Children as experts: rethinking how we produce knowledge by Kristen Cheney

Most research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights is adult-led and adult-centred, not only ignoring young voices but denying diversity amongst young people. But a new project co-led by Kristen Cheney of the ISS departs from the premise that young people are the experts of their own lives, giving children and adolescents the chance co-create knowledge. In this article, Cheney details the importance of youth-led participatory research and how this is done through the new project.


It is often assumed that social research is the domain of experts—and that those experts are necessarily adults. Most research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (ASRHR) is adult-led and adult-centred, not only ignoring young voices but denying diversity amongst young people. Information about young people’s sexuality therefore often remains insulated within their peer groups, preventing innovation in ASRHR programming. This too often leads to a deficit or pathological perspective on adolescence in ASRHR research and intervention.

ISS departs from this premise in our latest youth participatory research project, Adolescents’ Perceptions of Healthy Relationships. The APHR project is funded by the Oak Foundation, with the objective to inform their child abuse prevention programming through greater attention to the broader societal, structural factors that provide an enabling environment for the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. The project is led by ISS’ Kristen Cheney and involves Auma Okwany as East Africa lead researcher.

Instead of embracing prevalent adult-imposed models of adolescence, the APHR project departs from the premise that young people are the experts on their own lives. Indeed, we believe that young people are essential co-creators of knowledge, best suited to conduct research on their own thoughts and experiences. They have the best access to their peer groups where vital information is often kept locked away from adults’ gazes. So whenever possible, we conduct youth-led, participatory research. This way, young people become not mere objects of research but co-producers of knowledge about young people’s lives through greater disclosure of more authentic viewpoints.

Conducting research in Oak’s two main project areas, East Africa and Eastern Europe, ISS leads an international team consisting of partners from International Child Development Initiatives (Netherlands), Animus Association (Bulgaria), and Nascent Research and Development Organization (Tanzania). Together, they support young people in Bulgaria and Tanzania to participate in every step of the research, from designing quantitative and qualitative tools to data collection to analysis, dissemination and advocacy. This Circles of Support youth-centered approach provides training for adolescents as young as twelve years old to act as young peer researchers (YPRs), with support for research activities throughout the project—while always ensuring that young people’s considerations take precedence over adults’ opinions (Figure 1). Despite some adults’ concerns that young people might not be up to the task, we consistently find that young people are not only competent researchers, but also capable self-advocates.

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Figure 1. YPRs in Dar Es Salaam discuss important aspects to consider in research on adolescents’ perceptions of healthy relationships (2017). Their input is incorporated into the research design from the start.

Preliminary Findings

Having completed an extensive survey of nearly 2,000 adolescents aged 10-18 across Bulgaria and Tanzania, our approach has proven fruitful for getting at adolescents’ views on what constitutes healthy relationships. We are still collecting qualitative data that will both validate and deepen our understanding of the survey findings, but our preliminary observations from the survey revealed which characteristics and relationships adolescents value most in each setting.

In Bulgaria, responses indicated that adolescents generally value trust and respect most in their relationships. While they reported mostly positive relationships with family—particularly with their mothers—adolescents’ responses indicated that the more problematic relationships were those with peers and others in their school settings.

We are following up the survey to further unpack these results, in order to understand how adolescents define trust and respect, as well as to understand family and school dynamics.

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Figure 2. A YPR in Sofia, Bulgaria, shares her group’s qualitative questions with the group.

In Tanzania, adolescents also reported supportive relationships with their mothers. In addition, they found that religious leaders were important in guiding young people’s behaviour. They indicated that a large part of their understanding of being loved, in various relationships, is someone providing for their needs, both emotional and material. But preliminary survey findings also pointed to widespread abuses toward adolescents—from various people at home, school, or in the community. To some extent, their answers even pointed toward a normalisation of that violence; for example, some pointed out that there were high levels of bullying in school, yet they did not necessarily consider this a bad thing, depending on the circumstances. Some saw excessive discipline from teachers as concern for their learning, while others reported that fighting to defend a friend shows that you are loyal and is therefore ‘healthy.’ The TZ team is currently completing qualitative data collection (Figure 3), which we hope will help us further unpack these responses during analysis.

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Figure 3. A YPR in Tanzania interviews a classmate (2018).

Scholar Activism

Our research team has been providing excellent support to our phenomenal young peer researchers (YPRs). Through our Circles of Support approach, the team in each country has been able to tailor training to the YPRs’ needs and abilities. To ensure that young people’s concerns predominate, we have consulted YPRs at every stage, while constantly checking our own tendencies to want to redirect research toward ‘adult’ concerns. As a result, we are seeing exceptional personal growth as well as group cohesion amongst our YPRs.

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Boy and girl YPRs in Magu, Tanzania, come up with research questions together (2017).

For this reason, we consider our participatory approach ‘always already advocacy’. ‘Protection’ is sometimes invoked to deny young people’s participation, but participation can be inherently protective, especially in ASRHR, where knowledge is power. Our training covers basic concepts that help empower kids to know their rights and develop their ASRHR competencies—which they then disseminate to others. Participatory research also fosters more interpersonal communication by modeling healthy relationships within the research process itself (Figure 4).


Headshot 02 17About the author: 

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification.

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