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Child-centered qualitative interview

Author: Maarit Jaakkola

Please cite as: Jaakkola, M. (2022): Child-centered qualitative interview. In S. Kotilainen (Ed.), Methods in practice: Studying children and youth online (chapter 5). Retrieved DD Month YYYY, from, doi:

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Interviewing children has been addressed in clinical psychology and medical studies (Kortesluoma et al., 2003; Poole & Lamb, 1998) and journalism (Jusović & Krajišnik, 2020). In media research, methodologies have been addressed from an ethical perspective (see e.g. Pedersen & Ladefoged, 2020), and as part of focus group interviews, often in connection to parents’ interviews (see e.g. Adler et al., 2019), but the didactics of a successful individual interview have been less considered. This entry is based on experiences gained with 6-year-olds at a kindergarten (N=5) and 10-year-olds in the primary school (N=5) in Finland, to make pilot interviews on their media use. In these interviews, different during-the-interview strategies were tested. While the basic constellation of “inter-viewing” which refers to the mutual interaction between the interviewer (researcher) and the interviewee (respondent) still applies, children may not be able to understand the purpose and context of a research interview, concepts involved in the study design, or the mere idea of research.

A basic choice by the researcher is between an individual interview and a focus group interview. The interview can occur in a physical or mediated (online) space, and onsite interviews have the further choice of being conducted in formal settings (school) or informal settings (home). The interview can also be structured in other ways, such as oral or life history interview, where the respondent is asked to recall events from their own past. (Bryman, 2016, p. 201.) Based on the two groups interviewed, I would say that a semi-structured group interview in an onsite setting is preferred for children under 10 years old.

Further, I divide my considerations into pre-interview, during-the-interview, and after-interview perspectives. At the pre-interview stage, the principal questions centre upon access to children whose guardians must give consent to a research interview. Children are most often approached via institutions such as kindergartens and schools, youth centres, or leisure-time and hobby-related associations, which implies approaching a two- or even threefold gatekeeping structure: first, the superiors of employees must give an overall consent; then, for practical reasons, the employees responsible for the children; and, finally, the guardians of the minors. 

From a during-the-interview perspective, the researchers need to select between a group interview to enable a dialogue between children who already know each other or an individual interview. Researchers should pay special attention, first, to the choice of place, and second, to the methods of inquiry. For the former, it is important to recognise how physical places regulate the roles of those involved, conveying codes and structures of power that we may not always be aware of. For example, a classroom implies an adult-led communication pattern, while in the child’s own room at home, family rules apply. Conducting the interview at an unfamiliar or adult-dominated place may add to the sense of insecurity, while a place that the child has taken ownership of, such as the playroom in a kindergarten, may help the respondent be more comfortable, understanding the rules of child-to-adult interaction. 

The second question is a matter of choosing an appropriate interview strategy, which, most often, cannot be transferred from a situation with adult respondents to the children’s world. For example, in the case of inquiring about conceptions of consumption, children cannot be approached by asking about their opinions on consumption. In conducting the interview, the content should be translated into language that a child can understand and relate to. In this, there are some strategies that support asking questions, for example, such as:

  • Exemplification: using toys, physical games or other material artefacts as aide-mémoire to facilitate the interaction;

  • Visualisation: using images and audiovisual material for concretely showing the interview thematic and triggering reactions, emotions, and questions from the child;

  • Playfulness: turning a question-and-answer-situation into a play or role-play, involving suggested roles for the adult and child

After-interview perspectives do not significantly differ from conventional interview methods. However, the diverse interactions – especially the question of how to report and interpret the playfulness outcome – may pose additional challenges. Furthermore, in playfulness interview situations, the researcher often becomes part of the interaction. These require increased transparency in reporting and communicating the results. A child-centric perspective of reporting the structured interview means remaining true to authentic expressions and describing situations in as much detail as possible.

Lessons learned

  • It may be common for the pre-interview phase to take more time than expected, as it has to be arranged during many “gatekeepers”. In case the teachers choose the informants, researchers need to clearly communicate what kind of informants as, for example, at which age, which gender, and from what kind of backgrounds they are primarily looking for. 

  • For the interview itself, researchers may have different pre-chosen strategies to choose from, if one strategy does not work. However, a multi-strategy approach increases the risk of making results too varied, decreasing the validity of the study results. In practice, the strategies may be mixed according to the need of information; strategies may complement each other, and one strategy can be used for validating results from another strategy that has been applied. 

  • In the preparations for the interviews the researcher needs to know more about the physical and material resources available than in common question-and-answer interaction, and to be flexible and spontaneous in harnessing the potential of the surroundings for the dialogue. In after-interview reporting, the description of methodology, if playfulness or otherwise staged, takes a relatively high extent of space, which is a concern in journal articles with word limits. 

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  1. Adler, K., Salanterä, S., & Zumstein-Shaha, M. (2019). Group interviews in child, youth, and parent research: An integrative literature review. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18(1), 1–15.

  2. Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

  3. Galletta, A. (2013). Mastering the semi-structured interview and beyond: From research design to analysis and publication. New York: New York University Press.

  4. Jusović, R.R., & Krajišnik, N. (2020). Journalists’ manual for media literacy work with children. CIMU See – Coalition of Information and Media Users in South East Europe.

  5. Kortesluoma, R.-L., Hentinen, M., & Nikkonen, M. (2003). Conducting a qualitative child interview: Methodological considerations. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 42(5), 434–441.

  6. Pedersen, K.E. & Ladefoged, L. (eds.) (2020). Forskning med børn og unge: etik og etiske dilemmaer. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

  7. Poole, D.A., & Lamb, M.E. (1998). Investigative interviews of children: A guide for helping professionals. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

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