainty by attempting to take control. Slow down and be guided by the child. It is important to wait and not fill in every silent moment with talking, allow the child time to finish stating their ideas. Keep eye contact with the child instead of equipment they use or their support person, although note that this is about reference to their communication aid/support, it might be that eye contact needs moderating as suggested above through the use of other strategies to lessen the intensity of the situation. Children with hearing impairments or autistic spectrum disorder, in particular, might have difficulty picking up subtleties such as in the tone of voice to indicate what is meant by a question or comment. There is a similar problem if body language or expressions are used to indicate meaning when talking to someone with a visual impairment. It is important to always keep in mind the impact of the disability on the child and for the interviewer to change how they interact with them accordingly.

Read 7. Ethical considerations

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