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Building rapport with children

It's tempting to assume that dealing with children will be kids play and it can, if you plan ahead. Judy Bartkowiak offers hints and tips for dealing with younger respondents.

It is extremely easy to get on with kids.

Why do I start with this? Because whether you do or don’t will depend entirely on how you decide it’s going to be. If you worry ahead of time, dread what could happen and overthink the whole thing then it will, indeed, be a struggle. Avoid it by doing this exercise.

1. Find somewhere quiet, free from distractions, and then look straight ahead. This is your present state. Be conscious of the here and now, and what you’re thinking. Keep your eyes up, because if they venture down you will be connecting with your feelings. Think about the brief, visualise it and think about what you have to do, the questions you need to consider. Imagine the discussion guide, the brief or concept boards.

2. Now look up and to your right: visualise how well the research is going to go. Imagine the kids responding enthusiastically, see them in your mind’s eye answering your questions and looking at the stimulus material. Catch yourself doing a great job and covering everything you need and getting great insight. Visualise your client thanking you for a job well done.

3. A positive visualisation is key to being in the right state for a children’s research experience. Starting the process with an ‘I can’ or a ‘this is easy’ will enable you to be in a really good place when you engage with them at the start of the process. When you have a mind-set that they will be lovely kids who want to help you, then they will be.

The map is not the territory

Let’s face it, it was a long time since you were a child. Long, too, since your client was one. Chances are that the discussion guide will not be written with a child in mind. Instead, your client will have devised a list of questions — whose order appears eminently logical to them — that they want to ask children, but which actually don’t relate to your child respondents’ map of the world. So, in order to engage them and not break that wonderful rapport you built when entering the waiting room to say “hi” before the group, you need to get them on-side by entering their world map. And it's not too difficult to achieve this.

A good way is to ask pretty easy questions without an obvious ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Children fear failure above all else; their long experience of teachers and parents means they know there is always a ‘right’ answer. Here, among other children they don’t know, they certainly don’t want to look an idiot. Start, therefore, with a simple question that anyone can answer, one that will mean everyone has something valid to say (it’s important everyone speaks during those first few minutes). I tend to run focus groups with kids aged five and above, but the following works with any age.

I might say “well, we’re going to be talking about LEGO (for example), so when I say Lego what words, or colours, shapes or sounds come to mind?” I might add: “closing your eyes and thinking of playing with your LEGO could also help.” Write their thoughts up on a flip chart and circle any themes in different colours. You will probably want to come back to them later, as they appear in your discussion guide. When they do, by using the actual words the children have used, you will recreate that rapport.

By doing this, you are respecting their map of the world, recognising that we are visiting and need to know the rules of the territory, what is important to them in this place, what it looks, sounds and feels like and how they relate to it. Brands are brands because they tell a story, so use their words to explore it for the client.

Here’s another exercise

1. Find somewhere quiet and free from distractions. Now think about a time when you were really curious, maybe watching a murder mystery, reading an exciting book and wondering what will happen next, watching a fascinating documentary or learning a new skill.

2. When you’ve thought of this time, imagine it is something you’re doing right now. Turn up the volume, the colours, the feeling of curiosity. When it is at its most intense, squeeze your earlobe. Release it as the feeling goes. Do this three times. In between each occasion, give yourself a bit of a shimmy and shake to break this state.

3. This is called ‘anchoring’: creating an anchor or gesture to remind you of this state of being curious. It is a child-like state, so you will be totally in rapport with the kids. It also reflects the fact that this is not your world: you need to have an open mind and heart ready to soak in everything you experience.

These are just two concepts that come to mind when I think of working with children. There are more………..and the joy of working in this area is discovering them one by one.


Judy Bartkowiak
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2017