Most Common Methods of Studying Children in Nigeria


The Most Commonly Methods of Studying Children

Whenever a researcher wants to study children, there are a number of research methods that are available for data collection. It is the responsibility of the researcher to select the appropriate methods to use. This page introduces you to some of the more readily available research methods for studying the child. The major strengths and weaknesses of each of the methods are described.

At the end of this page, you should be able to: ·

·     Describe each of the following methods that are commonly used in child study: naturalistic observation, self-report techniques, case study or history, longitudinal method, cross-sectional method, and experimental method.

·              State the major strengths of each of the methods listed above.

·              List the major pitfalls of each of the methods listed above.

·              Identify three ethical considerations in child studies.

Most Common Methods of Studying Children

1.          Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation is a form of research in which the scientist observes and records the behaviour and interaction of people being studied in a specific setting. Usually, the setting is the natural place the subjects would normally be found. Examples of such a setting include: school, hospital, home, or shopping centres or marketplace. The researcher does not manipulate the subjects or the environment. If one wants to study a 2-week old baby, the natural setting is the home. If one is studying play activities in children, the natural setting is the play ground.

The limitations of naturalistic observation include the following:

In the first place, it is difficult to replicate a study as no two settings can be exactly the same. Secondly, naturalistic observation only records observed behaviours; it does not explain the cause of the behaviour. Naturalistic observation is however, very useful in studying new born babies and in studies of people from different cultural backgrounds, in which case the researcher would have to live among them.

2.          Self Reports

Self report is a research method that allows the researcher access to the thoughts, feelings and opinions of the persons being studied. In self report, the researcher asks direct questions from the subject about his thoughts, feelings, opinions or other behaviour, such as sexual behaviour.

Techniques employed in self report include interviews, and questionnaires. Interviews are conducted in person. For example, if one applies for a child, one would be interviewed in person. One would answer direct questions about themselves and their experiences. Interview is a very powerful research technique for accessing very intimate experiences.

A questionnaire can be distributed anonymously. That is, the researcher need not see the subject in person. The questionnaire can be mailed to respondents or subjects. The questionnaire technique is particularly useful when the number of subjects is large. It is less expensive to execute than the interview.

Self report, however, has a major limitation. Subjects tend to fake their responses. That is, subjects tend to give responses they believe are acceptable or pleasing to the researcher. This drawback affects both the interview and the questionnaire. It is generally called the social desirability factor.

3.    Case Study or Case History

A case study is a study of one person or one entity. It studies one person in great depth. Case study or case history is very useful in reviewing or reconstructing an individual’s history. The major drawback of case study is that its findings are not generalisable to other individuals. The study cannot be replicated.

4.      The Longitudinal Method

 The longitudinal method focuses on a group of people and studies them over an extended period. Usually, the longitudinal method examines the same individuals at intervals in their lives. In this way, changes that occur throughout the course of development can be gleaned. The longitudinal method is very useful in investigating trends in cognitive, physical or language development. Because the longitudinal method focuses on the same individual for an extended period of time, peaks, spots and leveling can be identified in the course of development from one stage to another.

Longitudinal studies are however, very expensive. They are time consuming to conduct. They are also difficult to replicate. The attrition rate is high; that is many participants may drop out because of death, relocation or loss of interest in the study

5.      The Cross-Sectional Method

 In the cross-sectional method, subjects of different age groups are examined at one point in time. For example, a study of moral judgement among children using a cross-sectional method may sample children aged 3 – 20 years at the same point in time. The sample may be representative of pre-school children (3 – 6 years), children in middle childhood (6 – 12 years), and adolescent children (12 – 20 years).

The cross-sectional method has some advantages. It takes a short time to complete. It does not cost much. One major drawback of the cross-sectional method of studying the child is that it is prone to cohort effect. Cohort effect describes the impact natural disasters such as flood or accidents of history, e.g. wars could have on people living in a particular place at a particular time in history. The impact of such disasters or accidents will be specific to people living in that area. Hence, comparing the 3-year old, the 6-year old, and the 12-year old today presupposes that the 3-year old will be like the 12- year old in a 9 years time. Of course, this pattern may not occur for many reasons relating to history and events. Therefore, the findings from a cross-sectional study have to be generalised with caution.

6.        The Experimental Method

The experimental method is a powerful tool for obtaining information in research. It is usually employed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. The experimental method has some distinct factors which are: It involves hypothesis testing; it involves manipulation of events, and control of some events; it begins with a random sample; there is the experimental group; there is also the control group; there is the independent variable; and there is the dependent variable. A random sample is a group of subjects chosen at random from the population to be studied. The experimental group is the group of subjects that the researcher manipulates. The control group are subjects similar to those in the experimental group in all respects except that they are not manipulated by the researcher. The event that is manipulated by the researcher in an experiment is the independent variable.

The characteristics in an experiment that change owing to the manipulation of the independent variable make up the dependent variable. The major strength of the experimental method is that it reveals causeand-effect relationship. The method also lends itself to replication. This means that the findings from an experimental research can be verified by other researchers. The major limitation of the experimental method is that the laboratory conditions may be artificial and not obtainable in real life situations.


Using children for research studies has some hazards. Some persons have objected to the idea of using human beings as guinea-pigs. Using children as experimental animals has practical and moral implications. The questions that have been raised over using children for studies include the following:

1. Is it proper to intrude into anybody’s private life?

2. Is it proper to manipulate the environment of children, perhaps by withholding some experiences from a control group?

3. What would be the effect of depriving some children food or medication that they require? 4. Would studies of children not result in labelling some as abnormal?

5. Is it morally right to interfere with God’s own design of children?

6. What ethical standards should be followed when studying human beings?

In an attempt to address some of these issues, the American Psychological Association (APA) (1990) and the Society for Research in Child Development (1996) have outlined codes of ethics for psychology researchers. Therefore, you are expected to follow the ethical guidelines outlined below in any research involving children:

(a) Respect for Individuals. This means that you must obtain the consent of children and parents or guardians of children to be used for any study.

(b) Respect the Principle of Beneficence. This means that you must ensure that children are not harmed physically or psychologically by your experiment.

(c) Obey the Principle of Justice. You must give principled consideration for who should not participate in the experiment. The benefits derivable from the experiment by the participants should be explained.

(d) Respect the Principle of Confidentiality. This means that you must ensure that all information gathered about the children used in your study are kept strictly confidential. Individual children participating in your experiment must never be identified or singled out by their names

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