Conducting Focus Groups with Children

One of the core beliefs underlying the MDI is that children’s voices matter. And we’ll keep repeating this message because we believe it is powerful – and in more than one way.

Asking children for their input is powerful because it grants us rich, valid data on child well-being that we couldn’t otherwise access – data which we can use to create environments and interactions which help children thrive.

But it’s also powerful because it tells kids that we value their thoughts and feelings, and grants them a say in how their schools and communities support them.

Consider reminding kids that their voices matter by hosting a focus group just for them.

In Advance

  • Reduce barriers as much as possible by having a convenient location, such as at the school, providing transit access or bus passes, and providing healthy and enticing snack options. Determine suitable times that do not conflict with children’s other commitments.
  • For the most effective sharing, studies suggest groupings of 4-6 kids work the best. Avoid a wide age discrepancy, which may create barriers to participation.
  • Consider how to recruit a balanced group that represents your target demographics. Gathering peers can facilitate greater discussion, but may limit the variety of feedback. Ensure inclusivity so viewpoints from children of all abilities, interests, and backgrounds are included.
  • Building trust is key to any successful discussion. Moderators can set the tone by being approachable, warm, and non-judgemental from the very beginning, including the recruitment phase. Ensure that children know that their participation is voluntary, and that they do not have to take part in the activities or answer any questions that they do not want to.
  • If possible, moderators should be already familiar faces to participants. Communicate to participants that they are experts and that you want to learn from them. Emphasize that there are no right or wrong responses, just opinions.

During the Focus Group

  • Circles create a democratic environment and allow for equal eye-contact and interaction.
  • Start the session with an ice-breaker activity or game to set a fun tone and help participants feel comfortable with one another and learn one another’s names. For example, have colouring materials so participants can design their own name tags and personalize them.
  • Give a clear explanation of the purpose of the focus group and offer a personal introduction about your role in the school or community. Set clear expectations for the group and ask participants to contribute to a community agreement. Agree upon whether discussion will be in rounds, popcorn style (no sequence), or if you will use a talking stick. Allow time for questions before starting the discussion.
  • Openly sharing thoughts and feelings can be a vulnerable experience for many children. Identify this as an opportunity to discuss the values of vulnerability and how participants can encourage each other to feel comfortable by creating a supportive environment. This includes active listening and empathy, as well as no put downs, sarcasm or shaming.
  • Many people do not feel comfortable speaking in front of a group. Include other options for participating, such as writing ideas on a slip of paper to hand in at the end of the focus group or providing an email address or a comment box where children can add ideas later.
  • Include open-ended questions, such as “how” or “why” questions, to encourage more detailed feedback. If responses are superficial, this is an indicator that a trustful environment has not yet been established within the group. Be careful not to force sharing before an emotionally-safe environment is created.
  • Keep an eye on participants’ energy levels and intersperse focus-group questions with calm or energizing activities as needed. For a calming activity example, have the group close their eyes, raise their hands, and listen to the ringing of a bell or chime. When they can no longer hear any sound, have students lower their arms. For energizing, invite children to play charades, perhaps miming one of their favourite things to do after school.

Sample Questions, Games, and Activities

Games and activities can be used to make focus groups more interactive and maintain attention. Here are some examples:

  • Have children draw what they wish you could do after school and offer the opportunity to describe the drawing to the group or facilitator if the child chooses.
  • To rank enthusiasm for particular ideas or activities, have a visual of a ladder with numbers going from 0 at the bottom, to 10 at the top. Children can write down the number the number they would give for each suggestion on a prepared worksheet. Children who would like to discuss their answers can share at the end to provide the “why” behind the ranking to give you more detailed responses.
  • Have kids show their approval ratings of ideas using thumbs up (yes), thumbs down (no), or thumbs middle (for I don’t know or maybe). You can also create paddles with “yes” on one side and “no” on the other. If children are unsure, they don’t raise their paddle. Follow up with related how and why questions.
  • Role-play a guardian and child who are disagreeing about how the child should spend after-school time. What does each person suggest for how the child should spend their after-school time? What are the reasons the adult and child disagree? What are the reasons they agree? What activity do they choose? Follow up by asking participants any thoughts or ideas the roleplay may have brought up.
  • Play with a Spectrum: Explain that people’s opinions and perspectives are typically not black and white, but fit somewhere in between along a spectrum. Ask participants to stand in the room and designate either side of the room as “yes” and “no”, “agree” and “disagree”, or “not at all like me” and “very much like me”. Ask participants a question, such as “The most important thing I look for in an after-school activity is how friendly the staff are.” Have participants stand between each side of the room, which marks their opinion. Next, invite participants to share why they chose that spot in the spectrum. Reflect on differences and similarities with respect and curiosity.

Bringing it to a Close

Remember, reaching a consensus is not the goal!

  • Ensure each participant has had a chance to be heard, and ask for any final thoughts or questions before finishing.
  • Use closure questions to allow participants to reflect on their focus group experience. For instance, ask students to share one word about how they are feeling and why.
  • Thank each child for their participation. Avoid any indulgent rewards, but consider a token of appreciation for all participants. Inform them about how the information will be used and any possible next steps. As much as possible, keep participants informed of outcomes or results after the focus groups are completed.
  • Consider asking for participant feedback on their focus group experience through a short written questionnaire.